Tuesday, September 21, 2010

People who give

People are talking about giving this week. I've got a couple of calls from people wanting to give, wanting advice about who to donate to. I am not going to point you towards any one NGO.

Today I want to talk about a different kind of giving. The kind that involves years of involvement, stretching your own resources almost to bankruptcy, nights spent staring into the void, longing for creative inspiration.

No, I am not talking about writers or artists, though they too do live and create in this mould sometimes. I am talking about inventors. Not the kind who work out of research labs in universities or those who make presentations to get their research funded. I am going to talk low-income, even desperate researchers. People who poured their time into projects that had little hope of realisation. People whose projects were a personal problem-solving mission. And for that reason alone, their work is powerful and relevant. Their inventions really are the children of necessity, and the story of how and why they made stuff is a compelling read.

Take the example of the man who found a way to cut generator noise and collect carbon particles released by diesel engines at the same time. He didn't do it because he was overly bothered by global warming, but because he needed to use a generator in his own workshop, in east Champaran, Bihar.

"My workshop was just opposite a school. Since we faced frequent power cuts, I had to install a generator. This resulted in noise and air pollution, which affected school children and neighbours. Everyone was up in arms against me. They even filed a case against me in the court."..."It was difficult to move to a new location for me so I started thinking about ways to control this pollution," says Virendra.

That was how Virendra Kumar Sinha's pollution control device got made. It can be attached to generators or other diesel engines, and it allows carbon deposits to get collected, which can even be re-used (to make shoe polish, for example).

Pandharinath Sarjerao More from Ahmednagar has a similar story. He was a farmer who knew that onions could make a grown man cry even before they became onions.

Onions saplings have to transplanted after they are eight weeks old. It takes a lot of time and a certain amount of skill, which
makes it especially hard for small and medium farmers who cannot afford to hire enough people to finish work on time. So he set about making a machine to do it and his experiments were almost fatal.

"In the year 2000, Pandharinath, on a pilgrimage to Pandharpur, was sitting devotedly and listening to bhajans (devotional songs). A line in a bhajan by Saint Tukaram meant 'paras also cannot make gold without touching iron'' struck (sic) in his mind."

It took him 43 days and Rs 18,000 to build a semi-automatic working model. The tractor-drawn unit not only transplants onions, it can also add fertilizer and create furrows for irrigation. And he doesn't even want to patent it!

More was 66 when he won the national innovation award and according to the website, he wants to share the technology rather than lay restrictions on its use. If that is not one of the highest forms of giving, what is?

What I found particularly touching while reading his profile was the bit where he is quoted as saying:
"Chetanwadi dimaag mein jad bhi bolne lagti hai,pyaaz ka paudha bhi mere se bolne laga tha... (Even inert things communicate to aware minds, the onion plants were talking to me…)"

There's Kanak Gogoi from Guwahati, who won the NIF award for being a ‘Serial Innovator’ This school drop-out has made hover crafts, amphibious crafts, a rumble strip for generation of electricity, a gravitational bicycle. In fact, he made an air gun when he was a student in class six!

One of his most usable inventions is a ‘gravity operated cycle’, which can “harness the repeated downward movement of the rider on a spring-loaded seat. This would charge a spring that would release the energy and make the cycle move without much pedaling.”

He also has a ‘Kanso hybrid car’, without gears that runs on solar power as well as fuel.

But he began by selling milk in Jorhat and doing odd jobs at mechanical workshops. He read up a lot, worked in a mechanical workshop, struck out on his own, tried getting into the transportation business, and failed quite spectacularly. But he went on inventing things.

And he's not the only serial innovator on the list. There's a dozens of people like him and Uddhab Bharali, who is credited with innovating eighty-five engineering devices of which thirteen have found commercial applications.

One of his inventions is the 'Arecanut Peeler', which he made after being "annoyed by the injuries caused while peeling the areca nuts manually." His machine can peel 100-120 nuts per minute now.

Mansukhbhai Raghavjibhai Prajapati is reasonably well-known since the mainstream press has covered him. But what I found interesting was his personal journey. He quit studies after high school, went to work in a factory but an eye injury forced him out of work. He tried setting up a tea lorry on the highway, and then worked in a tile manufacturing unit. That's how he learnt pottery, and how!

He actually won the NIF award for earthen products, the most famous of which is ‘Mitticool’, a clay refrigerator that does not need electricity. With the help of Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) in Ahmedabad, he researched and experimented for three years and in 2005, Mitticool was available for Rs 1500!

Soon Mansukhbhai developed a better version with more storage room. And he also made a non-stick tava since his wife wanted one. Only, he made it of clay and it took “about a year of research, and after making and breaking almost one lakh trial tavas, he succeeded in developing the non-stick coated earthen pan using Azo Noble, another food grade non-stick material like Teflon.” Costs Rs 50-100 and consumes less LPG, apparently. He’s also worked on a clay cooker, thermos, and is working on a fridge fitted with a reverse osmosis unit to filter drinking water.

C Mallesham’s story is very touching.

