3 Idiots and Honey Bee Network launch India’s Grassroots Innovators into a new orbit

A brilliant piece of science communication: grassroots innovators ride on the back of 3 Idiots

Sometimes it takes a feature film — a fictitious story — to trigger changes in real life.

Consider 3 Idiots, a 2009 Indian comedy film directed by Rajkumar Hirani, which has become the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time.

The story was about an impoverished but smart student-inventor and wannabe engineer “Rancho”, or Ranchoddass Shyamaldas Chanchad, played by Aamir Khan. Featured prominently in the story were three quirky inventions: a scooter-powered flour mill, a cycle-powered horse shaver and an exercycle-cum-washing machine.

There were all real inventions made by little known people in India’s backyards. They were sourced from the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), set up in 2000 as an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology in India.

NIF itself was inspired by the country’s largest promoter grassroots invention, the Honey Bee Network set up 25 years ago “to promote a fair and responsible knowledge ecosystem”, where innovators can benefit by sharing their ideas. Honey Bee is a metaphor for the cross-pollination of ideas.

Both NIF and Honey Bee figure in the credits of 3 Idiots. The movie’s producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra also announced a fund for the three real-life brains: a Kerala teenager, a Uttar Pradesh barber and a Maharashtra painter.

“3 Idiots was a great effort to link the small ideas with the big picture” Honey Bee founder Dr Anil Kumar Gupta, was quoted in 2009 as saying. “They (the movie makers) have ignited the fire, now we have to channel it. It’s a great opportunity to create mass awareness.”

Gupta, who is also a Professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad, India,
delivered a well attended lecture in Colombo on “Grassroots Innovation for Inclusive Development: From Rhetoric to Reality”

Anil Gupta delivers Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture in Colombo, 13 Dec 2011 - Photo by Anisha Gooneratne

With inspiring examples and illustrations, Gupta emphasized that grassroots innovations can provide a new ray of hope – if we let them grow.

Speaking of his own country’s experience, he said: “Outside of India’s major cities, unsung heroes of the country are solving, or trying to solve, local problems in spite of the structures that have bypassed them so far. Creativity, compassion and collaboration are the key characteristics of these voices from grassroots. Let’s listen to them and resonate with them!”

He added: “One resource in which economically poor people may be rich is their knowledge and innovative potential. Honey Bee Network started has created a new benchmark in the field of scouting, documentation, dissemination, value addition, protection of IPR and benefit sharing.”

Honey Bee Network has mobilised thousands of green grassroots innovations and traditional knowledge from around the country. Many of the innovators have got patent in US and also in India. The technologies have been commercialised not only within the country but also internationally.

“Journey from the grassroots to global is bound to provide model for India to become a creative, collaborative, and compassionate society sharing its innovations with disadvantaged people in the rest of the world,” Gupta said.

During his lecture, Gupta showed two short video films featuring grassroots innovations by Indians. Searching further, I found that these were part of a Discovery Channel series, first aired in 2006.

Called `Beyond Tomorrow’, it showcased Indian and global innovations, and featured novel ideas that have been transformed into fully operational machines. In association with NIF India, Discovery juxtaposed Indian grassroots innovations along with the global technological breakthroughs.

One such innovation is the amphibious bicycle, designed by Mr Mohammad Saidullah, from Bihar – a conventional bicycle that can be modified to cross ponds and water bodies. It can also be used during floods.

As Deepak Shourie, Managing Director, Discovery Networks India, said: “…These grassroots innovators have no or little academic qualification or formal training but through their single-minded focus, unmatched passion and above all the ‘need’ have created unique products and solutions. Discovery Channel salutes their spirit of innovation.”

Here are four such vignettes of Indian grassroots innovators in action:

Pedal Operated Washing Machine: This washing machine follows a “tumble wash” system which can be operated using a pedal system that has been developed using parts of a conventional bicycle. In rural areas, this electricity free washing machine can have enormous applications and simplify the lives of many. Ms. Remya Jose from Kerala.

Amphibious Bicycle: A conventional cycle retrofitted to cross rivers, ponds and other water bodies. Now, you will have no obstacles in commuting during floods and in areas having high proportion of water coverage like the Kerala backwaters. Innovator: Mohammad Saidullah from Bihar.

Scooter for the physically challenged: The innovator of this product, Dhanjibhai, is physically challenged. He has modified an existing scooter making it possible for the physically challenged to ride it. The scooter has the potential to become a treasured possession for the physically challenged. Innovator: Dhanjibhai Kerai from Gujarat.

Tree Climber: A device which makes climbing high trunk trees like palm and coconut very simple and safe. Has a direct use in the maintenance of electric poles, street lights, etc. Innovator: Appachan from Kerala. *more examples mentioned in the fact sheet.

