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Grassroots Innovation


S SATHYA | Issue Dated: January 5, 2017, New Delhi
Tags : Grassroots Innovation | Shodyatras | Amrutbhai Agrwat |



Author: Anil K Gupta
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Edition: Hardcover
ISBN: 9788184005875
Pages: 381
Price: Rs 599

India may be one of the fastest growing economies of the world, yet everyday, India’s teeming millions are toiling hard on land, struggling for a glass of potable drinking water and failing to assert their rights over scarce forest produce for sheer survival. Interestingly, while this untiring struggle continues, there are some who succeed. 

Most of the flagship programmes or the agricultural extension schemes targeted at the poorest of the poor have a top-down approach. This is the norm adopted by a mammoth bureaucracy that administers the 1.25 billion plus population. Most often it fails. As a result, the underprivileged remain mired in the vicious cycle of hunger, poverty and debt.  What would tilt the scale in their favour is ‘knowledge’, argues management guru Anil K Gupta in his latest book, Grassroots Innovation: Minds on the Margin are not Marginal Minds.

Unlike many of the case studies and best practices advice from academic dons, these are from those ploughing their fields. To describe it as a mere study from the fields would be grave injustice not only to Gupta, but to the thousands of minds on the margins whom he has networked into new robust organisations over the last two decades.

Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, helped set up the National Innovation Foundation, with the assistance of the Department of Science and Technology.

Inspiration to set up these institutions came when he was in the grips of a moral dilemma after being invited by the Bangladeshi government to help restructure their farm research sector in 1985. He observed how poorly the marginalised farmers were paid for their unmatched knowledge.

Globally heralded as the father of the inclusive innovation movement, Gupta identified, documented and awarded grassroots innovators – most of them did not even have formal schooling. Though these innovators struggled for their own existence, their minds were ignited enough to search for solutions for problems faced by themselves and million others with scanty resources.

Discovering these innovators was not an overnight task for him. Instead, it involved ‘Shodyatras’, travelling to remote corners of the country, understanding the knowledge possessed by people and the ways in which they have emerged as disruptors to the local economy through innovations.

So far, over 70 technologies have been commercialised, 730 patents have been filed, and another 10,000 innovations placed in the public domain. Commercialisation has led to new concepts, such as the Technology Commons, where knowledge transfer between individuals is encouraged without a fee, while knowledge transfer from person-to-firm requires licensing protocols.

Some of the successful innovators discovered by the author include Amrutbhai Agrwat, a blacksmith from Junagadh in Gujarat, who tried to overcome numerous social challenges through his creativity. The book goes on to unearth innovations – from the famed Mitti Cool refrigerator to the root bridge of Meghalaya.

But what is the significance of grassroots innovation for all of us? Unlike the conventional industrial development that promotes mindless consumerism resulting in landfills and choking rivers, these grassroots innovations focus on a circular economy – cradle to cradle – that is, the zero waste concept.

Based on principles of sustainability, frugality, reuse and recycling, it attends to problems faced by many.

Despite the addiction we have to our daily morning cuppa, we hardly visualise the pains of the workers in the tea gardens. Similarly, we relish rice seldom realising how rice planters, mostly women, develop ulcers on their feet due to the long periods for which their feet remain immersed in water, while transplanting paddy.  Now, there is a glimmer of hope for rice planters as two grassroots innovators, Photo Singh in Bhagpat, UP and Ranjit Mirig from Sambhalpur, Odisha have tried to develop a manual paddy transplanter.

Reflecting on such problems, Gupta asks: “How is it that policy planners and scientists cannot observe this problem and begin a systematic attempt to solve it?” Elsewhere, he rues that “the wisdom of the common people is often inaccessible to us, because we don’t listen enough; we don’t listen to our inner voice either.”

Of the many grassroots innovations with impressive results is the Santi- the motorcycle-based plough and the mechanisation of the Asu process used for the intricate weave of Pochampalli sarees. As the subtitle of this book rightly describes, minds on the margin are not marginal minds.

Gupta did not merely establish institutions to promote grassroots innovations. He has told us how the development models, education, scientific quests, and public policy pursued by India are lop-sided. Calling for a paradigm shift, Gupta provides suggestions. For example, the MNREGA that is currently focussed on menial jobs, he suggests can be used for supporting creative capabilities.

To sum up, Grassroots Innovation is all about disrupting the anti-poor mindset.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017