Does Innovation Have to be Mass Produced?

Grassroots Innovation – Minds on the Margin are not Marginal Minds is a compendium of rural innovations encountered by Anil Gupta during his travels over the last couple of decades.

Today, the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) are considered stepping stones to success and brilliant careers in the financial sector, be it here or in the US. Paying lip service to the almost-forgotten Gandhian concepts of sustainable consumption and village-centric solutions does not mean that one has to actually follow Gandhian economics in the age of globalised economies. Going against this trend is Anil Gupta, a professor at IIM-Ahmedabad. Instead of heading West, he has been travelling on foot to remote villages in India for over two decades, searching for simple innovative solutions to problems no one – and certainly not India’s elite scientific institutions – seem to care about.

Over the course of his travels, Gupta has created an impressive compendium of unsung grassroots innovation and founded the HoneyBee Network that connects innovators and innovations across India. The Honeybee Network was followed by the Society for Research and Initiatives for Technologies and Innovations, the Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network and the National Innovation Foundation, all to support the scaling up of these innovations to more marketable products through an infusion of technology and standards. Today, no less than the president hosts a national innovation festival – a testimony to the fact that Gupta’s concepts have found support at the highest official levels.

Anil K. Gupta Grassroots Innovation – Minds on the Margin are not Marginal Minds Random House, 2016

Anil K. Gupta
Grassroots Innovation – Minds on the Margin are not Marginal Minds
Random House, 2016

I have travelled with Gupta to a few remote areas of Gujarat to see some of the simple innovations that have sprung up in the most unlikely of places. Many of us who have been following Gupta’s painstaking efforts to find such unsung innovators admire his tenacity and principled commitment to the cause. We have also had cause for despair – despite committed support from some of the best and highest of quarters, many innovations could not be scaled up to a level that is acceptable in the manufacturing sector. So were Gupta and the innovations over-hyped? Or have we got it all wrong, fixated as we are on corporate marketing mantras?

Gupta’s book Grassroots Innovation – Minds on the Margin are Not Marginal Minds makes you rethink some of the assumptions about manufacturing to scale. It is not a compendium of magical innovations but rather a collection of personal, psychological and philosophical reflections and his angst at the societal indifference to the problems of the poor, institutional inertia to solve their problems and an aversion to taking risks to back little-known innovators and innovations.

There are delightful glimpses of his personal journey as a student to a rural bank official, to the portals of IIM – the student Gupta who stubbornly refused to learn rote answers from a guide book for his English exam to receive higher marks, preferring instead to write his own English sentences, even if with mistakes. His first realisation of the rich knowledge of some of the poorest farmers was when he was in Bangladesh, on the invitation of their government to restructure their farm research and the committed Gandhian who continues unfazed by conventional marketing mantras. Or the stories of his encounters with the famed Indian bureaucracy – he met six secretaries before the sixth recommended a seventh – E.A.S. Sarma who mercifully understood the importance of Gupta’s concepts.

Nor does he mince words when it comes to disagreeing with Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchal model of human needs, which states that one can afford to dabble in art or innovate creatively only after material needs are fulfilled. Nor does he hide his objections to the assumption of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) that ‘unskilled labourers’ need to be provided work. The skills of rural poor are not recognised and many artisans and others are ‘deskilled’ when they are asked to cut stones or build roads under NREGA, he argues

Gupta’s book raises many pertinent questions. “Frugal solutions are not always seductive for scientists and policy makers and extension workers,” he writes, “perhaps these are not reassuring ideas for many because of their inherent democratic nature and ease of use without expert help. Lack of institutional support thus comes in the way of diffusion of such low-cost, easy-to-use innovations amongst those who need these most but may not have discovered them themselves.”

He asks if we should we ignore the needs of communities whose own solutions may not be optimal because the scale is limited? But then why do we need to manufacture on a large scale something that is a niche-specific solution? Why should we deny the legitimacy of those solutions which have neatly addressed a local problem?

Anil Gupta. Credit: iimahd.ernet.in

Anil Gupta. Credit: iimahd.ernet.in

The long tail of innovations implies that while a few ideas may diffuse widely, a very large number of diffuse only in limited numbers and some not at all. Many small innovations remain localised to their embedded niches. Will the goal of social, ecological and cultural diversity – which are vital for sustainability – be served well only if we developed solutions which diffuse widely?

We are quick to spout marketing mantras, but why do policymakers and scientists refuse to observe the problems of women engaged in labour-intensive tasks of plucking tea buds with hands, or transplanting paddy, using the same method that has been used for thousands of years? Do simple solutions have no place in the scientific landscape? Is a solution acceptable only if it is complex in nature? Gupta asks, “Should the complexity of a solution be what it makes it worthy of attention from scientific minds or policy makers?”

This is not a grab-and-quick-read book. It makes readers pause and reflect whether they too have been guilty of the inertia and marketing assumptions about technologies that meet the needs of some rural areas.

Which brings us back to question – so why are the elite in India, the growing urban middle classes supposed to care? “With alienation comes anger, frustration,” points out Gupta. “Is there any greater threat to democracy than making a lot of communities around the world feel that their unmet needs are of no concern to those who matter?”

That point is all the more relevant now, given the growing divide between the haves and have-nots in India, and the tendency to sweep under the carpet any signs of poverty and rural distress which don’t sit well with the image of India as an ‘almost-there Superpower’. In this context, Gupta’s book is a timely reminder to India, of the how the other half of the country continues to find its path despite official apathy and neglect.

T.V. Padma is a Delhi-based science journalist with a special interest in development-related science policies and research.