In­dia: the mother of in­ven­tion

You might think that In­dia would be a de­press­ing place to travel, with its vast ru­ral pop­u­la­tion of 833 mil­lion liv­ing with­out ba­sics like health­care and drink­ing water. But, (ev­i­dently) ne­ces­sity is the mother of in­ven­tion: on a ‘Jour­ney for Change’ with

Element - - WORLD -

At Sakha cabs, we meet twenty tiny yet ex­u­ber­ant women. All had grown up in slums, ex­pect­ing lives of me­nial drudgery. Now they are Delhi’s first fe­male taxi drivers, rov­ing city­wide in a man’s world.

“It’s a guer­rilla tac­tic,” said Sakha’s founder Meenu Vadera, “to teach such girls driv­ing, car main­te­nance, English and as­sertive­ness, then of­fer work through our all-women chauf­feur ser­vice.” The taxi busi­ness funds fu­ture trainees; the girls be­come main fam­ily bread­win­ners mean­while.

Head­ing west, in a Ra­jasthan vil­lage, we meet N.K. Chaud­hary. He’s In­dia’s largest ex­porter of hand-knot­ted rugs, yet Chaud­hary has al­ways fo­cused on his own def­i­ni­tions of success. While other car­pet com­pa­nies used sweat­shop labour, Chaud­hary rein­vented weav­ing as a vil­lage-based liveli­hood for ‘un­touch­ables’. He sent looms, wools and train­ing to far-flung vil­lagers, pro­moted ex­pe­ri­enced weavers to lo­cal man­agers, and grad­u­ally built a dis­persed ru­ral sup­ply chain with­out a sin­gle mid­dle­man.

Jaipur Rugs achieves an as­tound­ing US$25 mil­lion turnover and US$1mil­lion prof­its an­nu­ally, yet what Chaud­hary is proud of is this: 40,000 weavers from im­pov­er­ished, dis­re­spected castes are now au­tonomous and skilled.

Next we en­counter ZHL Am­bu­lances. Most In­dian cities don’t have re­li­able pub­lic am­bu­lances. To get to hospi­tal, poorer peo­ple use rick­shaws and cars with­out med­i­cal equip­ment or trained staff.

So a group of young pro­fes­sion­als de­cided to build a pri­vate am­bu­lance com­pany that serves all, re­gard­less of in­come. Sim­ply and bril­liantly, they in­vented a cross­sub­sidy model where those trav­el­ling to the government hos­pi­tals pay a sub­sidised fare, and those go­ing to pri­vate hos­pi­tals pay full fares. Lon­don Am­bu­lances sup­ply ad­vice and train­ing for free.

In seven years, ZHL have car­ried 1.8m ben­e­fi­cia­ries to hospi­tal, em­ploy­ing 4800, and are con­tracted to pro­vide free and sub­sidised ser­vices in sev­eral states.

I thought it might be bor­ing to visit a re­cy­cling foun­da­tion which turns ur­ban throw-away clothes into a ru­ral re­source. Soon I was gaz­ing at a wall-panel dis­play­ing turquoise un­der­pants. I heard how in vil­lages, there are no san­i­tary pads and it’s taboo to hang washed men­strual rags out to dry, so women are reg­u­larly in­fect­ing them­selves dur­ing men­stru­a­tion. Sud­denly, Goonj, which, among other things, shreds the tat­ti­est clothes for san­i­tary tow­els, had made re­cy­cling in­spir­ing again.

But it was dur­ing our visit to Jaipur Foot where I wept with glad­ness. At BMVSS hospi­tal gates, we were sur­rounded by am­putees, not in shiny wheel­chairs, but be­ing car­ried by friends. In the shade, one man re­ban­daged the stump of his thigh with a grubby rag.

The poor and hand­i­capped turn up with­out ap­point­ment, know­ing that they’ll be fit­ted with a pros­thetic limb (or a wheel­chair). Two days later, they lit­er­ally walk out, ab­so­lutely free of charge.

Founder Shri D.R. Me­hta was a civil ser­vant when a car ac­ci­dent smashed his leg. He lay in pri­vate care, imag­in­ing his fate if he were one of the poor who worked down mines or trav­elled on train roofs, for they most of­ten lose limbs.

Later, he dis­cov­ered the Jaipur Foot. This pros­thetic was in­vented by a tem­ple sculp­tor and is mostly made with tyre cord and wood. Or­di­nary gut­ter pipe ma­te­rial forms the leg. Hi tech flex­i­ble car­bon fi­bre is spar­ingly used where needed at the toes. It costs just US$45, in­stead of the usual US$8000. This year, 26,000 pa­tients re­ceived a Jaipur Foot. Since treat­ing 59 pa­tients in 1975, Me­hta’s or­gan­i­sa­tion

“40,000 weavers from im­pov­er­ished, dis­re­spected castes are now

au­tonomous and skilled.”

has trans­formed the lives of some 1.3 mil­lion dis­abled. That’s more than the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Such huge num­bers, Me­hta ex­plained, make this place an at­trac­tive re­search lab­o­ra­tory, es­pe­cially for coun­tries in­ter­ested in low-cost ‘fru­gal’ in­no­va­tion. Stan­ford Univer­sity and MIT are fall­ing over them­selves to be in­volved (Stan­ford co-de­signed the new US$20 self­lu­bri­cat­ing Jaipur Knee, and are now work­ing on a hand). Bri­tain’s Paul Ham­lyn Foun­da­tion opened a cut­ting-edge gait anal­y­sis lab­o­ra­tory here last De­cem­ber.

Since this huge hospi­tal ac­cepts all com­ers and charges noth­ing, one of our group ques­tioned BMVSS’s fi­nan­cial sus­tain­abil­ity. Me­hta laughed heartily: “Hu­man com­pas­sion is stirred when ev­ery needy pa­tient is treated, re­gard­less of abil­ity to pay - and that com­pas­sion trans­lates into do­na­tions.” BMVSS has ex­panded its reach con­tin­u­ously for 38 years.

Our ‘Jour­ney for Change’ con­tin­ued, vis­it­ing a hand­i­crafts ex­port col­lec­tive, nightschool for farm chil­dren, even a col­lege which trains ‘bare­foot granny engi­neers’ - il­lit­er­ate grand­moth­ers who be­come their vil­lage’s so­lar engi­neers.

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