A bicycle that runs over water as well as road, a low-cost milking machine that works on the principal of vacuum suction, and a bamboo tooth that's strong enough to bite into chicken. These and many similar innovations haven't been born in sterile research laboratories - they come from the backyards of rural India. Bringing them to the public eye is Anil Gupta. The 53 year-old professor at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), is a devoted supporter of grassroots innovations and the executive vice-chairperson of National Innovation Foundation, a government-funded yet autonomous scientific society that reaches out to innovators and acknowledges their achievements.
Gupta's office at IIM-A, one among rows of cubicles separated by wooden walls, looks as busy as its occupant. Books are strewn everywhere; Gupta picks up a pile to make room for himself. Amid the incessant ringing of the telephone, a fax malfunction and people dropping into his room for brief chats, Gupta animatedly talks about his pet project, which he initiated in 1988. Acting on the belief that the 'I' in India stands for Innovation, Gupta founded the Honey Bee Network, a scouting team of academics, students, scientists and farmers seeking out innovators from remote villages across the country.
Take the case of Mansukhbhai Patel from Nana Ubhada village, in Gujarat's Viramgam district. Patel, who studied up to Class X, invented a cotton-stripping machine in 1991. One of Gupta's scouts, Hirendra Rawal, discovered Patel's work in 1995 and reported it to Honey Bee, which helped develop and refine the cotton-stripper and introduce it commercially. Today, patented by a US-based company, the cotton-stripper fetches Patel Rs 2 crore annually. Patel was among 10 awardees of the 2004 National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) technology award for best innovation. From a village house, he moved to a bungalow outside Ahmedabad. His house is air-conditioned, and he drives his own car. Though the innovation was his, Patel shares the credit for his success with Gupta and his team.
To bolster Honey Bee Network, Gupta established Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) in 1993 and Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network (GIAN) in 1997. While SRISTI gives finishing touches to innovations, GIAN works towards facilitating ideas into products and sustainable enterprises.
By 1998, Gupta was pushing for a government-funded autonomous scientific society. Fortunately for him, Dr R A Mashelkar, secretary, Department for Scientific and Industrial Research under the Ministry of Science and Technology, shared his passion. In March 2000, the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), with a government endowment (a fund of which only the interest can be used) of Rs 20 crore, was set up by the Department of Science and Technology 'to document, value-add, protect intellectual property rights, and publicise contemporary unaided technological innovations, commercially and non-commercially'.
Mashelkar, who is also the chairperson of NIF, says, "With interest rates going down by the day, the interest on Rs 20 crore is not much any longer. But for every rupee spent, the output is phenomenal." Gupta's team has discovered and documented over 51,000 mechanical, technical and herbal inventions and practices from 454 districts out of 594 in the country. GIAN centres have also been set up in several states and efforts are on to try and get additional fund of Rs 20 crore from the government.
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