by Sonu Jain
The Indian Express
September 05, 2004

No degrees please, they’re Indians. In the heartland, they write new chapters in R&D simply by thinking out of the box. plays guide on a rural innovation roadtrip.

Professor Anil Gupta is taking a break from classes at IIM Ahmedabad. For the last 10 days, he has been scouring villages in Himachal with a bunch of students, teachers and scientists. He calls it shodhyatra, journey of exploration.

Twice a year, in winter and summer, the team he leads covers nearly 200 km on foot. The aim is two-fold: Sharing their scientific knowledge with villagers and sniffing out that hidden innovation in a place that may not have a road, electricity or school, but has a thinking mind. A grassroots innovator, a person who overcomes a technical challenge on his own, without any assistance from the formal scientific system in the country.

by Sonu Jain
The Indian Express
September 05, 2004

No degrees please, they’re Indians. In the heartland, they write new chapters in R&D simply by thinking out of the box. plays guide on a rural innovation roadtrip.

Professor Anil Gupta is taking a break from classes at IIM Ahmedabad. For the last 10 days, he has been scouring villages in Himachal with a bunch of students, teachers and scientists. He calls it shodhyatra, journey of exploration.

Twice a year, in winter and summer, the team he leads covers nearly 200 km on foot. The aim is two-fold: Sharing their scientific knowledge with villagers and sniffing out that hidden innovation in a place that may not have a road, electricity or school, but has a thinking mind. A grassroots innovator, a person who overcomes a technical challenge on his own, without any assistance from the formal scientific system in the country.

Fifteen years ago, Gupta was among those who launched the movement to ‘‘scout, spawn and sustain’’ unaided creative urges anywhere in the country. The movement formalised into the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), which identifies grassroot innovators, documents their work, value-adds to it, protects intellectual property rights and incubates the technology till their commercial release.

Funded by a Rs 20-crore corpus from the Department of Science and Technology and chaired by R A Mashelkar (see interview), NIF at four is just about baby-stepping into the national consciousness.

Identifying and honouring these ‘‘scientists in disguise’’ is the first step. ‘‘The challenge is to connect it to the formal system of education. All the IITs and IIMs should be able to value-add to this work,’’ said Gupta while introducing the 2003 NIF awards last week. (See profiles of award-winners)

The connections have just begun to be established. NIF has tied up with the IITs at Mumbai, Delhi and Kanpur, where students will augment the basic innovations. The Council for Social and Industrial Research (CSIR) plans to fund 10 fellows who will work exclusively on these grassroots projects. An MoU has been signed between the National Botanical Research Institutes and NIF on herbal research.

Chapters of the Students’ Club for Augmenting (grassroots) Innovations are also being set up in business schools. Across the country, there are 19 such clubs, where students volunteer to make feasibility reports, calculate finances and streamline supply chains.

‘‘We are planning to have a meeting with all the chief ministers to familiarise them with the concept of these people who are not scientists but contribute to society,’’ says Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Science and Technology. The role that states can play in taking the movement forward has been highlighted often.

Endearing, enduring
Even as the idea seems to be catching on, one stumbling block refuses to go away: money. ‘‘The need is to coordinate with various entrepreneurs and industry associations, to mobilise the incubation fund and venture capital for fund,’’ says Gupta.

With or without money, each innovation story rising from the grassroots is endearing. Most of these projects are need-based, some fulfilling a very real gap in rural infrastructure, others satisfying the scientific urge of a brain denied sophisticated nurture.

Consider the exercise-cum-washing machine. Innovator Remya Jose is a school student in Kerala. She had to do all the housework alongwith her sister, and then cycle to school, four hours away. So she connected a washing tub to a bicycle. NIF took up the project and introduced to it a Russian exchange student, who made slight changes to the prototype. Now operational tests are being carried out.

Then there is U S Patil of Nandurbar, Maharashtra, who developed matchsticks from jute. The technology holds the potential of revolutionising the matchstick industry, which is dependent solely on precious wood. Patil has since signed a development agreement with one of the largest industries in the country for tests to be carried out in their labs.

