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Science from the heart

No-cost solutions Our son, Adit, is not able to stand or walk. He is not able to see very well. He is able to speak — but only word by ...

No-cost solutions

Our son, Adit, is not able to stand or walk. He is not able to see very well. He is able to speak — but only word by familiar word, often just syllable by syllable. He is not able to use his right arm. He is able to use his left hand and arm quite well — but he is not able to use them for delicate tasks like holding a pencil or eating.

To eat, he can hold the spoon in his left hand, but he is liable to ‘‘over-shoot’’, taking the spoon too far beyond his mouth. One solution is to have someone feed him. The other is to give him a spoon that has been specially bent — so that when he takes it the distance he normally does, it goes into his mouth. But when he tries to scoop some food with it — say, rice — he is liable to shovel the rice off the plate. Solution? Serve the rice to him in a thali. The spoon will keep pushing the rice till the spoon comes to a halt at the wall of the thali. The force of Adit’s hand as the spoon pushes against the wall of the thali, however, is liable to push the thali off the table. Solution? Make a cavity in the table, place the thali in it.

To move a wheelchair forward or back, you have to move both wheels simultaneously. But our Adit can use only his left arm and hand. So he can pull or push only the left wheel of his wheelchair. The result? The wheelchair will just keep going round and round. Solution? Have an extra rim on the left wheel. Through the axel, connect it to the right wheel. When Adit grasps only one rim, the wheelchair turns. When he grasps both, it moves forward or back.

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But it is no good for Adit to be in a wheelchair all day long. His legs are thin and feeble in any case. They would atrophy if he did not have at least some exercise, if they were not made to bear weight at least for some duration during the day. At the Centre for Special Education, the world-class school in Delhi of the Spastics Society of Northern India — the Society is now known as AADI, Action for Ability Development and Inclusion — they devised a standing-frame. It is a sort of box with a table in front. Adit’s legs are tied into gaiters. He is lifted in from the rear of the frame. And the rear wall is slid into position. He stands, listens to tapes of his favourite songs, newspapers are read to him for an hour. By a simple device the legs of a child who cannot stand receive good exercise.

Adit has difficulty holding a pencil. At the school the teachers inserted the pencil in a clay sort of material, had him hold it till it took the shape of his grasp. The material was left to solidify. From then on, the pencil was easy for him to hold. Children like him can’t grasp pieces of ‘‘normal’’ jigsaw puzzles. The teachers put knobs on each piece.

Some of the children can paint. Their paintings take one’s breath away: the lines are so novel and bold, the colours so unexpected and vivid. In the early years the Society requested some of the country’s leading artists to permit greeting cards to be made from their paintings. Cards made from the paintings of the children outsold those from paintings of the artists by such a margin that the Society did not have to bother the latter for permission to use their paintings.


But some of the children cannot paint. So, in the way they had put knobs and thereby enabled children to do jigsaw puzzles, the teachers taught children to hold blocks — of the kind that are used to print our textiles; to press them on an ink-pad like pad; and to then press the blocks onto a sheet of paper. But the children would have difficulty in bringing their hand down in such a way that the figures would be well aligned. Solution? The teachers made a grid with ordinary string. The child could thus bring his hand down in the next space. But when the sheet was done, the child would have difficulty in moving it away, picking up the next one and placing it straight so as to begin printing again. Solution? A teacher put the paper on a roller attached to the side of the table. When the child was done with one ‘‘length’’, he would move the roller and the next length would be in front of him.

Many handicapped persons, as well as some of us normal fellows as we age, find it increasingly difficult to take buttons through the slits in our shirts. Solution? Use Velcro instead of buttons. Adit is not able to sit on his own. He cannot therefore use a normal toilet. Solution? A wheelchair with a cavity that slides over the normal pot. But parents in villages are unable to acquire chairs of this sort. Solution? One of the parents devised it. Everyone in the village knows how to make a chulha. The parent used that design and technique to make a potty chair, and place a large leaf or used newspaper under it so that the faeces could be easily removed. There are scores of other devices that teachers of the Centre have made — devices that require next to no outlay but which change lives.

An ovation

The other day we had IT ministers and officials from 31 Asian countries in Hyderabad for a summit on Information Technology. The high point — one that moved the ministers to the depths of their hearts — was a demonstration by four children. They were from the Government School for Blind Girls in Hyderabad. WEBEL has redesigned the standard keyboard so that little Salma with her lovely, tiny hands typed away using just nine keys. At the touch of a key, the typed text was printed in ordinary type — every normal person could read it. At the touch of another key, it was printed in Braille — the blind could read that. But Braille books are very bulky. So a reading device has been developed that scans a page a line at a time. The text is automatically transformed into Braille. Little pins rise and fall through a slit in the device to form the line that has been scanned. The child would move her finger over that slit, read the line, press a button and the scanner would move to the next line.


Newspapers are now available on the Internet. C-DAC has developed software by which, with just a click or two, the child can go to her favourite newspaper there, and the computer reads it out to her. And it reads out the text not word by halting, disjointed word. It reads the text as continuous sentences — with appropriate pauses for commas, full-stops etc. The ministers gave the children, and the staff of WEBEL and C-DAC an ovation.

