Grassroots innovation: India's real upsurge in opportunities
Innovative, profitable endeavours not merely the contribution of an urban elite, but also rural communities and individuals
Stories of innovation in India tend to demonstrate a city-centrism of sorts. Innovation is linked to technological advancements in select 'developed' pockets and those are the most fervently repeated and reported stories in the mainstream. When there are reports on innovation at the grassroots level, the hegemony of urban forces continues as the researchers and people who weave the narrative continue to have urban origins and a detached, ill-grounded perspective on the actual conditions in the rural context.
A top-down model does not do justice to a domain which can significantly uplift emerging economies with problems around the scarcity and management of resources. Consequently, there needs to be more attention diverted to grassroots innovators and they should be integrated into any mainstream imagination of the economy.
As a group of researchers including Sonal H Singh and Bhaskar Bhowmick write in the November 2019 issue of the Routledge journal Innovation, there is a scarcity of literature on grassroots innovation and a lack of empirical studies which explore the conceptual boundaries of grassroots innovation. They note that grassroots innovators who are equipped with traditional knowledge and skills create local, bottom-up solutions for sustainable livelihood and the domain has potential for entrepreneurial opportunities.
This is a pertinent observation, as grassroots innovations are often marked by exceptional organisational acumen, deft deployment of available resources and an immediacy towards the local context. Inventions and developments at the grassroots level can radically boost an economy like India with its consistent race towards managing resources to provide for a gigantic population.
A number of factors are crucial in this regard. The first change we require is an alteration in approach towards grassroots innovation. Urban investigators, critics and mediapersons must not operate with biases against rural and local communities and position them as people with creative and informed agencies who contribute importantly towards national growth and welfare. Similarly, any conception of grassroots innovation must not be superficial and focus merely on getting details but should be an attempt to understand and highlight the grassroots story.
As the urban sphere broadens its comprehension of the rural, better correspondences and understandings between the two can be forged.
The National Innovation Foundation, in its report on grassroots technical innovations listed new techniques and startups devised and created by rural innovators.
These included a hand-operated water lifting device, groundnut digger, paddy thresher, tree climber, multipurpose processing machine, modified boiler and biomass gasification system.
All of these innovations were conceptualised, designed and manufactured at the most immediate, local levels and happen to be incredibly sophisticated in their contribution to the rural economy.
Such innovations did not just cut down costs and provide eco-friendly and energy conserving alternatives but also led to massive turnovers. For instance, the modified boiler, which recycles used steam, leading to lesser fuel and water consumption had a turnover of Rs 1 crore. Innovative and profitable endeavours, thus, are not merely the contribution of an urban elite, but also rural communities and individuals.
There is also an enormous ethical imperative in focussing on grassroots innovation, namely, staying true to the will and the aspirations of the people. If development has to be genuine and inclusive, it must not privilege knowledge from certain origins over others. The sphere of advancements and innovations needs to be democratised and we need stories from the silenced rural milieus to be heard for the same.
For this, we must encourage a dialogue with rural innovators and abandon the patronizing project of reporting from the grassroots and allow agents at the grassroots level to represent themselves and ask for their due.
This will also enable a much-needed awareness in dealing with problems which plague rural India alongside a sensitisation towards the concerns of the local populace in different regions. Poverty and unemployment can be tackled head-on if we allow people to vocalise their own local narratives instead of weaving stories around them from the detachment of the urban space.
For example, if a certain industrial project is causing harm to people in a village and affecting their livelihoods, a network that is built on communication between rural and urban areas will reveal the situation as it is, and enable swift resolution of the same.
Similarly, if a grassroots innovation gets the right degree of coverage and a worthy platform, it can transcend its origins and find takers in urban and international sectors. For example, as National Innovation Foundation reports, the tree climber referred to earlier, created by Venkat DN from Coimbatore was exported to countries like Australia, Mauritius, Phillippines, USA and France.
On the whole, the radical transformative potential of grassroots innovation is undeniable. It provides an unparalleled opportunity for sustainable and inclusive development that does not marginalize local communities and can provide a new lease of life to the Indian economy, apart from widening the avenues for greater employment and acknowledgment of India's diverse traditional practices and ideas.
Grassroots innovation represents the possibility of radical strides for India and promises boundless rewards if dealt with correctly. So, let us decide to identify, promote and support one grassroots innovator each with all our means and energies to enable India to accomplish its next upsurge moment.
(The author is founder, Upsurge Global and Senior Advisor, Telangana State Innovation Cell)