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Innovation imperative: technological solutions from the grassroots

Nitin Maurya1
Innovations evolve in different niches as a response to different stimuli. These may be psychological,
social, environmental, climatic or cultural or a combination of these. Such a stimulus may itself be in
response to a particular need or a problem, felt by an individual and/or a group. Grassroots innovations
are thus essentially solutions to address a new or a persistent problem or satiate a recent or a long felt
need.In order to understand and appreciate any such innovation, the context in which it originated
needs to be understood properly. Why it was done in the first place and what may have propelled an
individual to be innovative? Certain basic needs, whatever they may be, are not contingent upon
geographical location, proximity from urban centers, size of the population, etc. For example, a small
village of fifty people living on top of a hill has equal right of access to quality medicine as compared to
any other village of say a few thousand near a city. The absence of public and/or private sector
mechanisms to provide essential/useful products or services makes experimentation necessary. Even if
such mechanisms exist but fail to identify a need as actually a need, innovation becomes imperative.
Talking about an innovative solution takes us to the problem. This is to say that to come up with a
solution, first the problem needs to be identified. If a problem does not appear as a problem, its solution
can never be worked out. Our society has been grappling with a number of such identified and
unidentified problems, which somehow have failed to appeal to formal science to come up with an
appropriate solution. Some available solutions may have proved to be inadequate or suboptimal and
hence may not have diffused. Then there are other innovative solutions emerging from the informal
sector, out of the formal systems of R&D, which are frugal and functional. Of late, such innovations have
slowly been recognised as useful, though a lot of skeptism still exists in the formal sector about their
utility.
Knowledge network for cross pollinating ideas and innovations
Starting twenty five years ago, the Honey Bee Network (HBN) started documenting common peoples
technological ideas, innovations and traditional knowledge. The honeybee collects pollen from the
flowers and in the process links one flower to another enabling cross-pollination. Similarly, the Honey
Bee Network, which is an informal network of likeminded people and organizations, strengthens peopleto-people contacts, learning and networking by pooling the solutions developed by individuals in
different sectors and sharing in local language. The network acknowledges the innovators, knowledge
producers and communicators so that they do not remain anonymous. It also tires to ensure that a fair
share of benefits arising from commercial exploitation of local knowledge and innovations reaches the
innovators and knowledge providers. With the help of its volunteers, the HBN has been able to identify
individuals and communities from all across the country who have done innovations in all fields of
human survival. The National Innovation Foundation India (NIF) has built upon the philosophy of the
HBN and has taken major initiatives to serve the knowledge rich but economically poor people of the
country.
Grassroots innovations for drudgery reduction
Of the thousands of innovations that have been documented, a number of them pertain to drudgery
reduction. Some of them have been developed in response to own need or that of a family member,
some in response to a collective need, and some purely due to compassion.
1National Innovation Coordinator Dissemination and Social Diffusion,National Innovation Foundation India,

Ahmedabad, Email: nitin@nifindia.org, Web: www.nif.org.in, www.facebook.com/nifindia, www.youtube.com/nifindia

