Take a walk for more than a hundred kilometres through the villages of Bihar, with a motley group of people who hoped to see the marvellous scientific innovations of astonishing rural minds
Open took a really long walk through Bihar looking for scientific innovations. Here’s what we found
So we were on the road from Jaukatiya to Bhanachak, villages both, when the professor told me the story about the shepherd. It went like this. He was, a couple of years ago, walking like how we were walking now, except that instead of the plains of Bihar, that was hill country in Gujarat. And walking thus, he noticed a shepherd and his sheep, 300 to 400 of them. The professor—his name is Anil Gupta and he teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad—went up to the shepherd and said, “There are so many sheep here. They all look the same to me. If one of them gets mixed with the herd of someone else, how will you find out? How can you tell the difference?” The shepherd did not answer. Instead, he eyed the pamphlet in the professor’s hand. He asked for it. He then showed it back to the professor and said, “To me all the letters in this look alike.”
Story done, the professor now turned towards me. He had a full beard and stern but gracious eyes which looked tired at the moment. He said, “I was an illiterate in his language.”
There were just over a hundred of us, walking 20 odd kilometres a day for six days in the districts of East and West Champaran, Bihar. The area was in the grip of a severe cold wave, so severe that the air had turned almost white and you could blow it from your mouth like cigarette smoke, and the sun had gone missing.
Among us was a man who, a few days ago in Gujarat, had unwrapped a newspaper to eat some pakodas. After he ate, as was his wont, he read the newspaper and chanced upon a report of the professor narrating the story of the shepherd in a meeting. Which is how he decided to come to the Shodhyatra. He was there walking along with us, somewhere to the rear because the professor walked fast and was almost always in the front. There were others: organic farmers, innovators, blue collars, white collars, management students, businessmen, an RSS man, a Congress woman, Christians, Muslims, a local tuition teacher who also wrote Bhojpuri pop lyrics, a German, four Mexicans, NGO types (many of them), others and of course me, with three blisters underneath the toes of my much aching feet.
The Shodhyatra is a glimpse into the language of another India, a walk through its rural areas to discover its knowledge and imagination. It is organised by volunteers from a bunch of organisations floated by Professor Gupta—Honeybee Network, Sristi, National Innovation Foundation, Gian—which document and find commercial uses for rural innovations and traditional knowledge. Held twice a year, anyone can join in with prior permission. The routine is simple. We walk and reach a school where the professor talks to villagers and students about instances of rural innovation. He talks about men who have made things like silent diesel engines, and pulleys with stoppers that prevent water buckets from falling back into the well if the grip is released. A bunch of innovations that travel with us are also shown. These include a device that slices off sugarcanes’ nodes, which can then be planted, and another that has pedals to pump out water from the fields. The professor tells them that these are all made by people like them and then exhorts them to be innovative.
Local plants used by them for ailments are collected. There are felicitations, and certificates are distributed—to very old men and women, to folk singers, to clever children, to women who take part in recipe competitions, to anyone who answers questions the professor throws at them. Some questions get smart answers—“How do you design a matchstick to be more useful?” Prize-winning answer: “Make it so that you can burn it at both ends”. Some questions don’t get smart answers —“What is this flower used for?” Answer: “For pooja.”
A register is then given to a teacher who will get his students to collect their grandparents’ knowledge about herbs. All that information will then be put in the register. “Every old person is a library. You don’t want that knowledge to go extinct,” the professor reasons. After which, we move on to another school in another village, and then another village and so on and on, through mustard fields exuberant with a carpet of yellow drops, through green farms of wheatgrass unswaying stiff in the cold, through the edge of the river Gandak—which we only saw as a silhouette because it was always night when we encountered it. We walked through fields crowded with sugarcane, went past sugarcane factories where bullock carts loaded with crop were in a queue so long that it looked like a sugarcane highway, through little villages where tall haystacks stood neck to neck with thatch and brick houses, through roads winding through little crowded markets rich with colour, through brick lanes on which the dust had crept over so that it became a dust road, through highways blinded by the fog, across railway crossings and over green canals, we walked on and on.
On the first day at Motihari, I met Mohammad Rojaddin, creator of a pressure cooker with an extra tube winding out of its safety valve on the top, to pump steam into coffee. The frothy brew so done was still coffee in Motihari. At a Barista in Mumbai it would be cappuccino. Mohammad Rojaddin had made a cappuccino machine using a pressure cooker, though he didn’t know what cappuccino was. And he had then sold these machines for Rs 1,000 to many tea stall vendors in Motihari, and therefore in this small town, there were many cappuccino outlets.
Most of the innovations touted were functional. They were arrived at for a purpose. There was, for example, the simple modification to the chulha or the rural stove. From the burner-nook where the wood or cowdung is placed, a pipe leads the heat to another opening where you can cook another dish. The pipe then curves upwards to release the smoke out of the house. For the same amount of fuel, you can double the utility without the smoke.