Then there are those who compliment ancient wisdom with scientific thought processes. Ram Abhilas of Jasra village, Allahabad, has developed a very interesting practice of embedding paddy seeds in moist balls of clay collected from the tank basin. It’s a safety net: If rain is late or excessive, crops grown through broadcast seeds or transplanted seedlings get damaged and Abhilas simply sows the ball of paddy seeds, which gives higher yields.

Reaching out
NIF kicked off its first national campaign in March 2000 and has completed three national programmes till date. It began with 1,600 innovations and now has 37,000 innovations and traditional knowledge examples from 350 districts.

NIF has set up four regional nodal agencies to not only upscale these innovations but to act as clearing houses of ideas by facilitating interactions among innovators, entrepreneurs and investors. Called the Grassroot Innovations Augmentation Network (GIAN), the first one was established on Gujarat in 1997.

‘‘These have proved to be effective in reaching out to innovators at far-flung places,’’ says Gupta. For example, Gian West achieved one successful technology transfer during February 2004: The manufacturing and marketing rights for a natural water cooler for Gujarat and Rajasthan were transferred to an entrepreneur from Mehsana for a down payment of Rs 1 lakh and a royalty of 2.5 per cent of sales for a period of five years. But all admit that these technology transfers are few and far between; infrastructural hassles are largely to blame for this.

At present NIF works through a Research Advisory Committee with two sub-committees, one comprising institutional scientists, designers and technologists and the other of informal grassroot innovators and traditional knowledge-holders. A number of NGOs — the Honey Bee network, Srishti, Seva and other farmer organisations — also pitch in.

The want and the will
For Gupta and his team, scouting and documenting is followed by acquiring the innovators’ Prior Informed Consent (PIC) to put the innovation in the public domain. A PIC form is made for people whose knowledge rights have never been acknowledged, a concept that is new but intriguing. Till date, NIF has received 450 consent forms.

The biggest problem, according to Gupta, is the fact that 65 per cent of the entries so far are based on herbal knowledge systems. These cannot be validated because all the laboratories are based on conventional or ayurvedic or unani systems.

With thousands of innovations waiting to be valorised, incubated and converted into enterprises, large-scale investments are the need of the hour for NIF. Maybe its proteges should put on their thinking caps all over again.

'Rural innovations have to be linked up with formal system'

Dr R A Mashelkar, Director-General, Council for Social and Industrial Research, is the chairman of the governing council of the National Innovation Foundation. His challenge: To keep it going in the face of tremendous financial pressure. Excerpts from an interview with Sonu Jain:

It has been four years since the National Innovation Foundation was launched. Have you really been able to encourage the spirit of enterprise in the country?

I would like to see a micro-venture capital fund that is more than Rs 5 crores. A lot of resources are required as these innovations (come to us) at a stage after which the real work begins: developing a prototype, fine-tuning the concept, scaling it up and then multiplying it for the market. A lot of funds are needed for that.

For us, this is a challenge. We started with a corpus of Rs 20 crore, of which the interest accounted for 12-13 per cent. Now interest rates have fallen to six per cent. So, in effect, our funds have almost gone down by half while our activities have doubled. Within the resources available, we are doing all right.

You have identified thousands of innovations. How come only one is a major success?

Immediate applicability was the reason Mansukhbhai Patel’s cotton-stripper did well. It got a patent and could be sold commercially. Other innovations are just three-years-old, it will take time for them to become part of the national consciousness.

What is the missing link?

We are launching a scheme that will have 10 CSIR fellows working on the grassroots innovations. We are trying to introduce it in the IITs as well. Additional efforts have to be made to link up the rural innovations with the formal system.

Our work is to identify and nurture the rural innovators. We are like the Gangotri — (the innovators) may be born here, but more streams need to join in for them to become a full-fledged river.

The connections seem very remote at this point. Do you have a plan on how the rural innovations can be linked with the formal system?
Our formal system is completely alienated. The IITs do not even know that these things exist. The NIF is planning to hold a meeting with all the IIT chairmen, the UGC and AICTE chairmen to sensitise them so that everything can be integrated. All under-graduate courses and engineering institutes should be linked. The orientation towards these innovations should be introduced in curricula and works practice. We want to call Indian Council for Agriculture Research to be part of this as many of these inventions are agricultural implements.

