The G. Ram Reddy Memorial Lecture was delivered by Dr. R.A. Mashelkar, Director General of Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) at New Delhi on July 2, 2003. The topic of his lecture was "Building Innovative India for the 21st Century".
The full transcript of the lecture is available online.
Here're two important points made by Dr. Mashelkar in his talk.
- Our technology innovations must be now redirected for solving the major problems that the nation faces today. Let me illustrate this by taking only one issue. We have about 200 million adults that cannot read and write. Our illiteracy is reducing only at the rate of 1.5% per annum. We have constraints of trained teachers. The use of conventional methods of learning is from alphabets to words, which requires 200 hours of instruction. If these conventional methods are used, then we will need 20 years to attain a literacy level of 95%. This is too long. We, therefore, must find out new innovative ways of solving the problem.
Look at what the great doyen of Indian IT industry, F.C Kohli has done. He has developed a Computer-based Functional Literacy (CBFL) method. It focuses on the reading ability. It is based on the theories of cognition, language and communication. In this method, the scripted graphic patterns, icons and images are recognized through a combination of auditory and visual experiences by using computers. The method emphasizes learning of words rather than alphabets. While the method focuses on reading, it acts as a trigger for people to learn to write on their own.
Based on this method, Kohli’s team has developed innovative methodologies using IT and computers to build reading capability. This experiment was first conducted in Medak village near Hyderabad. Without a trained teacher, the women started reading the newspaper in Telugu in 8 to 10 weeks. Thereafter, Kohli’s team has carried out more experiments at several centers. Over 20,000 adult participants have become literate now.
We can ask a simple question. If all this is computer based, then is it not too expensive for a country like India? Kohli has an innovative solution to that too. His team has developed these lessons to run on Intel 486s and earlier versions of Pentium PCs modified to display multimedia. There are around 200 million of
such PCs in the world that are obsolete. They have been discarded. By using these PCs, the cost of making one person literate would be less than Rs.100. With CBFL, Kohli says he can increase the literacy to 90 to 95% within 3 to 5 years, instead of 20 years. It in this kind of innovation and innovative approach to problem solving that can transform India.
This is extremely interesting. Does anyone know if this is being implemented widely? I remember Rajesh mentioning that there is a USD 200 anti-dumping import duty on second-hand PCs - is that going to be waived? Only for this project or for all uses?
- Innovative India of the future must be compassionate. It should continuously look at the problems of the poor. Let me focus on one such problem. Millions of women draw water from wells. They feel fatigued and sometimes they need to rest to catch their breath. But all this time, they had to keep holding the rope with a water-filled bucket or vessel tied to it. Even if they momentarily lost their grip, the bucket fell back into the well. All their effort went waste. Although communities have devised ways of retrieving a fallen bucket out of well, for example, by using hooks tied to another rope, this did not prevent the bucket falling into the well. This was the situation until an illiterate artisan came on the scene. When posed with this challenge, he solved this problem by attaching a small lever on the pulley. The lever did not get in the way while pulling on the rope, but the moment the tension on the rope slackened, the lever pressed against it and arrested the downward movement. This kept the water-filled bucket in its position. Now an old lady could take rest, chat and then resume the pulling operation. Thousands of such pulleys are now being installed all across the Gujrat Villages. These designs will spread to the rest of India soon. Can you imagine the relief this will bring to millions of poor women, who draw water from wells in India everyday.
The question we should ask ourselves is why is it that the design of a pulley to draw water from the well remain unchanged for two thousands years. Indeed, a more general question is this. Why do such problems that affect millions of people every day not get solved through the use of existing scientific models? In the
example of this pulley, we should remember that navigators had used a similar concept while pulling the ropes in setting oars in the boats. Further, a chain pulley system in the construction industry also was using similar concepts. Thus the concept was not new. But its application in a real life problem did not happen.
New innovative India of our dreams must carry that compassion so that the problems of the poor can be solved. We must harness the talent of the scientists so that value can be added to the local, indigenous ability.
For all this to happen, we must create a new value system, where problem solving for the poor and the disadvantaged becomes a national mission. Those who contribute to this mission must be made into the national heroes. That is why an illiterate artisan, who developed this pulley system was acknowledged and
rewarded by the National Innovation Foundation that was set up under my Chairmanship last year. We need more such innovations, which will solve the problems of the poor.
There is another similar example provided in a speech by a Chinese professor to an Indian audience. This is what he had to say.
It seems to me that the elite of India don't feel the duty to provide practical leadership. They have the duty to provide theoretical leadership but not practical leadership. I will give you an example.
In the campus of the Indian School of Business there are lots of women who sweep the streets, sweep the roads, sweep the paths and they have a little broom made of twigs and the broom is this long. And they spend their lives sweeping the path. Now why can't somebody tell them to put a stick in the middle and then they could stand up and sweep the path. Then their lives will be transformed if only somebody would take the trouble to do that. Once you put the stick in the middle -- you can find a stick anywhere -- right? And this to me is amazing.
Now contrast that with the invention that you know about. The Chinese -- it was the Chinese who invented the wheelbarrow. I don't see wheelbarrows in India. People carry baskets of dirt on their heads. So this is - now anyone in this room is capable of inventing a wheelbarrow -- there is no question of that -- right? But no one has done it for these guys moving dirt around.
So that's what I mean by a duty to provide practical leadership which seems to me that the leaders in India provide intellectual, philosophical, religious, something leadership but they don't feel the duty to provide practical leadership.
And there are whole provinces in China that were made fertile because some engineer came and designed an irrigation system and he was a scholar. He started out as a scholar but being put in charge of a province he said why don't I fix this problem. So this is I think one of these historical traditions that are very important for explaining, for understanding what's happening in China today.
That sums up what we need today - not just innovation, but innovation along with practical leadership.