Here’s why the innovation is interesting: for thousands of years, the design of the chulha has not changed at all. “Because it was women who used it, and men, who had access to literacy and technology, didn’t feel the need to think about changing it,” says Professor Gupta.
I also saw an ultramodern innovation. In Siswa village, the professor pulled out a laptop with a double screen, two screens back to back. You could see it from the front as well as from the back. A doctor in Chennai had used it while discussing case details with patients. The National Innovation Foundation was planning to market it. It was the showpiece for the journey.
The second day, from Sugauli, a smallish town, we walked towards Kisan Vigyan Kendra, the last stop of the day. On the way, by the roadside, we made a brief halt at what the nameboard calls Christian Church. The church was one room, festooned for the Christmas season.
Here was a man called Pramod Stephens, a shortish middle-aged man with a trebly voice. He told me that he is also an innovator, currently working on using the gall bladder of chicken to make a capsule that increases haemoglobin, which will then cure assorted ailments like arthritis. While I was talking to him, I noticed a sign which had the year when the church was established. The sign was in Hindi and I read it as 1885. I asked Pramod Stephens about who established the church. “I and a few others,” he replied. I looked at him again. He didn’t look 123-years old. If chicken gall bladder capsules could do this, then the poultry shop was the first place I was going to once I returned to Mumbai.
“You were there in 1885?” I ask him, just to be certain.
“No,” he said.
“Was this church established in 1885?” I asked again.
“No no no. Ha ha ha. No no. Ha ha. 1995,” he said, understanding. I ha ha-ed along with him.
The night stop was at Kisan Vigyan Kendra, a bungalow-like structure with woods around it and separated from a wide lake by a road. All the other days we were put up at schools, usually ramshackle. This was the only place we slept in which had a decent toilet and where there were plenty of mattresses.
A few of us slept outside, under a shed. In the middle of the night I heard voices. It was Pankaj Gupta from Jammu. He is the sort of traveller who takes his backpack and gets on the first bus that comes his way. He is also an innovator. Once, his aunt came from England and told him that she had to employ people to look after her plants when she was away. Pankaj also had plants in his house, needed to water them daily and found the process tiresome. It struck him that if the British had no solution to this problem then it was worth thinking about. So Pankaj designed a drip-irrigation system in which each plant got exactly as much water as it needed, and tried out the system in his home. Anyway, he was awake now, and I, who was bleary eyed, heard him say things like: “I am not sleeping here.” “I don’t know about you, but me, I am going inside.” I had used a mattress as a blanket and because it was freezing outside, I was incredibly comfortable. I went back to sleep. The next morning Pankaj told me that there were jackals all around us—they had come to eat the leftover food.
We woke up to fog so thick you could slice through it. Deepa and me, we walked ahead. Deepa, who’s from Mumbai and works in the training department of an airline, is just Deepa. She has no surname because, she says, surnames create a mental filter. And she explained: when you tell someone your surname, you are instantly categorised into some religion, caste, etcetera. Since it’s a lot of documentation to change your name and then change the documents that bear your name, when it’s unavoidable that she sign a ‘full’ name, she signs it as Deepa X.
I don’t see the point of it. So what if you are categorised? And putting an X against your name just categorises you as an oddball.
But it’s her name.
We saw a stall by the roadside selling booze. Deepa X went in and started counting the names—Old Tavern, Thunderbolt and so on. She then pointed at some plastic sachets piled on the floor. “Water,” she said. I corrected her. She had got the wrong category on this one. It’s country liquor. One sachet was Rs 12. She bought two. She did not know why she was buying it. She doesn’t drink. I didn’t categorise her for that.
We saw a bullock cart and jumped into it. We reached Jaukatiya, where there’s going to be a meeting and where Ganesh Baitha was sitting on a chair with a bunch of leaves, fruits, seeds and a plastic can. He is a healer and had come to show his medicines. The meeting began and Baitha spoke about each leaf and seed and fruit and what it would heal. He then opened the plastic can and pulled out a snake skin: “If there’s a problem during delivery, I put this in water for a little while and give it to the expectant mother to drink. The baby comes out immediately.” Some things will not go into the professor’s knowledge bank and I suspect this is one of them.
Meeting over, I tagged along with the professor and we moved to Bhanachak, and that was when he told me the story of the shepherd. He also narrated how he got interested in rural innovations.
In 1980, while doing research in Haryana, he came across a farmer who knew a great deal about correlational indicators between one species and the others—if this plant has so much flowering then that crop will have so much yield. “This was something I didn’t know about. I became curious about how local people develop such complex knowledge,” says Professor Gupta. He began to study it.
