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Sunday, 13 May, 2001, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
India's bank of ideas
IT exhibition
India is gaining a reputation for computer expertise
By Peter Day in Ahmedabad

Graduation Days are the same all over the world: proud parents snapping away, students self-conscious in gowns and hoods as they examine their diplomas while walking down from the platform - the first steps in the rest of their lives.

Convocation - as they call it at the Indian Institute of Management - takes place out of doors in an evening scented by the fragrance of the Neem tree, the ubiquitous and bountiful tree that lines the roads of so many Indian villages.


Some of the most ingenious people I have ever met...

Birds wheel overhead; as the light dies so does the full heat of the relentless sun, and faculty and newly qualified students - the cream of Indian managers - listen to the address from one of the best known non-resident Indian entrepreneurs, a computer network billionaire from the USA.

The Institute is housed on an impressive campus in Ahmedabad, the capital of the state of Gujarat, where thousands died in a devastating earthquake in January; everywhere you can see cracks in the walls opened up by the quake, and dislodged brickwork.

But the Indian Institute of Management is not merely for potential Internet billionaires, and the students in their new blue gowns are not the reason for my journey.

I go to Ahmedabad to have lunch with a tableful of some of the most ingenious people I have ever met - inventors and gadgeteers from the fields and villages of rural India where 700 million of its one billion people still live. Over rice and dhal and vegetables eaten with the hand, they talk excitedly about their inventions and ideas.

Innovations

Thakershibhai is a farmer who had only a primary school education. A small man, his body tenses as he tells the story of how after one of the region's frequent droughts, his son spotted a rogue variety of groundnut flourishing while other breeds failed.

Thakershibhai nursed the seed - and bred a new variety of tastier, hardier nut which he now sells to his fellow farmers, who have honoured him by naming it Thakershi.


This is pure joy, a simple invention of genius

From another village in Gujarat has come Amrutbhai Agrewat, a stocky serial inventor who has taken the traditional bullock cart and rebuilt it with a tilting device so that composting need no longer be done by hand - arduous work traditionally reserved for women.

Another boon for village women is the simple device Mr Agrewat devised for the well. By adding a locking mechanism to the rope and pulley mechanism used for centuries, women can rest their load while hauling up the bucket, making the job much less strenuous than it has ever been before.

Girl sits in rubble
Gujarat was devastated by a series of earthquakes
A bespectacled retired schoolteacher Khimjibhai Kanadia has come up with a stream of inventions in recent years.

Simplest of all is the device for filling plastic bags with soil in which to plant seedlings.

Mr Kanadia took a plastic drainpipe seven or eight inches long, and cut it off at an angle at the bottom. Placed in the plastic bag, the women on piecework can fill one sack in one scoop, increasing their productivity - and their pay - fourfold. This is pure joy, a simple invention of genius.

And there are hundreds, if not thousands more of them, all gathered together under the auspices of an organisation called the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Innovation; "Sristi" for short, the Sanskrit for "creation".

Ideas database

Sristi is the brainchild of the man who brought together all these village inventors to meet me.

Anil Gupta is a professor from the Institute of Management with an engaging manner and a bushy beard who 10 years ago was troubled by the fact that the people he wrote about in his published papers could not read them because they were only in English.

To communicate the excellence of the ideas he was encountering in village India, he started something called the Honey Bee Network, based around a magazine describing these sort of innovations in eight different languages.

The organisation now has 10,000 ideas on a computer database - local lore and the inventions of dozens of village boffins available to inquirers, and to companies who want to licence the ideas and pay for them.

"Why should intellectual property merely benefit big corporations?" asks Professor Gupta, as he encourages businesses to pay the equivalent of hundreds of pounds to make things such as the tilting bullock cart.

There is a new venture capital fund to back good ideas. The Sristi organisation also has a laboratory to test thousands of village remedies culled from plants such as the fragrant neam tree. Three phials hold herbal extracts used by villagers to treat foot-and-mouth disease.

"We don't slaughter our animals, we treat them," observes the professor, referring to the mass culling of cattle in the UK.

Unlike the rest of the Indian Institute of Management, the Honey Bee Network will create few billionaires. But its flood of ideas (and the money they generate) have the potential to help millions of people all over the globe who remain little touched by what we call the modern world.

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See also:

10 May 01 | South Asia
India's language divide
06 Jan 01 | South Asia
Britain seeks IT expertise in India
17 Apr 01 | Business
Asian exodus from Silicon Valley?
16 Jun 00 | South Asia
India's richest ride on IT wave
08 Sep 00 | South Asia
Hyderabad's image takes a knock
15 Apr 00 | South Asia
India at risk of tech worker shortage
01 Mar 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
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