The Houdinis of India

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on January 10, 2018
Out of the box: Farmers move on a jugaad, an improvised, domestically assembled vehicle, in Etawah.

Out of the box: Farmers move on a jugaad, an improvised, domestically assembled vehicle, in Etawah.   -  PTI

Grassroots Innovation; Anil Gupta; Non-fiction; Penguin Random House India; ₹599

Grassroots Innovation; Anil Gupta; Non-fiction; Penguin Random House India; ₹599

Some of the most important innovations in India may be the ones you’ve never heard of: Anil Gupta’s book remedies this information gap

There is a certain category of young men who throng the holy city of Haridwar for taking a dip in the icy waters of the Ganga. Pilgrims offer their obeisance by throwing coins and rarely do they notice these waiting young men. What is salvation for some is survival for others. Holding a transparent glass pane and standing in the water throughout the day, these men search for coins lying at the bottom of the flowing river. By pressing the glass pane against the turbulent flow, the coins lying at the bottom get clearly located. They would not have even heard of fluid dynamics, but they know the value of the idea that has made their lives easier. Ask them and they won’t even know the people behind this innovation.

This is just one amongst the innumerable innovations that abound in the everyday lives of a largely impoverished society. From handy tips to improvised tools, from enhanced techniques to adaptive practices, there is a rich repository of innovations on offer. Think of the multiple variants of the scarecrow to protect mature crops or the ‘belled rat’ that drives away other pests. Even the buttermilk-churning “washing machine” and the motorcycle-cum-tractor have been locally made, to make life easier for millions of others. What fuels innovative desire in ordinary people, and why are such innovations gifted anonymously to the society at large?

There could be many explanations for this. Simply put, improvisation is the mother of survival and a lost opportunity remains an unforgivable waste. Resource constraint is viewed as a challenge by the poor, firing imagination in the most ordinary of minds. As a result, people do not succumb to the constraints but transcend them by improvising on inputs and reducing costs. An English traveller during the Mughal period had recorded that “the natives are so full of ingenuity that they make any new thing by pattern how hard so ever it seems to be done.” It will suffice to say that an Indian is inherently an entrepreneur and willingly a devotee, nurturing a DNA of innovation for the larger good of every section of the society.

Yet, in the welter of contradictions it may be risky to paint a nation of people with a single brush. By default people are innovative but they are spaced by socio-cultural differences, and thrive in diverse ecosystems of challenges and opportunities. A few ecosystems mould some of them into entrepreneurs, while a large number of these would-be innovators are left unattended on the margins. In his quarter century of documenting and celebrating informal knowledge produced at the grassroots, Anil Gupta displays a seriousness of purpose. Else, the double-decker root bridge from Meghalaya, an efficient brick kiln from Andhra Pradesh, an innovative tree climber from Kashmir, and the bamboo windmill for water lifting from Gujarat would not have earned social recognition.

Grassroots Innovation chronicles the personal journey of the author in building an institutional architecture that has ensured respect, recognition and rewards for unsung innovators spread across the country. Each of the more than 2,00,000 ideas, innovations and knowledge practices have been registered at the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), set up by the Government of India. Out of the registered innovations, NIF has filed for more than 730 patents and about two dozen plant variety protection applications on behalf of the grassroots innovators.

What began as a voluntary effort through the Honey Bee Network has grown vertically; the process of translating an innovation into a good or service that creates value for the inventor through the payment it may receive from potential customers has been set in motion. Though the process has been carefully designed, it seems these are still early days for the entire value chain to be fully operational. Part of the problem rests in keeping the cost and also the supply chain of these easy-to-use innovations frugal. One may baulk at this characterisation but it does throw up more of a challenge for the promoter than the innovator himself. After all, grassroots innovators have rarely been inventing products or processes for the market.

Here’s where Gupta gets overly interpretive in his eagerness to lend philosophical perspective to the social capital of these innovations. To an exent, this reduces an interesting narrative to an exercise in theorising the sociology of innovation culture. It raises more questions than what the author had set out to address. If the limited resources enhance the imaginations of the impoverished, will connecting them to the marketplace of opportunity not curtail their inherent freedom of expression? What is the relationship between the idea of freedom at the grassroots and the rationale for institutionalising marketable perfection out of it? Once we ensure these innovators steady access to the free market, will the stream of innovations dry up? It’s anybody’s guess.

Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots had scored brownie points in using some of these innovations to challenge an outdated education system, one that nurtured clones and penalised orignality. In contrast, Anil Gupta’s Grassroots Innovation struggles to bring clarity between theory and praxis. Yet, it gives a tour d’Horizon of the enriching world of grassroots innovations. Part illuminating and part preachy, the lengthy narrative can be tough going for readers unfamiliar with the subject. It nonetheless throws light on some unusual questions on and about the mainstream knowledge economy.

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic

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Published on September 22, 2017
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