When AmrutbhaiAgrawat2 (Junagadh, Gujarat) improved the pulley, which has been used to draw out
water from the well, he did something which had not been thought of for centuries. With the water table
going down everywhere, it has become difficult to draw up water easily. Women folk have to keep on
pulling the rope with the bucket full of water. If they get tired and wish to gasp a breath, they have to
hold on to the rope, tie it somewhere or give it to someone else to hold. Sometimes due to weight of the
bucket, the grip gets loosened and buckets falls back into the well, resulting in rope burns in the hands.
In 1997 Amrutbhai developed the pulley with a stopper incorporating a rachet on the pulley, which
prevents the downward movement of rope towards the well. His innovation thus ensures a safe method
of drawing water from wells reducing injury, drudgery and stress for the women. For his pulley with
stopper, In addition to NIFs award Amrutbhai also won Wall Street Journals Asian Innovation Award
(2005).
In the traditional Tie & Dye Pochampalli silk saree tradition of Andhra Pradesh, a hand winding process
Manual
of yarn called Asuis required before weaving various patterns on the loom. This cumbersome process
Asu
involves to and fromovement of the hand nine thousand times in a span of four-five hours for one
saree.
Process
ChintakindiMallesham3, a traditional weaver from Nalgonda (Andhra Pradesh)saw his mother, Laxmi, do
the Asu for the saris woven by his father and him. In a day she could only do the Asu for two saris, as
the process caused tremendous pain in her shoulders and elbow joints. She often told Malleshamthat
she would not be able to go through the pain anymore. She also suggested him to switch over to
another profession as she did not want her daughter in law to go through same drudgery and pain. This
triggered Mallesham to come up with a device to mechanize this processand relieve women, who
generally do this task, from the drudgery involved. Using this machine, Asufor making four-five sarees
everyday could be made. The innovation helped in eliminating drudgery and improving income.
Moreover, the women folk could find quality time for their home and family.
MehtarHussain and his brother, Mushtaq Ahmad4(Darang, Assam) while growing paddy in the winter
season needed water for their crop.On one hand, continuous pumping by hand involved a lot of effort
and drudgery, on the other using diesel sets was financially draining.To solve their problem, b oth of
them then built a windmill using locally available materials such as bamboo attaching the handle of
hand pump to it. This innovative low-cost windmill found use in Gujarat among the salt pan workers (salt
famers). Traditionally, underground brine is pumped out manually using buckets and counterpoise.
Some salt farmers use diesel gensets as well. NIF with the help of Gujarat Grassroots Innovation
Augmentation Network (GIAN) installed a number of value added windmills in one salt farming region of
Gujarat. The use of windmill resulted in eliminating drudgery in cases where manually water was
pumped apart from helping reduce carbon emissions.
These and many other grassroots innovations like bamboo processing machines by innovators Paresh
Panchal (Ahmedabad, Gujarat), Usman Sheikhani (Kanker, Chhattisgarh) and L Ralte and L Sailo (Aizawl,
Mizoram), various tree climbers by innovators (Late) MJ Joseph alias Appachan (Kerala), DN Venkat
(Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) and others, head load reducing devices/ water carriers by KhimjibhaiKanadia
(Gujarat), Madhav Mahajan (Mumbai, Maharashtra) and others, improved stoves by V Jayprakash
(Kerala), and others, Paddy transplanter by RanjitMirig (Odisha) are examples where grassroots
innovators have identified a problem and developed innovative solutions, reducing drudgery and
improving efficiency in the process.

26th National Award Book, National Innovation Foundation India, Ahmedabad, 2012: 1-8
35th National Award Book, National Innovation Foundation India, Ahmedabad, 2009: 6-10
46th National Award Book, National Innovation Foundation India, Ahmedabad, 2012: 15-19

Young innovators lead the way


Like any other child, young Abhishek Bhagat 5 (Bhagalpur, Bihar)used to see his mother spending many
hours in the kitchencooking food for the entire family. Once due to his mothers illness, he had to cook
food in her place. He then realized how tedious the job was for ladies to do so every single day round
the year. This motivated him to develop a machine for his mother, which could cook food automatically
and save her the pains.
Remya Jose (Kerala), then a class 10 student, had to nurse her ailing mother, look after her father who
was undergoing cancer treatment and take care of the household in addition to her studies. With no
washing machine available, doing the laundry was one task, which she found to be most cumbersome
and tiring. She then developed a pedal operated washing machine using which she was able to finish
her task on time with much lesser effort. Seeing his mother hassled while cleaning rice every day, Sajid
Ansari6(Ranchi, Jharkhand) thought of making a device to help her. He came up with a desktop rice
cleaning machine. Hisautomatic electric machine separates broken rice grainsand other physical
impurities from the unbroken ricegrains.
Mostly women and/or children have to run to collect clothes hung out for drying during monsoons if it
rains. Sometimes due to the hurry, accidents may occur. HarkeshKatarias7 (Gurgaon, Haryana) idea is
to devise a system through which this could be done automatically. This is a motor driven and moisture
sensor based system, which withdraws the clothesline into shade when it starts to rain, thereby
preventing the clothes from getting wet. Piyush Agarwal (Hazaribag, Jharkhand) also shared a similar
idea later during NIFs IGNITE 2009 national competition for school students original technological
ideas and innovations.
Riya Kothari, Nimran Kang, Kaamya Sharma &Mehr S. Mehta 8, (New Delhi), then school girls, were
moved by the plight of the sweeper going through his daily chores using the same broom that perhaps
has been in use since time immemorial. They pondered over and came up with the idea to have a
bicycle based cleaner, which improved their efficiency, reduced drudgery and accorded more respect to
their job. NIF invested in their idea and got various versions of the prototypes made. The Swatchch
Bharat Abhiyan may have been launched recently but these young girls identified the need for an
efficient cleaning tool years ago demonstrating that the children of our country are sensitive towards
their surrounding and issues, and can make their own creative contributions. What is needed is just a
space for their ideas to grow and flourish. The dream of an inclusive and progressive India cannot be
fulfilled unless the creative aspirations of all its people gets fulfilled.
National Innovation Foundation-India working towards making a creative, compassionate
and collaborative India
The National Innovation Foundation India (NIF) set up in 2000 by the Department of Science and
Technology, building upon the Honey Bee philosophy, has taken major initiatives to serve the
knowledge-rich, economically poor people of the country. It is committed to making India innovative by
documenting, adding value, protecting the intellectual property rights of the contemporary unaided

