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Last Updated: Friday, 16 January, 2004, 13:25 GMT
In search of India's inventors
By Vineeta Dwivedi
BBC reporter, in Chandigarh

It is an Enfield motorcycle with a difference. By removing the back wheel and replacing it with a spiked cylinder, it doubles as a tractor.

The bike/tractor, NIF
A bike becomes a tractor
It was devised and built by Mansukhbhai, of Gujarat, who could not afford to buy a tractor, and thought of this dual use for his diesel motorbike.

It is just one example of the wealth of small innovations that are flooding into the National Innovation Foundation, or NIF, in India.

Its aim is to collect good ideas at grassroots level and develop them.

There are innovators who innovate in the 'laboratories of life' and yet they never get recognised
Dr R A Mashelkar, CSIR
"It is time the world recognises the potential of the grassroots genius to solve problems of society," NIF's director, Dr Anil K Gupta, told BBC News Online.

"NIF is building a national register of grassroots innovation and traditional knowledge; it has set up a micro-venture innovation fund for individuals who have no bank account and who cannot produce any balance sheet and yet have innovations that warrant investment of risk capital."

From small ideas

The foundation was established three years ago with a single grant of 200 million rupees ($4m). One of its board members is Dr R A Mashelkar, director-general of the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

He says these small-scale innovations are as important as those that are developed in big laboratories.

De-husking machine, NIF
Agricultural machinery is a key focus
"There are innovators who innovate in the 'laboratories of life' and yet they never get recognised," he said.

"Their innovations are as good or even more important. As far as India is concerned, when we say someone is illiterate, we tend to discard them. We cannot really appreciate that they can be a genius."

In a country with 600,000 villages where electricity and water still remain big problems, people continuously find alternative ways of meeting their needs.

Like Sunda Ram Verma, from Data village, Sikar district of Rajasthan.

He devised a technique of keeping plants alive in the desert without watering them more than once a year. He conserves the water that normally is lost by capillary action and to unwanted weeds.

World of difference

"After a few days of the first rain of the monsoon, we till the land so that all the weeds that have grown by now are removed. Then the monsoon brings more rain and before it ends we till again.

"Tilling to eight or 10 inches down breaks the capillaries in the top layer of the soil. Then we plant the sapling with its roots about half a metre down.

Milking machine, NIF
A portable milking machine
"Water from the ground can only come up where there are intact capillaries - so it comes up past the plant's roots but doesn't rise to the surface. And the plant gets water for the year long."

Rajasthan is a part of India where water is scarce even for drinking. Other areas of the world share a similar situation. Sunda Ram Verma's ideas could be of use outside India.

There is a tool that could certainly make a difference around the tropics.

It is a coconut de-husking machine - powered by a foot pedal. The machine spins the nut around and a spike removes the husk. It was devised by a farmer in Kerala, and has greatly increased the efficiency of his entire village.

Intellectual property

One of the National Innovation Foundation's aims is to patent such ideas - so that if they are developed, the inventor gains, and no one else can come along and appropriate the idea.

The banana slicer, NIF
The banana slicer: In one minute it can chop 1,200 pieces
As a lecturer in intellectual property at the Indian Institute of Management, NIF's Anil Gupta, is ideally placed to guide the patenting process.

"We have filed about 60 patents in India for various innovators in their name and about six in the US.

"The first patent was granted to Mansukhbhai on 8 April 2003 in the US. We are trying to prove that with the right kind of cooperation globally, the forces of globalisation can indeed be harnessed for empowering the grassroots innovators."

Some of NIF's innovators, however, are not waiting for patents - they are already marketing their inventions.

Spawning good ideas

Balubhai Vasoya, from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, developed a stove that uses both kerosene and electricity.

A six-volt electric coil heats the kerosene, converting it into gas which burns with a blue flame. Balubhai says it saves 70% on fuel compared with conventional stoves running on LPG.

"One litre of kerosene lasts for eight hours; and in 20 hours, the stove uses one unit of electrical power. So running it for an hour costs one-and-a-half rupees in total. No smell, no smoke; its burns like LPG."

From machines that wash cows to cotton strippers; palm-leaf mat-making devices to tamarind harvesters - the innovations keep pouring in.

Sixteen-thousand people have sent in their ideas so far; and as word of the foundation's existence spreads, they are coming in faster and faster.

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