Innovations are not a by-product of complex issues tackled inside massive laboratories. Nor are they in the exclusive domain of a privileged few. Innovations need people who will look at their own life and say: ‘I think I can do things differently and live better.’ Now this is almost what Harvey Firestone said: ‘Capital isn’t so important in business. Experience isn’t so important. You can get both these things. What is important is ideas. If you have ideas, you have the main asset you need, and there isn’t any limit to what you can do with your business and your life.’

The path to innovations

The first rule, I’d say, is the absence of rules. M. A. Rosanoff once went to Thomas Edison and asked, ‘Mr. Edison, please tell me what laboratory rules you want me to observe.’ Edison, it is said, replied, ‘There ain’t no rules around here. We’re trying to accomplish somep’n!’ Now this is more true in the rural hinterland of India where our ‘villagers’ keep our newsmakers busy by using a mix of common sense and the new form of needs brought in by a social fabric that is constantly changing. Let us examine what Swayambhoo Sharma, Madanlal Kumawat, and Chandan Agarwal from Rajasthan did. They modified hand pump with tap and attachment for filling animal trough… a simple common-sense addition that helps making use of water that would otherwise have gone waste. Was there opposition to this idea? Sure enough there was because it was going against the rules that the social structure existing there had created. So for innovators, there are ideally no rules. They let their thought wander into places from where come ideas that will ultimately find acceptance because they benefit mankind. Which signifies that they might try to experiment their ideas by utilizing tools such as quartz cuvettes, for instance.

The second rule is to focus on local issues. Look at what C V Raju from Andhra Pradesh did. He noticed that the local toy makers and craftsmen had begun using titanium oxide bonded synthetic colors and all he did was to to bring the pre-1910 days back to this art. He encouraged traditional local knowledge of making vegetative dyes, developed new tools, techniques and methods for increasing shelf life of the dye… and now because of him the toys of Etikoppaka are imparted with vegetable dyes. Or look at C A Vincent from Kerala who wanted to help his fellow villagers from losing money when they lost their soap while bathing in the river. He used his knowledge and created a soap that has a density of 0.878, TFM (Total Fatty Matter) as 73 per cent, foaming stability as 0.1 cm and foaming power as 0.2 cm… and, therefore, floats on water.

The third rule of innovation is to modify existing ideas. Radhey Shyam Sharma from Madhya Pradesh thought of using machinery available to convert it into a Bullock operated sprayer that gets the drive from the ground through a gear box and belt pulley system. A media report on this explains the system: ‘When the operator shifts the lever to a higher gear, the frequency of strokes of the pump increases as a result of which more pressure develops in the container. The spray fluid, thus, atomizes into fine droplets with a wider swath.

This sprayer considerably reduces time requirement as compared to manual spraying and also the drudgery and health hazards involved in manual spraying.

It has 18 nozzles, spaced at a distance of 35 cm and can cover 3.5 acre/h.’ Thu sit is vital to not let the knowledge and resources that you have remain unchanged and untouched… the rural innovators of India have this power to constant churn up this conventional knowledge and transform it into something that works wonders for them. Some of us may choose to call this ‘jugaad’ but that will be harsh and rude to the innovative bent that one sees in all this.

The next prompter and promoter of innovative ideas is the need to economise. Yes, money plays a major role in innovative thinking, especially in our rural belts. This is why N Sakthimainthan from Tamil Nadu thought of his idea of a hand-operated water lifting pump. He built a water-lifting device that is operated by a handle and the rotations are what a motorised pump can also do but at a considerably higher cost. This simple interpretation led him to create a contraption that can discharge 20,000 lph at 0.75 m head and helps villagers as the right device for drainage as well.

Do innovations end up as usable ideas?

Well, not every innovative idea may end up in something that is actually used by the masses. There are a lot of little ideas that even our rural folk use in the confines of their homes but may not work outside of a given environment. However, a lot of these ideas do percolate to other parts and help make life more meaningful.

Look at the smokeless chullah that every home in every village in the remote wilderness of Spiti has. We were there and were thrilled to find ourselves sitting comfortably in a room that was both the living room as well as the kitchen for our village host. It was chilling outside… and had just started snowing. But inside where we sat, the temperature was just right for a nice warm conversation with our host who happily taught us how to prepare a local dish. He also told us that the smoke from this challah never troubled people sitting inside as it simply went up and out of the roof… and the best fact is that they could actually shift the challah to a different and even a lower floor if they wanted, by just extending the pipe that went up and out. So in a place where severe cold cuts them off from the rest of the world for months, this little innovation comes to their rescue.

I have travelled to many villages in many regions, talked to people and seen the way they harness technology in ways that are unique to them. So they will have a sheep pen that innovatively uses wires to separate them from the human part of the lodgings. Or the local craftsman will know how to make bells with distinct sounds to be put around the neck of donkeys belonging to different families so that there is no mix-up as donkeys have this irritating habit to settling down in any house that it feels gives them better food.

Thus science indeed is borderless and all it needs is a mind that can link up its principles to the needs of an individual or a group of people. In a rural setting, this becomes vital as it isn’t always possible to opt for the expensive gadgets and devices that keep flooding the richer parts of the world. It is true that an innovative thought giving rise to an economic version of a device is generally as good and as workable as its expensive alternative. However, it is equally true that many of the innovations that evolve into sophisticated and expensive scientific gadgetry like Sartorius Balances – Certified Scale have humble beginnings as ‘cheap innovative ideas’ from a rural setting.

Science is borderless

Science is borderless

Arvind Passey
29 May 2014

Article also submitted to ‘The Education Post’ magazine… will share the jpeg of the published article later…