Watch more short films on YouTube

Taya Diaz: Amiable tour guide to a (biological) Treasure Island

Taya Diaz conducts film making master class during Wildscreen 2011 in Colombo

“Taya Diaz has the shortest name in Sri Lanka but is a big man with a personality to match and a bushy black beard. Apart from being an excellent guide with good knowledge of all aspects of Sri Lankan Wildlife, he’s also a writer and film maker and is excellent company.”

That’s how a bird-watching website once described Taya Diaz, Sri Lankan conservationist turned wildlife film maker.

During the past two decades, Taya has collaborated in making over 20 full-length international wildlife documentaries, all showcasing Sri Lanka’s rich biological diversity and ecosystems. He has been a scientific investigator, presenter, narrator or Sinhalese scriptwriter.

One of his earliest involvements in international film making was with The Temple Troop. Made in 1997, for the BBC and Discovery Channel, it documented a year in the life of a troop of monkeys living in Sri Lanka’s ancient city of Polonnaruwa. These monkeys have been the subject of a long-running study by the Smithsonian Institution’s Primate Biology Program.

Trained as a scientist, Taya has worked in a number of field based conservation projects including the Smithsonian study of monkeys. But it’s as a wildlife and natural history that he now makes a name both in Sri Lanka and overseas.

The Urban Elephant (2000, for PBS/National Geographic), and The Last Tusker (2000, for BBC/Discovery) are two other productions that used Taya’s ground knowledge and scientific expertise. He has provided local liaison for broadcasters such as New Zealand TV, Canal+, Discovery channel, and BBC1.

Taya Diaz: Enough stories to last a lifetime!
For all these reasons, Taya was a natural choice when TVE Asia Pacific was asked to recommend a Sri Lankan film maker to present a master class when the Wildscreen traveling film festival held in Colombo from 17 to 19 February 2011. His master class, titled “Untold Stories of Sri Lanka”, looked at Sri Lanka’s as yet largely untapped potential for authentic, factual stories related to wildlife, natural history and the environment.

He explained the premise for his master class: “Sri Lanka is a pot of plenty in every aspect — the opportunities for a documentary filmmaker are astounding. But sadly, what most audiences see on the airwaves is very standard and boringly similar, touching on the same topics year in and year out.”

Taya feels that documentary films and TV programmes are also essential for educating Sri Lankans about their own natural heritage. Sri Lanka has an impressively high number of plant and animal species for its relatively small land area — which makes it one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.

“Sri Lankan naturalists, wildlife experts and environmentalists should collaborate more closely with film makers and/or broadcasters to make more local films aimed at local audiences,” he said during a panel discussion I moderated on February 17. “This is essential for raising awareness on environment and sustainable development issues as Sri Lanka pursues rapid economic development after the war.”

Read TVEAP News story on Taya’s master class: Story telling through the local eyes vital, says Taya Diaz

Tabloid science maybe imperfect, but it’s still better than no science coverge!

WCSJ London

Raised on popular culture, I have always been an admirer of tabloid journalism – which means using popular formats to reach out to a mass audience in newspapers or broadcasting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: we might even argue that the tabloid approach is the only way to achieve truly mass media (with all else being niche media reaching to smaller demographic groups).

So I was delighted to be on a panel with two leading British tabloid journalists and a popular radio host from South Africa during the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009.

We had to address this question: Does science coverage in the media need to be highbrow?

My own, personal answer is NO — it need not be! And I’ve spent a good part of my two decades of work in the media experimenting and showing that communicating science can be fun — both for us communicators and our audiences.

But I pointed out that science is still being covered in sections of Asian media in the more traditional, classical way, just like science itself is still an elitist pursuit in many of our societies.

L to R: Paul Sutherland, space correspondent of The Sun, UK; Christina Scott, radio and web journalist, South Africa; David Derbyshire, Environment editor, The Daily Mail, UK; Nalaka Gunawardene, Director/CEO, TVE Asia Pacific
L to R: Paul Sutherland, space correspondent of The Sun, UK; Christina Scott, radio and web journalist, South Africa; David Derbyshire, Environment editor, The Daily Mail, UK; Nalaka Gunawardene, Director/CEO, TVE Asia Pacific

I said: “We might call this coverage ‘broadsheet approach’ in print; or ‘bluechip documentary’ format on television. And they are both unsustainable! They are also endangered in these hard times for the mainstream media in most economies.

“So going the tabloid path is a practical and pragmatic way to deliver science stories and science information to a mass audience or readership. We’re doing it in different ways in the Asian media!”

In my remarks, I gave some examples where science is jazzed up (rather than dumbed down) for popular consumption on Asian television. For example, how solar and lunar eclipses provide fodder for endless stories on our numerous news channels. Such coverage, fleeting and superficial as it might often be, takes the wonders of science and Nature to more people than anyone else can.

I argued that the path to the mass audiences in Asia is through news, sports and entertainment programming. We have our own niche, factual channels – Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet and their local equivalents. They have a loyal but small audience. They do excellent work. But where numbers are concerned, they cannot – yet! – compete with the outreach and appeal of broadcast radio, TV and newspapers. Neither can the online and mobile media, even though their outreach is growing fast.