56th National Award Book, National Innovation Foundation India, Ahmedabad, 2012: 44-48
6 7th National Award Book, National Innovation Foundation India, Ahmedabad, 2013: 101-104
76th National Award Book, National Innovation Foundation India, Ahmedabad, 2012: 126
8 7th National Award Book, National Innovation Foundation India, Ahmedabad, 2013: 140-141

technological innovators, as well as of outstanding traditional knowledge holders on a commercial as


well as non-commercial basis.
With major contribution from the Honey Bee Network, NIF has been able to build up a database of over
2, 00,000 technological ideas, innovations and traditional knowledge practices (not all unique, not all
distinct) from over 555 districts of the country. NIF has till date recognised more than 600 grassroots
innovators and school students at the national level in its various award functions. Through the
collaborations with various R&D and academic institutions, Agricultural and Veterinary Universities and
others, NIF has helped in getting thousands of grassroots technologies validated and value added. It has
also set up a Fabrication Laboratory (Fab Lab) with the help of MIT, Boston, for product development
apart from strengthening in-house research and development facilities for the initial validation of herbal
technologies. Pro bono arrangement with patent firms has helped NIF to file over 650 patents (including
eight filed in USA and twenty seven PCT applications) on behalf of the innovators and outstanding
traditional knowledge holders of which thirty six patents have been granted in India and five in the USA.
It has also filed applications for twenty three farmers developed plant varieties at the PPV&FR
Authority. Micro Venture Innovation Fund (MVIF) at NIF with the support of SIDBI has provided risk capital
of over Rs 384 lakh to 191 projects, which are at different stages of incubation. NIF has received over
six hundred product inquiries from around fifty five countries for various technologies, NIF has
succeeded in commercialising products across countries in six continents apart from being successful in
materialising seventy one cases of technology licensing to eighty one licensees.
NIF has proved that Indian innovators can match anyone in the world when it comes to solving problems
creatively, where they perform better than rest is in generating greater sustainable alternatives by
using local resources frugally. The Grassroots to Global (G2G) model that NIF is propagating is all set to
change the way the world looks at the creativity and innovations at grassroots.
Way ahead
Over time and across geographies, innovations will continue to happen outside the boundaries of formal
institutions. Making them available for the benefit society at large will require formal scientific inputs to
value add them and channels for social or commercial diffusion. NIF has been attempting to develop a
bridge between the excellence in formal and informal science to achieve this. However, this is not a task
one organisation can undertake on its own. Realising this, NIF has been partnering with a number of
individuals, institutions, organizations, universities, etc.at different points of the innovation value chain.
NIF continues to draw upon volunteers in all fields and functions to achieve its goals and is always
looking for volunteers who wish to participate in any. Interested colleagues can write to NIF at
info@nifindia.org and offer to join this mammoth effort of making India Innovative by contributing in any
of the various activities undertake, which range from identifying an idea/innovation to its validation/
value addition, from IPRs protection to social/ commercial diffusion or simply by spreading the word
about our mission.

Note: Please have a look at Prof Anil K Guptas blog for more resources: - http://anilg.sristi.org/