Wednesday, Feb 08, 2023

Unknown creators of human civilisation

Sparklers everywhere, if only we would look There is a good test, I often feel — a country should be known by the cleanliness of its pu...

Sparklers everywhere, if only we would look

There is a good test, I often feel — a country should be known by the cleanliness of its public toilets. But I have never been able to figure out what we can do about the condition of these in our cities. And therefore I was struck by what the late Mr S L Kirloskar once told me. We were at a friend’s house for lunch. He was dressed as always — elegantly, with his bow tie. ‘‘You Punjabis are so hard-working,’’ he said. ‘‘But why is it that you have not yet produced a really large industrial house?’’ I offered one conjecture after another, only to have them shown up.

The conversation drifted. ‘‘What is the most profitable investment I have made?’’ he asked. He explained. He had gone to drop a grandson to school. He had to use the toilet. The bathroom was as they usually are — dirty and reeking. He instituted an award. Unknown, unannounced, persons would visit schools in the Pune area over the year. The principal of the school that had the cleanest toilets would get an award of Rs 25,000. The award made such a difference. His family continues it to this day.

Pune also has one of the best examples of that sort of cleaning up that I have come across, though on an even larger scale. There was a ganda nallah behind Acharya Rajneesh’s ashram at the Koregaon colony. Several streams of stinking, polluted, black muck poured into it. The stench was unbearable. After Acharya Rajneesh passed away, his followers — after the usual tussle — got permission to convert that nallah into a public park, a Japanese garden. They planted weeds and roots of various kinds. These and a few pumps today work a miracle on the water. At the point where the garden begins, the water is as terrible as it was. A hundred yards downstream, it is transparent, fish swim in it. The whole stretch — a kilometer and more — is today one of the best public gardens in India. Roots and weeds can be used in this way to recycle water — from kitchens etc. — to be used again — for gardens, for toilets.

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Eighty per cent of ailments in countries like ours are said to be gastrointestinal. And 80 per cent of these are said to spring from contaminated water. A basin to hold water, painted black at the bottom. A glass plate attached to it at a gentle angle — at 25-30 degrees; the two sealed together; a tube to collect the water; a basin to receive it. The water boils in the ‘‘solar boiler’’; it condenses on the glass plate; it drains into the pipe; the pipe conveys it into a vessel. The water is free of most of the impurities.

Water and health

On the Internet you will find half a dozen improvements on this simple device. Look up ‘‘AquaCone’’. It is a transparent plasticky-cone attached to an ‘‘inflatable-insulating floor’’. The cone terminates in a water collection pocket. ‘‘The inflatable floor has an evaporative wick attached to its top surface,’’ reports the website. The device can be put on any body of water. ‘‘Drops of water adhere to the wick’s fine fibers creating a large surface area for evaporation,’’ we learn. ‘‘This causes the air inside the cone to become saturated with water vapour. Moist, heated air travels upward until it contacts the surface of the cone. Pure, uncontaminated water droplets roll down into a collection pocket around the rim of the AquaCone…’’ (As an example look up, educational/ education alright.html from which this illustration is taken.) The water that comes out of the factory is typically hot. But many an industrial process requires cool water. Chilling plants are one answer. But Dr Homi Bhabha directed that at the atomic power plant they make a fountain of the water as it comes out of the plant — the air will cool the droplets. Even if you have to cool it further and have therefore to have the chilling plant in any case, as you would be sending cooled-down water from the fountain into it, you will be saving a great deal on energy.


Remember how the bullock cart used to be till just a few years ago? The excruciatingly heavy wooden wheels; the thick, heavy wooden yoke that lay atop the poor animal’s neck and shoulders. The bullock — straining; his neck and shoulders, bruised, often bleeding. I still remember the evangelical zeal with which Dr N.S. Ramaswamy, then Director, IIM, Bangalore, set about to improve the design. He replaced the wooden wheels with used rubber tyres; he built ball bearings into the wheels; he redesigned the yoke to cushion the contact with the animal’s neck and shoulders.


You would have seen the rickshaw puller sweat and strain in the noonday sun. Ever so often, he has to apply brakes. All the labour that the poor man has put in up to that point to build up momentum is lost. IIT, Kanpur has devised a bank of coiled springs and wheels that are fitted into the rickshaw. These are stretched as the brakes are applied. A ratchet is activated at the end of the braking operation, the professors explain, and it ensures that the energy remains stored in the springs as long as the brakes are applied. As the brakes are released, the springs unwind gradually and the stored energy flows back into the driving wheel through a clutch. The rickshaw starts moving with little or no effort by the driver. The professors calculate that sixty per cent of the kinetic energy is retrieved because of the innovation.