Things don’t always go right, however. Doing wall-to-wall coverage of news demands producers and reporters to tackle a variety of topics and subjects — including specialised science stories. Some handle this better than others. In their race for ratings and revenue, a few ‘dress up’ the stories a bit too much.

Television science: aspiration or reality?
Television science: aspiration or reality?
A good example was how some Indian news channels handled the so-called ‘Big Bang experiment’ in September 2008, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was commissioned. The mega-science experiment was interesting in its own right, but it wasn’t apparently exciting enough for at least two channels — Aaj Tak and India TV. Their coverage running up to the event speculated about its “catastrophic effect on the world” – effectively end of the world.

Their coverage caused panic, which led to at least one attributable death. This prompted the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to caution the channels for spreading “misinformation, fear and horror” among viewers. It advised the channels to exercise restraint in presenting such issues.

I call this the ’24/7 TV Deficit’ in Asian broadcasting. The long term response to this is to invest in training and capacity building of journalists and producers already working in the media. For the most part, they learn on the job, making mistakes on the air. This is far from ideal.

Here’s how I summed up: ‘Tabloid science coverage’ – in print or broadcast – may be imperfect in some ways. But our choice is either that, or nothing. Our challenge is to make the process and product better as we go along.

We urgently need to unleash scientific knowledge and understanding in matters of public interest and public policy. We can’t afford the ALL or NOTHING approach.

The quest for next David Attenborough continues…

Human Ambassador to the natural world...David Attenborough
Human Ambassador to the natural world...David Attenborough

I spent most of today at the Wildscreen film festival being held at the British Council Colombo. Naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough featured prominently in two films screened: Can We Save Planet Earth? (2006) and Life in Cold Blood: Armoured Giants (2008).

For me, it was more than a fascinating journey to far corners of our endangered planet in the company of the world’s best known broadcaster, and Britain’s most trusted public figure. I recalled how in this very venue, as an eager teenager growing up in the simpler, pre-web days of the 1980s, I watched his pioneering series Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet (1984). These path-breaking series redefined how natural history documentaries were made, and inspired a whole new generation of film-makers and nature lovers. A quarter century later, I’m still hooked.

Over the last 25 years, Attenborough has established himself as the world’s leading natural history programme maker with more landmark series: The Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002) and Life in the Undergrowth (2005). The final chapter in the ‘Life’ series is Life in Cold Blood (2008).

As fellow broadcaster Jeremy Paxman noted in a Time magazine tribute to Attenborough: “Life After Death is almost the only natural-history series yet to be made by Attenborough. In a career that has taken him to every corner of the world, he has explored life in all its richness — from mammals and birds to plants and reptiles. No living person has done more to make the people of Planet Earth aware of the world around them.”

Close encounters?
Close encounters?
But as I wrote in May 2007, “like all creatures big and small in the great Circle of Life that Sir David has so avidly told us about, he too is mortal. At 81, it’s time for the world to look for the next David Attenborough.”

In his Time tribute, Paxman noted that what distinguishes Attenborough is “that boundless, schoolboyish enthusiasm, the infectious joy of discovering the infinite variety of life”. Yet as the popular song goes, dragons live forever, but not so little boys – so the quest for the next Attenborough has quietly preoccupied the minds of many practising or following the world of natural history and environmental film making.

I’m not obsessed with this question (and I wish Sir David many more years of life on Earth and life on the airwaves), but I today popped it to Jeremy Bristow, a producer of environmental programmes at BBC Television, at the end of his fascinating master class on The role of films in Environmental Conservation. Jeremy’s most recent project has been two films hard-hitting films on Climate Change with Sir David Attenborough for BBC1 and the Discovery Channel.

The bad news is that despite searching far and wide – even some competitions – the David Attenborough has yet to be discovered.

“There are many talented, passionate natural history film makers and some of them also have good screen presence — but none to match Sir David,” said Jeremy Bristow. “I know many in the natural history film world have kept their eyes open for a potential successor.”

Perhaps Sir David is a unique product of his time and circumstances, Jeremy speculated. Certainly, there weren’t too many getting into this business in the early days of television broadcasting. The first major programme series to feature Sir David was BBC’s Zooquest, which ran from 1954 to 1963. And then, one thing led to another…and more than 50 years later, he’s still in the business.

To me, it’s the voice – authoritative without at all being pompous or pontificating – that gives Sir David enduring and endearing appeal. Time called it ‘the voice of the environment’.

Now is the time when that voice of reason, moderation and passion is needed more than ever. A time when the natural world is under siege from human-induced accelerated climate change even as the world of science takes daily beatings from assorted fundamentalist forces.

At 82, Sir David still remains not just our most versatile ambassador to the natural world, but also one of the best spokespersons for the rigors of science and intellectual curiosity.

Here’s a recent example of Sir David – taking us on a quick, animated guide to evolution of life on Earth, in a 2009 documentary called Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life to mark 150 years since Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of the Species: