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
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.