Why is it that none of these innovators have got patents?

Our patent system is slow. Earlier, we had 30 patent officers, now we have 200. It used to take five-six years for a product to get patented, now it is being done in one-two years. These patents will be granted, it’s just a matter of time.

India faces a unique position in that people use traditional knowledge in their innovations. Do you think they require special handling?
The new designs that are created have tremendous potential for improvement. Top-class designers should be involved in making improvements. Then we go in for beta testing, that is, the product is produced in limited quantities and put out in the market. After the feedback, modifications are made, the product is fine-tuned and released at a large-scale.

For something like a dam, there has to be connection with the correct agency, which will incorporate it in their design and take it to areas where it can be replicated.

Do you think the rural innovators will ever get the recognition due to them?

The country boasts of 60,000 software professionals. This is just the tip of the iceberg. These innovators are a talent pool that is the iceberg itself.

On the cutting edge

At 62, Radhey Shyam Tailor is spending every waking moment thinking of a suitable name. Actually, he has been thinking of a name for the last five years. ‘‘Right now it is just called a trench-cutting machine,’’ he says with a sigh. ‘‘But with orders pouring in and companies showing interest, we have to give it a better name.’’

Sitting in his Sikar courtyard, keeping a supervisory eye on the kirana store run by his son, Tailor is basking in the glory of his invention. The excited NIF award-winner has stories to tell, questions to ask, an award to collect and of course, a name to think of.

A bumpy, kuccha road leads to the Tailor residence, where a wife bustles around in the kitchen and a daughter-in-law scurries around, her face half-hidden by her sari. The neighbourhood knows he has done something big and refer to him as the ‘‘man who builds machines’’. For Tailor that is the biggest compliment.

‘‘I have always had a knack for things,’’ says the commerce graduate, indulgently bragging about his ability to speak seven languages. ‘‘Technical things fascinate me and I have been building things for years. This one just works much better than anything else.’’

A 10-minute drive from Tailor’s home is the workshop where ‘‘dreams came true’’. Fifth-standard dropout Nathulal Jangid’s workshop is at one corner of an airy courtyard and his machines drown out the sound of utensils being washed and women gossiping.

‘‘We are a great team,’’ Tailor begins. ‘‘For 20 years we have tinkered around here, putting our heads together, drawing plans, dreaming big. While Jangid is the technical man, I am the design and drafting person. Together we create amazing things.’’

Radhey Shyam
tailor, 62, and Nathulal Jangid, 55
Trench-Digging Machine
First Prize in General Machine Category, 2003
In 1999, on a routine bus journey through the heart of Rajasthan, the two men looked out of their windows and saw labourers digging trenches along the roadside. It was in the middle of a scorching desert summer and both men couldn’t stop talking about the plight of the workers.

They went back home and after six months were ready to try out their trench-cutting machine, which could be attached to a modified 35-40 HP tractor and dig 65 meters of trench per hour. Three modifications and five years later, their machine is a big success, especially with the telephone department.

‘‘We have sold eight so far, most of them to the telephone department contractors who lay cables,’’ Tailor says. ‘‘Then results are excellent. For Rs 1,50,000, you have a great deal.’’

Jangid is not home but his entire family has hands-on knowledge about how the trench-cutter works. His 15-year-old son Hitesh runs you through the workshop. His mother watches proudly.

‘‘He is like his father, very bright,’’ says Vimla. ‘‘His father is nothing short of brilliant. He has made so many agricultural implements. This one is the best, of course. We are waiting for the award. Then we will construct a bigger workshop and he will make bigger things.’’

by Anuradha Nagaraj

A gold-digger in Rajasthan

Yusuf Khan ‘Jevaliwale’ was always known for his second-hand tractors. But what very few knew till a couple of years back was that in a quiet corner of his Krishi Yantra Udyog shop lies a machine that ‘‘does wonders when attached to a tractor’’.

It looks ugly, is bulky and could pass off as junk. But everyone who has taken a closer look has gasped at the simplicity of the groundnut-digger and wowed at the genius of a Class VII dropout.