In 1985, he spent a year in Bangladesh and saw in a region of extreme poverty tremendous creativity. The land holdings were so small and the people were under so much stress that they were forced to be creative. For example, they would grow banana plants around areca nuts. In winter when there’s no rain, the banana roots which had stored monsoon water would release it for areca nut plants to use. “In everything that they did there were innovations. It became clear to me that there was no reason why we can’t learn from the innovations done by the poorest people in our own country,” he says. As he continued his research, Gupta says, he began to experience an increasing feeling of guilt. “I was getting paid for studying about these poor innovators, but they were getting nothing. I was exploiting them in the name of scholarship,” he says.
In 1988-89, along with students and colleagues, the Honeybee Network thus came into being. The network unites grassroot innovators, helps them develop and market the ideas. When the idea for a Shodhyatra was suggested, Professor Gupta embraced it to assuage another guilt: that he was spending too many hours flying in aeroplanes, and too little time on foot.
Later that day, I saw Pramod Stephens again. Very oddly, he was wearing a helmet coloured in shades of blue. He was also carrying a flag. I asked him why he was wearing a helmet. He said because the colours match the colours of the flag and colours of the flag represent the earth, sky and rising sun. It still did not answer my question. Why a helmet? But I let it pass. Some mysteries must remain unanswered.
In the night I met Sandeep Kumar. He’d made a cycle which can be folded (and unfolded) in five minutes. He’s physically challenged and walks with a limp. He had been invited by the organisers to display his innovation. He told me how when he was in his IX standard, the cycle became an obsession. His friends teased him but he prodded on. One year on, it was there.
The next morning, Sandeep gave a demonstration of the folding cycle. It’s small but works. I am certain there are folding cycles, and far better ones at that, available across the world. But it is not perfection that was on display here, but raw creativity, the sort that will make a boy from an interior district in Bihar toil for a year over a single obsession and then emerge triumphant. And that is how you have to approach the Shodhyatra. As Alag Natarajan said: “You have to open your soul a little when you come for something like this.”
Alag had a chain of joke shops in the UK where he sold items like stink bombs and shock pens. He retired and returned to India a few years ago. Alag has many interesting stories about his life, but I like the one about trust. And it goes like this. Decades ago, when he had just arrived in the UK, he was a street hawker. It was decent money and a friend of his also wanted to become a hawker. But the friend had no capital and so Alag organised a meeting with a Marwari moneylender who agreed to loan £500 provided Alag agreed to stand as guarantee. The friend was a terrible street hawker and went bust.
Alag remained true to the guarantee and paid back the money, a hefty sum for him. The years passed by and Alag became prosperous. He had his own shop. Then, since there are always ups and downs in life, there was a reversal and he found himself in a financial mess. One day he was walking around stressed and lost, when a voice called out, “You are looking like a madman. Come in and have some tea.” It was the Marwari.
When he heard about Alag’s crisis, the Marwari immediately, without asking, gave him a £10,000 cheque. Later, on another occasion, he gave Alag more than £50,000. Then, since there are always ups and downs in life, Alag was in money again. He paid back his debt. In the years to come, Alag often asked the Marwari why he would loan him such a large sum without any security or guarantee. And the Marwari would always say, “I will tell you some other time.”
One day, Alag insisted on an answer and this was what the Marwari said: “Do you remember that money you had guaranteed? If you can pay back £500 for another person, then you will pay back any amount. That’s all there is to it.”
That night, the last one before the Shodhyatra ended, we stayed at Shanichari Kothi, a dilapidated school. I was told that it is shaped like a ship. I took a walk around it, and yes, once you imagine it that way, then it is a ship. A line of pillars made the frame and in the middle, the floor rose like a deck. It was a ship in decay though. The deck has no roof, the window boards are missing and in one room, the asbestos lining the roof has so many tiny holes from where the sunlight winked in, that someone exclaimed, “Stars! It’s like stars.”
Once upon a time, there were indigo fields around here. The house itself was the office-cum-residence of an indigo plantation owner. It was against exploitation at the hands of such plantation owners that Mahatma Gandhi had launched his satyagraha from Champaran.
Gandhi resonates everywhere in this district. The previous night we had followed the professor through a little brick path which sometimes broke into slush, until we reached a clearing where there was a small statue of Gandhi. And here there was an old man in his 80s, Mathura Bhagat, who had been Gandhi’s help when he came here for seven days in 1939.
Mathura Bhagat keeps the place clean and prunes the shrubs around the spot in remembrance of Gandhi. His life revolves around those seven days. I asked him whether he remembers anything that Gandhi told him during his stay with him. Like the shepherd, Bhagat too did not give a straight answer. He started talking about the time he had gone to Delhi at the behest of the prime minister, who had asked him the same question. And he told the prime minister: “What is the point in telling it to you? Have you all listened to anything that Gandhi said?”