July 05, 2020
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Faradays In The Backyard

A band of unsung, homespun scientists sets mind and technology to devise simple, everyday innovations

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Faradays In The Backyard
Faradays In The Backyard
Sunda Ram Verma, 50, may not hold a doctorate in agriculture but his ingenuity on the farm would make any scientist envious. This ordinary farmer from Sikar, Rajasthan, has evolved a variety of chilli that gives handsome yields even in drought conditions. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research did award him the first Jagjivan Ram Kisan Puraskar, but he would have been happier had his greening experiments been endorsed by the boffins in Krishi Bhavan.

He has grown over 15,000 trees—ranging from indigenous varieties like ber, neem, amla, adoo and sisam to foreign ones like the Australian babool and even the water-guzzling eucalyptus—in Sikar’s parched soils by tapping soil moisture from a depth of one foot. His unique method, developed over 15 years of trial-and-error dryland farming, draws heavily on his uncle’s meticulously-kept diary of 35 weather parameters in relation to farming practices, recorded over 30 years. Sunda Ram has a simple observation: plants that "survive the stress of the first fortnight can survive any severe stress". Indeed, his trees survived the 1986-88 droughts, one of the worst of the century.

If Verma squeezes water from the desiccated earth, 64-year-old Chewang Norphel of Ladakh thaws water from frozen glaciers of his own making. They may not have discovered new laws like Faraday or made path-breaking inventions like Edison but, like the greatest of their ilk, they do possess an inventiveness unshackled by academic straitjacket. Their unschooled brilliance has spawned inventive yet simple solutions to life’s ordinary problems which our top-notch scientists either find infra dig or for which they waste precious public funds on fancy innovations.

There are many local talents tucked away in India’s rural nooks and crannies, obscure, unsupported and unsung. Consider, for instance, Bhaskar Save of Gujarat whose experiments with organic farming contradict the virtues of pesticide and fertiliser-driven farming. On his farm, perched near village Dehri at the southernmost coastal tip of Gujarat, nature takes its own course with no outside interventions. The result: record-breaking profits close to 400 per cent. Farm yields dropped dismally to almost 50 per cent in the first year of his experiments. But despite the low yields, Save’s income increased as he spent nothing on fertilisers and pesticides. Praised by the doyen of organic farming, Masanobu Fukuoka, for being one of the best in the world, Bhaskarbhai’s farm attracts farmers from far and wide.

For farmers who may not be as radical as Bhaskarbhai, 37-year-old Bhanjibhai Mathukia of Kalavad village in Gujarat’s Junagadh district has developed a 10-hp, three-wheel tractor that works better than their market counterparts. And Mangal Singh, who developed the incredible fuel-less turbine that lifts water from small rivulets without creating a head. But for a fully-functional turbine in his native village of Bhaloni-Lodh, near Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh, Mangal has still to see his promising technology serve the poor farmers across the country. This despite studies conducted by the Bhopal-based Central Institute for Agricultural Engineering (CIAE) and the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) that prove that the Mangal turbine is a most apt intervention for replacing the inefficient fuel-guzzling diesel pumps in rural India.

The tragedy is that between official apathy and scientific ridicule, these local innovators never get the recognition due to them. And the irony is that their innovations are invariably passed over in favour of public-funded research which is often quixotic or too removed from local realities. Two witnesses: handpumps installed at the expense of traditional water-harvesting structures and later abandoned, and effluent treatment plants worth millions of dollars to clean up, in vain, the Ganga. Curiously enough, rainwater harvesting has now become a favourite hobbyhorse of the government.

But there is hope for our homebred Edisons yet. Anil K. Gupta, a professor at iim Ahmedabad, is collecting informal knowledge ignored and bypassed by the scientific orthodoxy. Twelve years ago, he started a quarterly newsletter called the Honey Bee. "The idea was to document innovations produced by farmers, artisans and farmhands so that we could tell society that technological ingenuity is not the preserve of modern scientists," says Gupta.

The Honey Bee network has documented as many as 9,000 innovations from different parts of the country. One of its kind in the world, it now reaches about 75 countries and is supported by the Society for Research and Initiatives in Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI), which was set up by Gupta and his colleagues in 1993.

Gupta laments the apathy of scientists towards local inventors. "A few years ago, I collected about 60 innovations in cotton farming which, among other things, considerably reduced the excessive use of pesticides. I wrote to the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka but regrettably they failed to show any sort of interest at all," he says.

Gupta believes local knowledge is eroding very rapidly, or is stealthily being stolen by business interests. "To buck this trend, we need to stress on three Is—incentives, institutions and incubations," says he. Thanks to his campaign, Gupta has managed to get two of the biggest custodians of Indian science and business—the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)—to sponsor two programmes to reward local innovations. "It may look like tokenism to some, but it’s a good harbinger nonetheless," he says.

Gupta represents a growing band of heretics who are now challenging the arrogant and monolithic view of the scientific community. Whether it is problems of healthcare, food security, environment, education or disaster management, these rebels are not only offering insightful critiques of state policies but suggesting workable alternatives as well.

