Dr.Anil Kumar Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad has been championing the cause of thousands of faceless creative individuals scattered all over India. Because most of them are far removed from the modern organised world of business, they are unaware of their own worth, rights and the opportunities that await them. Now with Gupta's initiative they find new doors opening for them.
The skew and the riches:
The unlettered Indian innovator is fortunately, not a breed ready to go extinct because he has been neglected by the system. He is busy tackling his daily problems, improvising with what he has, innovating according to the circumstances and even sharing his inventions freely. He is also the keeper of India's ancient knowledge not because of sentimentality -- as frequently presumed--, but because that knowledge delivers. We shall soon see living examples of these, but the point to remember is that the simpleton you see in the countryside is a shrewed observer and a very practical person.
In the forties even as India became free, the organised economy was not open to him. But ironically, when India went into the protectionist phase, the small town mechanic exploded with what is now called 'reverse engineering' skills delivering products no longer allowed as imports. Rajkot, Ludhiana, Kolkota, Coimbatore and Delhi were turning out sewing machines, diesel engines, farm pumps, bicycles and small machine tools. All produced by self-taught mechanics and entrepreneurs.
In the decades since, many products and skills that were the preserves of the big business have gravitated to the world of the small manufacturer: refrigeration, plastics, chemicals, tissue culture, auto spares etc being some examples. The ancient Indian enthusiasm to experiment and innovate had modernised itself.
Dr.Gupta in the late eighties, was struck by the disconnect between this informal world and the world of management. He began the Honey Bee network as a means of gathering the scattered information. Gupta was then in his thirties, a rather surprising age in India to be turning to issues concerning the poor. Perhaps his growing up in Haryana --away from the metros-- helped. Also his conviction, that "a key resource is the knowledge of the poor". If management graduates were unaware of this resource, would they not be impoverished themselves? Gupta's courses at the elite IIM-A have always required his students to get involved with the ways poor people carry on their lives. He hoped that this interaction would always keep graduates rooted in the community.
The resource with the poor, it would appear is a rich vein indeed. The Honey Bee database is galloping. In the twelve years since it began there are 12,000 entries,including several from Mongolia, Vietnam, Uganda, Kenya, Colombia, Ecuador and North America. Its a mixed bag of heirloom knowledge, folklore, ideas, techniques and product innovations. The Honey Bee newsletter is today published in six Indian languages plus English and Spanish. It is received in 75 countries. The database is online.[Here are some tips on browsing it.]
From that initiative have come the three corner stones of the effort to put some formalism into India's problem solving exuberance. GIAN [Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network] founded in 1997 seeks to bring notable inventions to the attention of venture capitalists and financiers. NIF [National Innovation Foundation] in association with CSIR [Council for Scientific and Industrial Research] seeks to evaluate and prioritise worthwhile ideas and SRISTI [Society for Research & Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies & Institutions] is the umbrella organisation that co-ordinates all these activities.
A quick tour:
The first country wide competition for awards by NIF in 2000, brought nearly a thousand entries from Gujarat, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Karnataka. There were five categories and prizes ranged from Rs.25,000 to Rs.100,000 in each. Gupta had in the meanwhile got CII [Confederation of Indian Industries] involved in his efforts.
A close look at a few of the winners and a few random entries from the Honey Bee database leads us to a rare layer of India. Most inventors have had little education. Sebastian Joseph who won the Rs.100,000 prize in the plant variety category dropped out of school after class four. In Kerala's spice district,Idukki the high yield cardomom variety developed by him and his son Regimon is planted in over 80% of farms. They are now selectively breeding a variety fit for the plains. Amruthbhai Agrawat of Junagadh, Gujarat is a priest and a serial inventor. He has a wheat planting box, a multi-purpose tool bar and a peanut digger to his credit. Then he invented and put in public domain a pulley with a ratchet for village wells: children can now haul water without fear of a filled pail racing back into the well and women can stop midway during a haul for a chat or a breather. But Amruthbhai is famous throughout Gujarat for his bullock-cart with a tilting bed, just as in the big tipper trucks.
Annasaheb Udagavi in Belgaum, Karnataka has spent many years developing a watering gun that doesn't clog even when it sends biogas slurry as a spray. It also clears all leaf borne pests. Usha Shankar Bhattacharya in Kolkota has developed a kerosene stove that saves 50% on fuel. He is struggling to find a financier and marketer. Ram Naresh Yadav is a high school graduate and has developed a pump that can be driven by conventional prime movers as well as by human power. The IIT at Kanpur helped him along with its development.
