VIT University’s technical festival GraVITas and event Social Transformers was a creative platform for students to come out with solutions for society’s pressing problems.

Like many other young people, Arun Kumar was disgusted by the state of public urinals, especially in his own college hostel. Most people failed to flush after having used the toilet, leaving the area stinking; others failed to turn off the water. “It’s bad for health and hygiene and it’s bad for the environment,” he says.

Unlike many other young people, the fourth year B.E. Mechanical Engineering student of National Engineering College, Kovilpetti, decided to do something about it. He and his classmates had seen the automatic flushing systems now employed in several hotels and public places. But these systems use a sophisticated proximity sensor to automatically sense when a person is using the urinal and flush water through the system. “They’re too expensive for most public urinals. Also, they need knowledgeable maintenance; if they break down, there is usually no one to fix them,” says Arun.

Instead, he and a few classmates built a urinal flusher of their own, using a low-cost mechanism. Using four MS steel rods, water-resistant plywood, a washing machine valve and a cycle stand spring, they created a platform with a mechanical lever to be placed in front of the urinal. When someone stepped on the platform, it would trigger the flush, which would stop the moment someone stepped off. It cost just Rs. 350.

“We installed it in one of the hostel urinals. For three days, every student in the hostel wanted to use that urinal just because they wanted to try out our mechanism. It was like a game for them, but it worked,” says Arun.

But how to take one quirkily-constructed experiment to mass produce it for the State’s many urinals? Enter the VIT University’s technical festival GraVITas 2009 and its event Social Transformers, meant for just such ideas. The students modelled their prototype using design software and suggested manufacturing plastic models, which would cost just Rs. 200.

Encouraging students

As one of the winners of the event, the team has now been granted Rs. 50,000 to upscale the plan and put it into action over the next 12 months.

“We want to encourage students to put their innovations to use to solve society’s pressing problems,” says Sandhya Pentareddy, a VIT advisor who helped organise the event, which is sponsored by the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York.

Ms. Pentareddy has also inspired the establishment of a new Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Development at VIT to nurture the spirit of innovation for social good all through the year, and not just at an isolated event. The Centre intends to develop social entrepreneurship courses as electives of the management and engineering degree programmes, and set up non-profit and for-profit social organisations, apart from supporting social entrepreneurs with ideas, guidance and resources.

To start with, the Centre will monitor the winning teams over the next year to ensure that the Rs. 50,000 grant is put to good use.

A VIT team led by final-year ECE student Shreya Kumar came up with the idea of a low-cost underground food storage cellar with humidifiers. In most Indian farming communities, produce rots if it is not sold immediately since cold storage systems are beyond the budget of most farmers.

The team developed a technique to store food in an 8 x 8 feet pit with a layered structure of brick, gravel and foam for insulation. Vent pipes to the surface would help maintain the temperature. Any necessary cooling would be done by solar-generated power. In a year’s time, the team expects to install the Rs. 18,500-system in at least one Rajasthani village.

Another VIT team is also concentrating on Rajasthan, with a plan to encourage the cultivation, marketing and sale of mushrooms that grow rampantly in the Chhatragarh region. The high profits for minimal labour and investment that can be generated from the monsoon-season mushrooms could transform the region’s social and economic condition, said team member Madhuri Manohar, a third-year Biotechnology student.

Renewable energy

Third-year Mechanical Engineering student Anand Kumar and his team mates have developed solar water purifier systems that will not waste water the way reverse osmosis does. Solar concentrators make use of the condensation and evaporation phenomenon to distil 21 litres of water in 8 hours, using a Rs. 1,300-model. They hope to introduce the system in the area around Vellore itself, which has access to poor quality water.

“Young people can be change-makers,” says Aditi Punj of social entrepreneurship support group Ashoka’s Youth Venture, who was one of the judges at the event. “Innovation and entrepreneurship are both key.”

For Arun Kumar and his classmates, their innovation has proved its worth. Now they are looking to use their entrepreneurship skills to persuade an organisation like the Central Institute for Plastic Engineering and Technology in Chennai or the plastic industry to manufacture their urinal flushers. They plan to partner with NGOs and the Tamil Nadu sanitary department to install the flushers at railway stations, bus stands, theatres and educational institutions. A patent application is also in the pipeline.