He’s from a family of Pochampalli (silk saree) weavers. “Before weaving these patterns on loom, hand winding process of yarn has to be pursued, called Asu. This process involves moving hand, over a space of one meter up and down around semi-circularly arranged pegs, 9000 times for one sari, demanding high concentration and accuracy. On each peg one has to wind four times before moving to the next peg.

This work, Laxmi, his mother would do. Her hands ached. So in 1992 he decided to invent something to make the job easier. He used up his wife’s money in the process, took loans he could not return, annoyed his own family and listened to neighbours’ taunts. He had to leave home, live alone as a migrant worker in Hyderabad, but he never gave up. In 1999, he cracked it and returned to Malleswaram with a ‘Laxmi’ machine that worked!

A saree could be made easier, it took one-third the time it used to take. Once, people used to tell him that his mother wasn’t the only one who suffered – trying to make him quit his crazy project – but now he was making life better for all the mothers of Pochampalli weavers. And he didn’t stop. He kept improving the design so threads could be adjusted and noise levels reduced. Do go read his story to see how his device has changed hundreds of lives in his community.

One of my favourites is Muruganantham, from Coimbatore, inventor of the ‘Mini sanitary napkin making machine’. Here’s how his profile on NIF tells it: “Once the innovator noticed his wife going to the toilet with an old cloth. On his enquiry, she said it was not an issue related to the concern of men. He surmised that she was using the old cloth as a substitute of sanitary napkin. When asked as to why she was not using a regular sanitary napkin her answer was a revelation to him. She said that if all the female members of the family were to buy sanitary napkins, then they would have to cut down on the family budget for milk every month.”

He got napkins tested in a lab and found out that they use wood fiber. He got the material from Mumbai first, then developed his own de-fibering unit. Then he made other machines for the forming and sealing of napkins. Finally, he added UV sterilization.

Entrepreneurs and SHGs have already begun to sell pads at very reasonable prices, like Rs 15 for a set of 10 pads.

His system can produce over 900 sanitary napkin pads per day. That’s not all. After he saw ATMs dispensing cash to customers, he developed a sanitary napkin dispenser with a coin slot.

Next time you spot a pack of cheap napkins with names like ‘Free Style’ or ‘Be Free’ in the local market, remember to doff your hat to Muruganantham.

One reason I've done this post and poached so liberally from the NIF website (and I doff my hat and deeply salaam to you, madams/sirs, who profiled the awardees), is that we often forget that science and manufacturing is about people - by and for ordinary people.

A schoolgirl who made washing machine-cum-exercycle so her hands were free to hold books. Other kids who made herbal mosquito repellents. A 76-year-old who recycles natural fibre to make match-sticks. No logging, no wastage! A school-boy who made a tea-making machine since his mom was ill and he wanted to avoid using a wood-fueled chulha, but almost had his invention destroyed!

These are people with injuries, people with loans, people with hearts that ache for their own family members and communities. People who then stake their all to create something new, DESPITE their families and communities.

These are brave, brilliant people and they have given the world wonderful things. Things that reduce pollution, things that empower women, create jobs. Things that save lives or cause someone's spine to bend at a less brutal angle. Things that should be aggressively marketed and widely available. But who's going to do it?

Where are the marketing whizzes? Where are the logistics' managers? Where are the intangible innovations, where are our tertiary sector geniuses?

Maybe we will find those people too. Maybe not.

Let me leave you with thoughts of Janakiram from Dindugal. He did not invent anything tangible but he used his eyes. He noticed that birds who attacked a grape crop were wary of honey bees. Voila! So, he set up honeycombs near a grape farm. Shahad ka shahad, angoor ka angoor!

Chew on that, people, and go read up all about the wonderful inventions by hundreds of people across the country. It has kept me up all night and I've only mentioned a few award-winners in this post. But each page has stories of triumph, survival, and quiet heroism.


Banno said...

Fabulous post, Annie. It is people like these, who keep everyone's hopes up. Keep things moving.


Aman said...

And there are still those who believe that all enterprise has one single motive: that of maximising profit.

Yusuf Kirmani said...

This is real India. Good post, worth reading.

annie said...

Aman: nothing wrong with profit. It is often the prime driving force for most of the inventors and innovators I have listed. And often, if not for the inventor, then for the users or developers or investors, profit is still the biggest concern, even more than health.

See this too: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main46.asp?filename=Ne250910INSPIRATIONS.asp

Aman said...

Not sure of that. There is a big difference in the way these chaps approach their work versus how the industry big guns do. The motives are different. Sure these inventors didn't invent stuff & hand it out for free, but pricing a mitticool at Rs. 300/- isn't the same thing as spectacle frames at Rs. 2000/-!

dangiankit said...

Necessity has always been and perhaps, shall always be the mother of all inventions. There used to be a show running on CNBC earlier.. somewhere.. around 5 yrs. back or so.. where the sole purpose of the show was to highlight the innovations listed at NIF's databases. The show caught up nicely; a couple of young entrepreneurs supported these innovations by appropriate marketing and ensuring that the inventor gets good amount for his work.

Anyways, the bureaucrats have always regarded it as not more than tagging it as 'jugaad' technology. :)

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