Many innovative products have been developed by mechanics who have their own small workshops. Mansukhbhai Jagani [studied up to class five] has worked around the Bullet motorcycle,--so common in the countryside-- to develop a complete machine system for a small holding at a cost of Rs.20,000 - he has various attachments for tilling, weeding and sowing. There is also a trailer that can hook on to the bike. De husking arecanut [betel nut] has always been a messy job but with Narasimha Bhandari's patent automatic machine you can process 20 kg an hour. He is a matriculate and so is Kalpesh Gujjar of Gujarat whose oil expeller can crush many seeds including the doughty cotton seed. The machine has a novel gear box designed by him. It is small in size and low on power consumption. Arvindbhai Patel's natural water cooler uses no power but the sun's evaporative process. And then there is the delightful Dodhi Pathak of Assam who first looks to bamboo for all solutions. He has made --and uses-- bamboo dentures. He has also devised a water pump made entirely of bamboo. But his wackiest creation is a whole bicycle made of bamboo save the tyres and tubes!
Payoffs and dilemmas:
Efforts of Anil K Gupta are beginning to pay off. Arvindbhai's water cooler has a licensee who has paid Rs.350,000 for the idea. GIAN has helped Gujjar land a grant for improvements to his expeller. M-Cam [M-cam.com] a technology marketing firm in the USA has successfully sold a license to a Virginia, USA based company for the manufacture of a foot operated spray pump developed in Gujarat. GIAN also helped Mansukhbhai Patel get a loan to perfect his cotton stripper machine [- and he has paid it back with interest]. More significantly, Gupta's students graduate with an awareness of the Indian reality. A few of them got together to set up a $1 million micro-credit fund for village entrepreneurs.
Finally, however this sad dilemma would remain: the educated classes know how to work the invention-reward system. Anil Gupta may one day lead many more small timers to the innards of that system. But India's ancient inventors and the living keepers of their knowledge are beyond all rewards bar our salutes.
How really does one reward these selfless keepers of knowledge. Often they are the most in need of material support. One may fight pirates scouring the land but how to reward the keepers? Problem is, the knowledge keepers themselves are unconscious that they merit rewards. It's the deeply ingrained Indian principle: "do your thing and let the reward take care of itself". How else do you explain people like Puriben Suva and Rehmat Khan Solanki. She has a way of preserving lentils using a mixture of chilli powder and mud. He is a veterinary doctor who has tens of native cures for most of livestock's ills. He serves free. Then there is the 70 year old lady Baby Amma, in a village near Chennai who has the magic herbal bullet for jaundice but won't dream of charging for the service as it is a gift from her ancestors.
India is strewn with such gifts. Here is but one from the Honey Bee database in the beautiful words of P R Pisharoty: "A plant called 'garmala' in Gujarati and 'karmikaram' in Sanskrit is a useful indicator of rains. It bears bunches of golden yellow flowers in abundance, about 45 days before the onset of rains, whether it be Kerala, Gujarat, or western U.P. In Kerala, it flowers by 10th or 12th April. The farmers plan their planting by it. The Indian Meteorology Department even now gives no forecast of the onset of rains in Kerala by that time. The normal date of onset of the monsoon, over Kerala is around 1st June. If the plant does not flower by 14th April, farmers in Kerala do not go ahead with the preliminary work for sowing paddy. Kalidasa had associated the flowering of 'karmikaram' with the onset of summer [end of spring] and eventually the rains."
Surely it's hard to discover "the true and sole inventor" of this technique. But how about someone conceptualising a fund to reward devout practitioners of these ancient techniques. [Is there an answer here?] Something that is the equivalent of purses to scholars of ancient texts. We would then begin to move towards a just system of rewards.
Dr.Anil K Gupta
Indian Institute of Management
Phone : [91-79] 6324927, 6327341
Fax : [91-79] 6307341
The SRISTI website
The NIF website
The GIAN website
The Third Competition for inventors has been announced by NIF and SRISTI. Details can be downloaded from
The related websites listed above are unfortunately a difficult maze to navigate. Despite that, the Honey Bee database is a delightful browse. Click this link to arrive at the best starting point. After that it is many more click hops, but well worth it. Back
If you are a serious student of issues concerning "the protection of traditional knowledge, methods for compensating peoples for sharing their knowledge and for protecting them against unfair exploitation, the relation of traditional ecological knowledge to the preservation of cultural and biological diversity, failures of traditional practices to maintain ecosystem health and meet human needs, methods and ethics for investigating indigenous knowledge, the role of community involvement in using indigenous knowledge for sustainable development" etc there is a list you can subscribe to and network with people involved in these efforts. It is best to read an introduction to this list before you subscribe. Joining instructions are there.Back