Written by Bibek Debroy | Indian Express | October 1, 2015
I doubt you have heard of Pengdhusi village in Odisha. Until recently, neither had I. Pengdhusi is in Kalahandi district in the tehsil/ block of Thuamul Rampur. In Census 2011, it had a population of only 568; 285 male and 283 female, distributed across 149 households. While Odisha's literacy rate is 72.87 per cent, Pengdhusi's is 48.13 percent; 69.26 per cent for males and 28.51 per cent for females. Out of that population of 568, 281 are SC and 284 are ST. Block and district headquarters are kilometres away. Pengdhusi is deprived and marginalised, still bypassed by development. Out of those 149 households, more than 110 are BPL. However, Pengdhusi is rich in bamboo. Ballpoint pens have proliferated.
Typically, these have a tube, with ballpoint, socket and store of ink, and all of this is encased in a shell. I recall there is a Mont Blanc ballpoint pen worth almost $7,50,000. But ballpoint pens with bamboo shells are cheap and can be produced by artisans in Pengdhusi. Produced there, they are now sold over an area that has an ever-increasing radius, extending to block and district headquarters. I know about Pengdhusi thanks to the SBI's "Youth for India" initiative, in existence since 2011. A fellow has one year to work towards being an agent for change in rural and deprived segments, in association with NGOs, instead of perennially complaining about lack of change. Some such fellows subsequently stay on in the development sector.
Pengdhusi bamboo ballpoint pens were the outcome of such an intervention. There was an ICDS centre (anganwadi) in Jeypore block (Koraput district of Odisha). There were problems with the supply of food (mid-day meals) to the anganwadi and malnourishment was high. Kitchen gardens solved the problem considerably. An easy cooker made of hay, bamboo and a jute bag is a bit like a hot-case. It is cost effective, economises on fuel and keeps rice hot for six hours. Weavers and self-help groups (SHGs) can make and sell these cookers, providing an alternative source of income to poor households.
There is a story from the Dang region of Gujarat, another area where there is plenty of bamboo. How about introducing mechanical tools (axes, splitters, etchers, sanders) made of bamboo? This worked in villages like Ambapara and Dagarpada. Not only are such tools relatively cheaper and locally made, by selling them, artisans can add to their income. Conventional stoves for cooking result in thick indoor smoke, with adverse health outcomes. Redesigned smokeless stoves with local materials (also in Dang) reduced firewood consumption and improved health. These stoves are easy to make and SHGs can sell them to add to household income. These SBI fellows can be between 21 and 32, though they tend to be towards the upper end of the range.
Whenever one feels depressed about what is happening, or not happening, in the country, thebetterindia.com is a good site to inject optimism. Better India isn't only about the young, though the young populate it to a high degree. In Ahmedabad's slums, instead of donating raincoats to slum children, someone teaches them to make raincoats with tarpaulin, buttons and rubber bands. In Mumbai, two young people have thought of a WiFi dustbin. The garbage can is connected to a router and has an LED display. When you use the dustbin to throw in your trash, an access code is generated and you can use the WiFi network. Instead of plastic cutlery, have you heard of edible cutlery made of a mix of jowar, rice and wheat flour? Did you know that human hair, sawdust and bird feathers can be used to clean oil spills from water? My point is not to harp on innovations.
Other than Better India, you will find plenty of those on the Honey Bee Network and Sristi (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) websites. My point is that several of those innovations and interventions emanate from the young. There's a slice of the young generation that does want to change India, for the better.
Does the ecosystem facilitate or hinder it? Many countries have a system of compulsory government service, not necessarily equated with conscription.
If you look at a list of such countries, there is no correlation with countries that have, or used to have, command and control systems, equated with compulsion. Instead, paragons of market friendliness and economic freedom have such compulsory service. Apart from anything else, such compulsion probably instils a sense of national pride and helps integrate the country. You might argue that the voluntary National Cadet Corps (NCC) and mandatory SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work) introduced in the school curriculum were meant to achieve this end. But neither achieves the purpose. They can't if they are part-time. When someone from Tamil Nadu spends a year in a rural village in Odisha and learns Odia, under the SBI initiative, can you imagine what it does to her perspective? On the other hand, if a student applies to an institution of higher education and says she has taken a gap year, eyebrows will still be raised. A gap year sounds a bit more acceptable than compulsory government service. Without getting into compulsion, can one not incentivise people to take gap years (by giving such experience weight for admissions)? (The NCC has incentives, but they don't amount to much.) As a metaphor, I haven't come across the expression "rat race" before the 1930s. There may be a moral in this.
The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal.
Ramesh Grover: It is good to know about SBI's role in encouraging innovations in our backyard. The advantage of banks playing such a role is that they have an efficient methodology and are systematic in perceiving, narrowing down, selecting, implementing, and monitoring such opportunities. It is for the media to focus on this initiative to play a pragmatic role in bringing such ideas to the notice of other public sector banks.
Indianwellwisher: Even if we win the rat race, at most we can be a rat. There is no reason to doubt the innovativeness of humans in any region, including the so called 'uneducated', If politicians and governments don't interfere, people will prosper unhindered. Often the 'educated' class is too constrained in its thinking because of its rigid formal education. Then we invent laternal thinking ...
G M: Our youths have immense potential of innovation. If some how we channelize their energy properly we can excell. Question is - Whether we have in us to bring out best from us as the foreigners do successfully with us.