‘‘In what way can I help you?’’ I asked the principal of the school. His spontaneous response had nothing to do with himself. ‘‘Sir, I look after 300 blind girls,’’ he said. ‘‘But we are in quarters. What we need is a new building.’’ Mr Chandrababu Naidu promised the new building there and then, so powerful had been the effect that the children had made on everyone.


But the building can be the ordinary kind — one that you and I would find appropriate. Or it can be of the kind that was designed by my friend, the architect and writer, Gautam Bhatia. He was tasked to design the building for a school for blind children. The school was in three blocks with courtyards in each block. How could one enable a child to know the block in which he was at any moment? How could one guide him through the corridor from one block to the other? Gautam first used the railing along the walls: in one block he made it triangular; in the next he made it square; and in the third, circular. The child would just have to touch the railing, and he would know where he was. Next, he made the floor in each part of the corridor different. The child would just have to tap it with his stick, and he would know where he was. And in the three courtyards, Gautam put flowers and shrubs of different fragrances.

That sort of thoughtfulness can mark every structure we build. Members of the Rajya Sabha are given Rs 12 crores for financing development projects. I gave the entire amount to the IIT at Kanpur to enable them to set up a new school for bio-engineering and life-sciences. A world-class institution has been set up. Doctoral and Masters’ programmes commenced two-three years ago. The undergraduate programme begins this July. The school is housed in a world-class building that has a built-up area of 64,000 square feet. I had wanted that visiting the building itself should be an education. Therefore, I had requested the architects, the late Mr Kanvinde and his associates, to build in features that had struck me in the building of TERI, The Energy Research Institute, outside Delhi.

TERI taught us that 4 metres below the surface of the earth, the temperature is always around 24 degrees. Therefore, a tunnel has been built at that depth, and fans have been installed to pump air from the tunnel into the building. As a result, when in winter the temperature outside is 4 degrees, the temperature even in areas that are not air-conditioned — like the foyer and corridors — is a comfortable 24 degrees. In the summer, when the temperature outside is a scorching 45 degrees, the temperature inside is a cool 24 degrees. Just a tunnel and two fans. On the roof, the architects have put white tiles — from the ones that broke during construction or that could be purchased as malba. This simple device reflects back into the sky 85 per cent of the scorching sunlight. On the south side, they have planted deciduous trees — mulberry, champa — that will be full of leaves in summer to shield the building from sunlight, but will shed them in winter to let in sunlight. Solar panels have been installed, cavities have been built into the walls, and the roof has been filled with insulation material — and you don’t need expensive material for that, just hollow, inverted earthen pots will do. You could have a white removable cover that is stretched across the roof during the day, and rolled aside during the night.


A dozen innovative features of this kind have together ensured that, while in the normal course a building of this size would have required 225 tonnes of air-conditioning load, the new bio-engineering building requires only 140 tonnes — a saving of scarce power of nearly 30 per cent. In perpetuity. In a freezing place like Leh, the opposite is done. TERI and others have built structures with what are called Trombe walls — named after Felix Trombe, a French designer. On the southern side, first there is glazing; next a gap for air; then a thick masonry wall — painted black. There are vents at the top of the wall and the bottom. The air that is heated between the glazed surface and the wall rises and goes through the gap at the top into the rooms; the cool air from the rooms comes in from the gap at the bottom and gets heated in the space between the glazing and the black wall. Citing relevant literature, a TERI publication reports, ‘‘In buildings with thermal storage walls, indoor temperature can be maintained at about 15 degrees centigrade when the outside temperature is as low as minus 11 degrees centigrade…’’ (TERI, Energy-efficient buildings in India, Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources, New Delhi, 2001. Edited by Mili Majumdar, the publication is full of luminous ideas.)

As water also stores heat, you can stack drums of water in the gap, paint them black and obtain the same effect. The walls and roof in the biosciences building at IIT, Kanpur have been designed to let in a lot of outdoor light — wide, large windows; an atrium that lets in light for the lush greenery in it. Together with the care that has been devoted to choosing lighting fixtures, these features ensure that the draft on electricity has been minimized. As the IIT is a high-tech place, sensors turn off the lights as sunlight lights up the room to given specifications — there are different sensors for different rows of lights; the ones near the windows get switched off first. The sensors turn off the remaining lights when all occupants have left the room. You can accomplish the same result by ensuring that the last person who leaves a room invariably turns off he lights. There is another Thai idea that I like even better. At a fixed time, say 8.30 pm, all TV channels play a particular tune. That is a signal to every viewer to look around his house, and turn off lights that are on unnecessarily. What an elegant solution, and everyone gets to participate in alleviating a national problem.


Laurie Baker’s buildings are full of such gems. I still remember a simple illustration that I saw in a report he did for the Government of Kerala decades ago. How should one reduce the temperature in a hut? Do not use whitewash inside the hut. Instead, use it outside, specifically on the thatched roof. Let the longer part of the hut be perpendicular to the direction of the sea-breeze. At the bottom of that side, do not have a solid wall, just trellis. Have trellis on the opposite wall too — but at the top. The sea-breeze will enter the hut via the former. Hot air will exit through the latter. Contrast this simple idea with the boxes that we make these days — even the old roshandan has been walled off, no wonder the rooms in so many government quarters are ovens.

(The author is Union minister for Disinvestment, Communications and Information Technology)

To be continued

First published on: 01-03-2004 at 00:00 IST
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