When I request him for examples of such sparkling ideas, Dr R A Mashelkar sends two volumes published by the National Innovation Foundation, India Innovates. These contain scores and scores of examples — that arrest, amuse, inspire. Remya Jose is a student of the 12th class in Palakkad, Kerala. She has to spend two hours each way and change three buses going to and returning from school. Her mother fell sick. Her father had been suffering from cancer. In addition to all that she already had to do, she now had to wash the clothes of her sisters. She designed a washing-cum-exercising machine. It is a box with a rotating strainer drum and two pedals. The drum rotates as you exercise by moving the pedals just the way you would on a bicycle. The cost? A mere Rs 1,500!

Millions of women draw water from wells. The bucket is tied to a rope that, in turn, goes over a pulley into the well. When they pause for breath, when their grip loosens for a moment, the bucket falls back into the well, along with all their labour. At times the backlash of the hurtling rope causes injury. Amrutbhai Agrawat of Gujarat put a lever-based stopper on the pulley. It lifts as the rope is pulled, but it presses against the rope and holds the latter in place when the rope is released. The device is detachable. The 3 models in which it can be obtained cost all of Rs 150, Rs 250 and Rs 450 respectively!


You would have seen visuals of farmers using sprayers. The sprayer is carried as a knapsack on the back. With one hand the farmer pumps air into the pump, with the other he sprays. Santokh Singh Kharve from West Bengal, and Parabat Vaghani and Arvindbhai from Gujarat working independently have developed a new design. They have devised a foot pedal. The sandals are connected to the sprayer through tubes. The device pumps air into the sprayer’s tank as you walk. Both your hands are now free to spray — efficiency is thus doubled, and the energy consumption is slashed.

Several persons, the National Innovation Foundation reports, have developed cycle-based pumps to lift water — in minor irrigation works, in cities to upper floors. Kanak Das from Assam has developed a variant of the IIT device for improving the standard rickshaw. Because of the uneven surface, the bumps and depressions in our roads, the cycle slows down. Das has attached a battery of six springs beneath the pedals. It converts the vertical energy generated by the bumps into horizontal energy to propel the rear wheel. Thus, every time the rider jumps in his seat because of the bumps in the road, the cycle runs faster!

In drought prone areas, the first casualty when rains fail are the animals. There just isn’t enough water and fodder to keep them alive. Apart from the immense suffering this causes, agricultural operations too suffer — as the farmers depend on animals for draught power. Mansukhbhai Jagani of Saurashtra has devised a replacement for the bullocks. He converted his Enfield motorcycle into a diesel driven one. Next, he replaced the rear wheel by an attachment that has tools for ploughing, sowing, inter-culturing etc. — all the operations that are traditionally carried out with the help of bullocks. The device takes just half-an-hour to cultivate an acre, and uses only 2 litres of diesel.

All of us who have become dependent on laptops are suddenly helpless when we get to a place with long power-breakdowns. Central Electronics Ltd. has developed a portable solar panel to power the laptop. I can testify to how very useful it is. N V Satyanarayana of Vishakhapattnam has gone one better. He has developed a micro-windmill — of just 3.5×3 cm, with a blade of 10 cm diameter. It uses the merest breeze — you get much more than his device needs when you are in a train or bus — to charge batteries of your laptop, cellphone, walkman, palmtop.

Rajesh Ranjan has attached a dynamo and a gear to the sole of shoes. As you walk, the rotor of the dynamo rotates, electricity is generated, and rechargeable batteries are charged!


The National Innovation Foundation’s volumes set out scores of such sparkling ideas, one after another — from a chance meeting with a Pilipino farmer, a farmer in Karnataka develops a new variety of paddy that comes to yield 9000 kg per hectare and becomes the rage in the region; another develops a variety of nutmeg that yields larger fruit; a third develops a latex-free jackfruit; several farmers working independently in different parts of the country develop herbal pesticides; others develop herbal remedies for livestock; we encounter an entire community that uses herbal extracts for preventive health care.

A 3-wheel tractor, a cotton stripping machine, a palm and coconut leaf mat weaving machine, a mobile defibring machine, a pump to inflate the tyres of an auto that uses the kick start mechanism of the vehicle, a simple device to break the coconut and collect its water. Apart from the idea, the thing that lifts one’s spirit is that each device, each innovative product has sprung from a person of no means, often of little education.


The writer is Union Minister for Disinvestment, Communications and Information Technology

To be continued

First published on: 02-03-2004 at 00:00 IST
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