Art in unlikely corners

A long trail of grassroots innovations is discovered in Champaran, Bihar.

January 25, 2014 04:08 pm | Updated May 13, 2016 12:20 pm IST

Ram Timari Devi beside her artistic bin.

Ram Timari Devi beside her artistic bin.

During the winter shodhyatra in Champaran, Bihar, a few years ago, we came across a grain bin beautifully designed with artwork on the clay surface. It was a cold day with very poor visibility, due to the fog in the morning. Yet, curious about how a functional object has been transformed into a work of art, we asked Ram Timari Devi what motivated her to make the bin like that.

“What else could have I done,” she replied. Her spontaneous answer imbued that shodhyatra with an exceptional warmth. Excellence was imperative for her. She was helpless, but she could not have done anything ordinary. It was a lesson we could never forget. Every summer, SRISTI and the other members of the Honey Bee Network walk various hot regions of this country, and every winter, we traverse the cold ones. The idea is to celebrate the creativity and innovation at the grassroots, at the doorstep of those who excel in any field of social action. We pay respect to centenarians, we recognise teachers who instruct children selflessly and joyfully, farmers who experiment solutions for low-cost non-chemical agricultural practice, and those who develop solutions for crop, animal or human pests, and diseases. We also recognise, respect and reward institutional innovations by local communities for conservation of biodiversity, sanitation, community solidarity, which sustain common property resources. In short, our journey is to celebrate cultural creativity.

During the same shodhyatra , we also met Rojadin, a roadside mechanic who had developed a pressure cooker-based coffee-making machine, at a cost less than Rs. 450. With such a small amount, he could provide an additional source of income to the roadside tea vendors. When we offered support to him, he refused at the first instance. His argument was that he guided the prospective buyers to purchase various components; he would then assemble them to make the device. He charged them a small amount for his work. As this was his mode of working, why should he keep a ready stock at all? Frugality, customer orientation, and minimalist model of business seemed to serve his need.

We need to reflect on various aspects of the long trail of innovations in this country. Not all innovations need to diffuse on a large scale: some may, and some may not. Meeting the needs of small communities or relaxing niche-specific constraints is essential for inclusive development. Otherwise, alienation is inevitable and some of the persistently neglected communities may become restive and even violent. We need to think deeply about this in the context of the grassroots.

National Innovation Foundation, an institute of the DST at the moment, was set up by the Honey Bee Network and SRISTI to scale up the grassroots innovations we started 25 years ago, as an open innovation movement. It has spawned several initiatives such a technology commons (people-to-people copying is not allowed but encouraged, while people-to-firm is not), and the Grassroots Tech Innovation Acquisition Fund (GTIAF), aimed at acquiring the rights of the IPRs of innovators with small upfront payment, and then making them licensable at low or no cost to small entrepreneurs. The Honorable President of India gives awards to grassroots innovators every two years and holds an innovation exhibition at Rashtrapati Bhavan every year, in March. In addition, on December 11, last year — on his birthday — he announced a first of its kind Residency at the President’s House for artists, writers and grassroots innovators. The President’s office will help these innovators to go forward, and realise their dreams.

One has heard about micro finance often, but rarely about micro venture finance. The world’s first micro venture innovation fund was set up in 1997, in the form of GIAN (Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Networks). Later, with the help of the Small Industries Development Bank of India, it was scaled up as the NIF — National Innovation Foundation.

After having filed more than 600 patent applications in the name of innovators in India and abroad, we could make it a point that even school dropouts can extend the frontiers of science and technology, frugality, flexibility and affordability. The cost at which patents have been filed, and value added research realised, is extremely low, because of ‘pro-bono support by a number of stakeholders’. Readers are welcome to volunteer and connect with creative communities and make the Honey Bee Network a vibrant force for giving creativity its due. After all, the minds from the margins are not marginal minds.

The New Delhi-based LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives organised the PRISM Lecture Series 2013 on ‘Development and Contemporary India’ over the last few months in which 15 seminal thinkers participated. This is the last of a cross-selection of talks we feature here. For more information, visit >www.lilafoundation.in

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