Take, for instance, Abhay and Rani Bang, public health scientists from the Johns Hopkins University. When they chose to work among the tribals of Gadchiroli in the early ’80s, this Maharashtra backwater was one of the most backward districts of the country. No pucca roads, no industry, few schools and hardly any healthcare to speak of. At the time, the district was menaced by pneumonia and rampant infant deaths. The Bangs have worked a dramatic turnaround with their innovative interventions—deaths from pneumonia are down by 75 per cent, while infant mortality has more than halved.

Around 80 village health workers and 120 traditional midwives have been trained to diagnose and treat major killers such as infant pneumonia. Even illiterate village midwives can now count the respiratory pulse of a child and diagnose pneumonia using a "breath counter" devised by the Bangs. Their home-based infant care model has attracted global attention. The couple was awarded the Ashoka fellowship for innovation in 1984.

The success of the Bangs’ newborn care model has inspired the Maharashtra government to emulate it in other parts of the state. The Bangs operate independently of the government and at the same time through and with it at all levels. They haven’t created a parallel private system; instead, they help find practical ways with the Gadchiroli government workers of showing how the country’s only mass-scale delivery system might do far better in reaching those it should.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra, 55, believes the same philosophy holds for disaster management. Over the last 16 years, Mishra, an IIT Kharagpur alumnus, has mounted an intellectual assault on the technology-heavy flood control policy. His flood education programmes are designed to help flood victims recapture their cultural and political ownership over rivers. Based on pre-embankment historical records as well as traditional knowledge, Mishra provides communities with sophisticated technical and social engineering skills to deal with floods.

Since 1992, he has been working in the Ganga river basin in Bihar, India’s most flood-prone region, where he has created an umbrella network, the Barh Mukti Andolan (BMA), of over 700 rural groups of "flood historians". He has moved on to the Brahmaputra basin and plans to develop a national platform for grassroots flood campaigners, who will maintain histories of their river basins and design region-specific responses to official flood control methods in their states. "Unless an honest debate takes place over the flood issue, millions of people will keep on suffering without anybody being accountable for the miseries inflicted on them," he says lamentingly.

And just as big dams cannot contain floods, nor should they be seen as a cornucopia of energy minus their destructive impact on ecology and the displaced. Fortunately, local alternatives do exist. Till recently, the inhabitants of Baharbari, a small hamlet in Bihar’s Araria district bordering West Bengal, had no choice but to irrigate their fields with diesel-run pumps and watch Doordarshan on battery-run TV sets. The nearest diesel-pump dealer is about 40 km away, the closest battery-recharging shop about 16 km and, worse still, the villagers have to trudge a bumpy eight km before hitting a pucca road. Now they have an alternative in a bio-gas plant set up by Dr Hari Sharan, a native of the district and the first research director of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, in collaboration with the Delhi-based NGO Development Alternatives (DA). Installed last year, the 50 KW plant burns rice husks procured from the farmers’ paddy harvest. Interestingly, farmers do not buy power but pay for services, such as running their water pumps, recharging their batteries and boiling rice.

Baharbari may have an assured supply of power but what it now needs is a man like S.N. Gananath to provide quality education to its children. Gananath is a maths wizard. Not of the Ramanujan kind but one who has devised magic wands to drive away demons that strike the fear of maths in young minds. Trained as a geophysicist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Gananath has developed teaching aids and a hands-on method that allows children not just to memorise mathematics but to understand it and use it as a tool for life.

As he puts it, "We believe that maths is a life skill, something like language. That is why we took maths as a focus area." Awarded the Ashoka fellowship for innovation in 1999, Gananath has designed more than 100 maths models, puzzles, games and other low-cost, easily-reproduced maths aids.

While these mavericks are doing laudable work, this doesn’t imply there are no black sheep on the other side of the ideological fence. Take Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras. His work does not have the appeal of someone developing the equivalent of a Pentium-5 chip but he is a pioneer in rural telephony and connectivity. His goal: modem-free internet connectivity in every village. Thanks to his innovations in the Wireless in Local Loop (WiLL) technology, phone-line costs have halved in recent years. "Affordability is the key. Otherwise technology can be meaningless. And we can’t expect the US companies to set up shop here and think of making phone access cheaper and wider. It’s our job to do that," he says.

Likewise, a group of computer scientists at the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) in Bangalore have developed a computer—aptly called Simputer—for India’s rural masses. Unlike conventional machines, the Simputer is meant to be used primarily by those who cannot read or write. A software developed at IISC converts text in downloaded pages into spoken words in three Indian languages—Hindi, Kannada and Tamil. "The aim was to promote the Simputer not as an end-product but as an evolving platform for social change," says Swami Manohar, an IISC scientist who worked on the project.

It is important that our villages be able to talk to the rest of the world. But equally important is to make the scientific community listen to and support thousands of enterprising individuals with innovative ideas. It’s a telling comment on our scientists’ credulity as well as arrogance that they should entertain a fraud like Ramar Pillar of herbal petrol fame and dismiss people like Mishra or Verma. As Gupta puts it: "There is no dearth of good ideas in the so-called Third World. But when we try to blur the difference between knowledge and wisdom, between people’s science and formal science, disasters follow."

Hope individuals like Gupta could make the scientists and policymakers see some sense in the heresies of non-conformists like Sunda Ram, Mishras and the Bangs.
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