‘‘It took me a year to build,’’ Khan says, as he dusts his machine lovingly. ‘‘So many farmers walk through this workshop, looking to buy or sell tractors. And so many of them would often tell me how difficult it was to get labour during harvesting season and how expensive it was. They all wished things were easier and I decided to actually try and make it easier for them.’’

So Khan broke into his savings and dug out all the money he had earned during his five-year stint in Kuwait, dealing with old cars. ‘‘It cost me around Rs 50,000 and took a whole year, complete with three modifications. But once I was through with it, there was no looking back. In the last three years I have sold over 20 machines. It is a gold mine.’’

 ‘Everyone wished things were easier. I decided to make them easier’
Khan’s device is retrofitted to a tractor and is capable of extracting the maximum amount of groundnuts from fields. In one day, it can dig out groundnuts from one hectare of land, a job that would require 100 labourers — each hired for Rs 80 — if the time-span were to remain the same. An added feature is that it sifts out all the mud from the groundnuts.

In his little office behind the workshop, Khan settles down on a modified car-seat sofa set. The walls behind him are hung with posters of all the different kinds of tractors available in the market. A traffic rules chart also gently sways in the breeze as Khan wipes the beads of sweat on his forehead.

‘‘I know tractors like nobody else,’’ he says. ‘‘I can make a tractor do things few would imagine. It comes to me easily, the entire mechanics of the whole thing. And when business booms, there is no looking back.’’

Yusuf Khan

Ground Digging Machine
First Prize in Farm Machinery Category, 2003
Khan took his inspiration from a potato-digger developed by Punjab farmers. ‘‘Many farmers around here bought it, but it failed miserably. It just didn’t suit their needs. I had a defunct one lying in my backyard and took the basic pattern of my groundnut machine from it.’’

He first tried and tested his device on the 300 bighas of land he owns. Then he convinced a farmer friend to try it out. It worked. Encouraged, Khan travelled to Bikaner and met groundnut farmers. He did a live demonstration and they loved it. Then he put in small advertisements in local dailies. Before he knew it he had built up quite a reputation as the ‘Mungphali machinewala’.

‘‘Farmers go by gut instinct and it is not so easy to cheat them,’’ Khan says earnestly. ‘‘My advantage is that I am both a farmer and a mechanic.’’

It doesn’t get better than this in the fields of Rajasthan.

byAnuradha Nagaraj

How much wood can a wood-cutter cut?

 ‘I just thought wood-cutting could be much easier with a simple machine’
Imagine a machine that not only cuts wood but also time spent cutting wood — by as much as 12 times. Actually, don’t bother. For Karuna Kanta Nath has already imagined it — and made it happen.

A carpenter in an obscure village called Gharara Dallanghat in the Darrang district of Assam, Nath came up with a novel arrangement of the link and composite flywheel. ‘‘I used to see so much time, energy and manpower spent on cutting and sawing logs. I thought things could be much easier if a simple machine was available to do the work,’’ says the class VIII drop-out.

So must have an Edison or a Bell thought in their time. And like them, since the easy option was not available, Nath set about making it. ‘‘I started thinking what such a machine would look like,’’ he says.

By rigging up a contraption of iron and RCC, Nath came up with a machine that could cut wood into smaller pieces for use in furniture, building and other ends.

Karuna Kanta Nath, 54

Improved wood-cutting machine
Third Prize in Energy Category, 2003
"The machine takes just 20 minutes to cut seven cubic feet of wood, which would take at least four hours if done manually,’’ says C B Vijaya Vittala, chief innovation manager of Grassroot Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN), Northeast. ‘‘Moreover, you will never get the perfection that Nath’s machine can give.’’

GIAN took Nath under their wings about a year-and-a-half ago. ‘‘The region is full of people with innovative ideas, drawn from practical experience. But these talents have withered away due to lack of support and patronage,’’ says Vittala.

