Romance of innovation is my story of trying to do some meaningful work in the area of rural development and do hope that it inspires or helps others who are so inclined. This is also a story of what little we were able to accomplish at NARI and to show how much more needs to be done in the area of providing basic amenities to rural population. It is my fervent hope that some bright research-minded reader will take up this challenge.
I came back to Phaltan from U.S.A. in 1981 after getting a Ph.D. and a few years of a teaching stint at University of Florida. In late 1981 when I returned, very few Indians with an IIT degree came back. Even the ones who did come back went to big cities like Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore etc. I went straight to rural Maharashtra which was as alien to me as any foreign country since I hardly knew the local language or the milieu.
Why I came back to rural Maharashtra is a long story and I have written about it in another book. Nevertheless it would suffice to say that I came back because of my arrogance and naivety that I will help change India. If I had an iota of intelligence I might not have taken this step since working in a rural set up was very difficult.
Yet once I took it there was no looking back and this is the story I would like to share that even in a very small rural town with hardly any facilities one can do meaningful and satisfying R&D work. This is what I call romance of innovation since the work was done with a very selfish reason of doing something meaningful in my life. And it is my hope that it inspires some youngsters to follow this dying vocation of doing R&D for rural areas.
However, coming and working in small rural town of Phaltan in 1981 was not easy. There were lots of struggles initially and very soon after coming back the ground realities hit me and all my romantic notions and arrogance vanished. I and my wife Nandini lived for two years in slums of Phaltan in a small rented house. We moved into our present house designed by me in early 1984. Both of us used to daily bicycle to the Institute – a distance of about 3 kms one way. In 1984 my brother who was going to Saudi Arabia as an orthopedic surgeon took pity on me and gave me his old scooter which he had got in 1975 from Chief Minister’s quota. That was our first motorized vehicle.
In those days for purchasing even small things one had to go to Pune – a town 100 kms away. Now with milk, sugarcane and horticulture economy, Phaltan has grown to be a mid-size town with super markets and availability of other services. Also the communication was almost non-existent in those times. For example just to make a long- distance phone call to any place was a nightmare. One had to book a call in the early morning and if one was lucky the call would materialize by the evening. So quite a few times I would hop on the bus and go to Pune to my friend’s office just to make phone calls. The bus journey in those times took about four hours one way. Today the situation is much better with the availability of broadband internet connection and telephone facility to call anywhere in the world without a problem. Also the roads are much improved which has almost halved the travel time from Phaltan to Pune.
When I came to Phaltan there was a flat piece of land where I was supposed to start building my energy lab. The Institute had a small building and farm land with almost no other infrastructure. I got an old fan fitted in my office and that was the only fan in the whole Institute. Besides one rarely had electricity so the fan was mostly non-functional! In the early days of setting up my lab, it was very difficult to get engineers and scientists. It took me nearly four years to get the lab to become functional and hire decent staff. Even now there is a tremendous problem in getting good staff. The situation has become worse because we cannot compete with the very high pay packets being offered by the industry and the government.
Thus now I realize that one of the biggest drawbacks in setting up an Institute in a rural area is getting good people to come and work in it. The rural infrastructure precludes any long-term commitment by people to work in such institutes. This has been the main reason why NARI has remained a small institute. Still even with the small staff and infrastructure we have been able to do commendable work with lots of firsts to our name as the readers will read in the links provided at the end of the preface.
Our work at NARI has mostly focused on developing devices and policies for rural development with special emphasis on the use of high technology for holistic and sustainable India. When some of these technologies and ideas have been picked up nationally and internationally, it has been an exhilarating experience.
For example our work on Taluka Energy self-sufficiency became a national policy (chapter 3). Similarly our pioneering work on ethanol from sweet sorghum is now established nationally and internationally. So is our work on biomass gasifiers, safflower, multifuel lanterns, ethanol stoves, electric cycle rickshaws and vehicles for the handicapped, etc. All these pioneering efforts have inspired people all over the world. For our efforts in rural development we have also received quite a few prestigious national and international awards.
India is a young society with 54% of its population being below 25 years’ of age. The aspirations of this young generation, majority of whose members live in rural India are not being fulfilled. Most of the modern rulers of India have come from urban settings and have no understanding of the rural areas or the welfare of the farmers who are the mainstay of the country, with the result that they spout the slogans of rural development but do not know how it can be achieved.
