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