For them, Nath is an inspirational figure. His innovation costs Rs 12,000, just about one-tenth of that of an electric saw-mill unit, and needs no power for operation. The award won Nath Rs 25,000. If the design goes commercial, it could only mean additional income.

bySamudra Gupta Kashyap

More power to water

When Nripen Kalita of Jiyakur village in Kamrup district joined the Pre-University (plus-2) science stream in Arya Vidyapeeth College in Guwahati in 1980, all he dreamt about was becoming an engineer or a scientist. But poverty led him into a career as a radio and television mechanic. Fiddling with machinery became a hobby.

Fifteen years and innumerable repaired radio and TV sets later, Kalita is suddenly a celebrity in his village today.

The zero-head water turbine he has developed won him Rs 25,000, apart from getting him more money every time a turbine is sold.

  ‘I have always wondered how to get electricity to our village’
‘‘I always wondered how to get some electricity to our village so that farmers could take to mechanised farming and children could study after dark. For 10 long years, I worked on turbines, improving by trial and error. Then I was introduced me to the Grassroot Innovations Augmentation Network (GIAN),’’ says Kalita.

GIAN helped Kalita smooth over the rough edges of his invention. The finished product can generate up to 2 kilowatts of power, and costs just Rs 8,000, compared to the Rs 40,000 a micro-hydel plant would cost. It can be installed anywhere, in the plains or in the mountains, and is virtually maintenance-free.

Nripen Kalita, 41

Hydro Turbine
State Award for 2003
‘‘A group of farmers at Panikhaiti, about three km from my village, has already asked me to install one turbine for them to produce power and lift water for the fields,’’ says a beaming Kalita.

GIAN also put him through a manufacturer, who has already paid Kalita Rs 1 lakh for his design. ‘‘He will also get Rs 1,000 as royalty for every machine sold by the manufacturer,’’ says Lalmuanzuala Chinzah, business development manager of GIAN (Northeast).

by Samudra Gupta Kashyap

Answer to a sprayer

Necessity might be the mother of all inventions, but Arvindbhai Patel is the undisputed father of the auto-compression sprayer. This, incidentally, is the second of his inventions to be honoured by the Rural Innovation Foundation: In 2001, Patel had won a similar award for the auto air kick-pump.

A part-time farmer and technician based in Ahmedabad, Patel was formally educated only up till Class X. But the lack of degrees was never an impediment for his observational skills. And that is what finally led him to come up with the auto-compression sprayer for pesticides.

‘‘Conventionally, the farmer has to pump the sprayer with one hand while spraying pesticide with the other. It’s a very tiring process, and the farmer often ends up with a backache. My invention takes out the manual labour from spraying pesticides,’’ says Patel.

It took three years and a number of trials and errors to get to award-winning level. ‘‘The idea is borrowed from the working of a watch,’’ says Patel, who earned his first salary as a watchmaker. ‘‘The device comprises two tanks for pesticides, a spring and a weight, all of which the farmer can hitch on to his back. When he walks on an uneven surface, such as a field, the jerks trigger a constant piston-like action on the spring, which transmits the energy to the tanks for auto-spraying.’’

An empty auto-compression sprayer weighs about nine kg. When filled with pesticide, the weight goes up to 23 kg, which is almost the same weight as the conventional sprayer.

 ‘My invention takes out the hard work from spraying pesticides.’
But by no means is work over on the auto-compression sprayer. ‘‘We are working with the National Institute of Design to make the product more sleek,’’ says Chintan Pathak, chief innovation officer of the Gujarat Grassroot Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN), a body affiliated to the National Innovation Foundation.

Notwithstanding the current unsophisticated design, the sprayer has elicited an enthusiastic response from farmers. Pathak’s organisation has also filed for an all-India patent in Patel’s name.

Arvindbhai Patel, 47

Auto-Compression Sprayer
Consolation Prize for 2003
Commercialisation is a not-too-far-off proposition. ‘‘The technology for the auto air-kick pump was transferred to a Mumbai manufacturing company, but the product did not take off as anticipated. Now we are working on a strategy to educate people in innovations,’’ says Pathak.

Patel is not unduly worried either way. ‘‘I started out as a watchmaker, went on to work as a car mechanic and even did a stint as a technician in Saudi Arabia, all for small remunerations. But with my work now being recognised, I get enough. I no longer work for other people, I do what I like.’’

by Ashok Bagaria