Yet to find the solutions to the problems of our rural population offers the greatest challenge for any engineer or technologist and I feel that most of the Indians wherever they are in the world should help in trying to solve these problems with the help of extremely advanced tools of science and technology available to them. After all what we are and wherever we may be is because of the early life that we spent in this country and hence we should give back something to the country of our birth. The real challenges are in India and if we can improve the lives of our rural population then we would have solved the problems of 1/5th of mankind !
Presently our greatest problem is that most of the engineers and technologists from our best schools opt for non-engineering careers since the pay packets in them is higher than engineering ones. India spends huge amount of money on their education and yet they do not use their technical education for India’s benefit. Unless and until this lacuna is corrected India will always remain backward in technology and hardware.
It is also a fact that our top engineering schools do not challenge our bright students in technology areas. I hope the work outlined in this document will challenge some of these bright students to take up rural development work.
In my innumerable interactions with young students all over the country I have always got the impression that they want to do something meaningful in their lives. Yet they are neither shown the opportunity or the path because of the paucity of good and motivated teachers. I am sure if given a chance and provided motivation our engineering students can do wonderful work and help the country.
Also during my interaction with young students all over the country I have often been asked how I have continued doing this type of work despite odds.
I think the answer is Junoon (or passion). Without a single point focus and romance of innovation one cannot continue on this path. If the focus is money then it is not the path to be taken. Junoon not only provides the energy but also takes the mind away from the pressures of others. One can then do things one likes and not what others think of. Besides I have never been afraid to tackle any problem and challenge. I feel Ph.D. is a training of mind and given enough time and patience one should be able to attack any problem. Thus the readers will see that we have worked in myriad of problems facing rural India.
The romance of innovation is like Yoga-the goal is clear and attainable and by pursuing it one forgets about all the problems, odds and obstacles. For rural development it is essential that single-minded focus on doing meaningful work becomes the paramount purpose in life. How can we teach this to young students is the biggest challenge and any opportunity I get I try to engage the students on this subject.
Yet there have been many times when our research has not progressed as planned because of so many uncertainties in rural set up. I have utilized that time to think deeply about spirituality and the problems of rural India and have written about these issues. Doing that has been very enjoyable and has also made us well known world over. One of the tangible benefits has been a good number of interns who have come to help us from all over the world.
I also feel that thinking deeply and writing about higher issues is very therapeutic and gives a new vigor and motivation. That is also a part of the romance of innovation whether it is in technology or spirituality area. Chapter 6 details my writings on these subjects.
However the ability to think and work on these higher objectives is made possible when one simplifies one’s life. Thus once the basic needs are met most of the energy can be focused on doing something that is enjoyable. Living in rural areas helps in simplifying one’s life and becoming spiritual.
With hardly any avenues to spend money and availability of very few amenities, one starts living a simple life which is the first step towards spirituality. Initially one does not like it but with time one starts to enjoy the benefits of simplified life. Thus I recommend such a life for almost everybody who believes in sustainability because when everyone becomes sustainable in personal life, then the world will automatically become sustainable. I feel one can live a simple, high thinking and emotionally satisfying life in much less energy and in our small way we have shown that it is possible.
This does not mean that we should live a primitive life. In fact the extremely sophisticated technologies that provide modern tools of communication and power are an important part of reducing the energy consumption, thereby promoting sustainable living. What is needed is to curb our consumptive lifestyle which promotes greed for resources and spirituality helps in doing that. I therefore think the mantra of India’s development should be “Spirituality with High Technology”.
I feel very lucky to have come to rural India so that I could develop this feeling of simplicity in my daily life and now I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to spread the message. This I have been doing through my work, speeches and writings and the work described in this document attests to it.
I have always believed that the purpose of human beings is to first become happy and self-contented and then give something back to the society. Giving back to society gives a purpose in life and hence brings joy and happiness. Coming back to rural India has helped me to do both these things.
Nevertheless in all these matters one should try to follow one’s inner voice. If the parameters of success are to be dictated by others then one cannot claim to be internally secure and content. The measures of success and failure should be honestly evaluated by oneself.
Thus to a lot of people I may have been a failure when after so much promise in US I left everything to come back to rural India, but I use the measure of my contentment and find that I have not done that badly ! This to my mind has been the romance of innovation.