Innovations which help the poorest and the most deprived, are true innovations. India specialises in such innovations, though not many are widely known, made as they are mostly in the Indian hinterland. E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan looks at a cross-section to get a flavour of the Indian mind.
I N Indian innovations are plenty and varied. They often arise not out of the need to solve some deep intellectual conundrum, but out of sheer necessity and desperation. Innovations which make life just a bit easier, or directly address the issue of cost and lack of access to basic infrastructure like electricity and water, are seen often in India. And more often than not, such innovations happen in the interiors of the country, which are that much more lacking in basic necessities and opportunities. These are also ideas which have not cost their inventor much capital and resources, just a lot of ingenuity and native wisdom.
Moulding ideas with clay: MittiCool Clay Creations is situated in Wankaner district, Rajkot. In the year 1988, Mansukhbhai Prajapati decided to innovate with clay, which was a freely available raw material. He first developed the basic clay pan called ‘Tawadi’ (tawa) with hand pressing system, followed by a clay water filter. But all this was just the rehearsal for his best invention so far, the Mitticool fridge for the rural people who do not have electricity in their villages. This was in 2001. Made out of terracotta clay, this is an eco friendly fridge to keep things cool and doesn’t use electricity or any artificial energy. This fridge can be used to store drinking water as well as keeping vegetables, fruits, milk etc., thus solving a big problem of rural India. Today, the company has a list of about 15 products including clay cooker, pans, lamps, dinner set, curd pot and so on. Perhaps for the first time in India, a company has taken patents for the ecological, clay made home products. Prajapati who first started with handicrafts, was honoured as a ‘Rural Scientist’ by then President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. He is also disseminating this knowledge through his ‘Prajapati Hastkala Vikas Trust’ under which he has trained more than 500 students in this art with help from the Government of Gujarat.
It’s safe play time: Though traditionally Indian toy makers used vegetable dyes, since many decades they had switched to titanium oxide bonded synthetic colors for making wooden toys. C. V. Raju inspired by his uncle decided to do something about this and has revived the dying art of making wooden toys among the craft community in Etikopakka, Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. Raju’s key contribution has been to strengthen the traditional local knowledge of making vegetative dyes, develop new tools, techniques and methods for increasing shelf life of the dyes and generate new uses. Raju’s experiments have resulted in many new toys imparted with vegetable dyes for which a market is slowly emerging in India and abroad, especially given the growing awareness about the harmful effects of lead and other chemicals. The toys of Etikoppaka imparted with vegetable dyes come in various shapes and forms ranging from toys to candle stands to vermilion boxes and bangles. Their beautiful designs, bright colors and earthly appeal are very attractive and very popular today.
A tough nut to crack: Mushtaq Ahmad Dar and Tauseef Ahmad of Jammu & Kashmir have invented the walnut cracker, peeler and washer. In what ways does this help? Manual cracking of walnuts involves a lot of time and drudgery. The sap of the walnut skin also burns hands and stains clothes. This walnut cracking machine can process dry walnuts of various sizes, shapes and thickness to crack them open without damaging the fruit inside. Using the walnut washer, the time required to wash, which otherwise is done manually using hands, has been reduced by over 60 per cent. The machine can process about 80 kg of walnuts/hour leading to a huge savings in productive time.
Climbing without fear: Kerala is synonymous with coconut trees and one of the popular rural professions is of the coconut tree climber. But this job is fraught with risks and also, in recent times, a paucity of skilled labour. This is where the late M.J. Joseph or Appachan as he was fondly called came in. A school dropout he had a great ability to innovate things that could be used in day to day life. He saw the struggles faced by tree climbers, especially when it came to climbing the tall coconut or areca nut trees. He decided to solve this problem by inventing a simple and innovative tree climber that makes the task of climbing very easy.
Frugal innovations are being recognised as the acceptable, in fact, the desired way to innovate especially in poorer countries. Stripping the product of non-essentials and focusing on the core need, which in turn drive down the costs, is the way forward. Here’s a look at a handful of such innovations, though there are a perhaps a million of them out there.
Traditionally, professional climbers have been engaged by coconut planters for plucking the fruits from the top of the coconut trees. Appachan developed this device under the guidance of his father. The coconut tree climber consists of two metal loops that are meant for holding the legs. They have a handle at the top for hand grip and a pedal base at the bottom. The loops are put around the tree trunk on the opposite sides. The loop on either side is lifted up by the simultaneous movement of the hand and feet. By such alternate motion, one can easily climb a coconut tree in minutes. Appachan and his tree climber bagged a prize in the farm implements category in the Second National Grassroots Technological Innovation and Traditional Knowledge Competition, organised by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF-India) in the year 2001-2002. Villagers then gave him the title ‘the local Spiderman’. Coupled with some basic safety devices like a harness, this device makes climbing up a straight-trunk tree or a pole quick, easy and safe.
He made some other innovative products like the instrument that could squeeze coconut milk and juice from fruits. But his most popular innovation is the tree climber. Appachan’s contribution is not only in inventing this particular tree climber but also in inspiring a whole lot of people. Prominent among them are innovators like Mushtaq Ahmad Dar of Jammu and Kashmir (featured earlier in this article), who has also developed a smaller pole-cum-tree-climber and D.N. Venkat of Tamil Nadu, who has developed a seating type tree climber.
Check out this dam: This is what acute water scarcity does – it inspires people like Bhanjibhai Mathukiya of Junagadh, Gujarat, to build dams using local materials. This farmer innovator lives in an arid region, prone to water scarcity. His path breaking innovation consists of a modular check dam built using the arch shaped bunds in sequence. The farmer built the first dam across a small river running through the village. It consists of a series of semicircular arches beneath to support the weight (akin to railway bridges). The dam not only costs less than conventional ones, but is also more stable and easy to construct. It resists maximum water pressure and force because of its unique design and structural strength. He used locally available materials such as stones, river sand and very less manpower – just one mason and four labourers to build the dam. The low cost dam was built in 4 days and at a total cost of Rs 10,000. This dam has made the area a green zone. The check dam prevents water from running off and also recharges the water table. This check dam model can be constructed easily by individuals or co-operatives with little or no help from the government. Till date Mathukiya has built about 25 check dams in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Not just child’s play: Science educator Arvind Gupta used very simple toys to teach. A graduate from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, Arvind Kumar Gupta took a year’s leave from his company to work with the grassroots village science teaching programme for children in the tribal district of Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh. While there, he developed many useful low-cost teaching/science teaching aids using locally available materials. The possibilities of using ordinary things for doing science and recycling modern junk into joyous products appealed immensely to children, his target audience. Arvind Gupta’s first book, Matchstick Models and other Science Experiments, was translated into 12 Indian languages and sold more than half a million copies. Gupta has conducted workshops in over 2000 schools and has won many national and international awards.
These inventions have made a qualitative difference in the lives of the local communities. All these inventions were in direct answer to a felt need, which obviously wouldn’t be addressed by formal channels. Indians are innovative, even in adverse circumstances. Rather, adversity brings out the best in us!