Learning From Shodh Yatra (Research Travel): In Search of Grassroots Innovations

By Satoko Okamoto, Visiting Scientist, Rural Research Centre

Grassroots innovations are solutions for the problems of the common people, created by the common people. These innovations typically evolve outside formal R&D conduits and they are often inexpensive and easier to maintain. Some of them look like jugaad—quick, alternative fixes; others, with a flavour of sophistication, appear ready to scale. They generate curiosity and imagination: What are they? How useful are they? What is their potential in solving the problems of the millions?

In search of answers, I discovered that some grassroots innovations had been identified by a group of people called shodh yatris (research travellers) organized by the Society for Research and Initiative for Sustainable Technologies and Innovations (SRISTI), an Ahmadabad-based NGO promoting grassroots innovations. Twice a year, these yatris (travellers) visit remote villages in India and scout for grassroots innovators. The yatris help innovators disseminate ideas and refine innovations. The shodh yatra (research travel) also allows urbanites to walk with the hard-core yatris for a week or two. It sounded like a good occasion to understand the lives of the people in remote villages. Plus, India’s thought leader, Anil Gupta, at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmadabad would be part of the travel. I enthusiastically decided to participate in the 30th shodh yatra.

From January 12through 17, 2013, sixty yatris visited a dozen villages in Churachandpur District in Manipur. Under the lush greenery and a clear sky, the yatris cheerfully exchanged ideas with kuki people, an ethnic group predominant in the District, through knowledge-sharing sessions, despite the tense atmosphere amidst tribal conflicts. We interacted with self-claimed local innovators, children full of ideas, and villagers who silently supported our walk. Freezing nights in open huts and aching muscles notwithstanding, the sheer hospitality of the villagers humbled me.

One important feature of grassroots innovation is its ability to mobilize the ingenuity of common people. It harnesses a new way of doing things so that society can move from being resource-scarce to resource-abundant (This is known as a reverse innovation). During the yatra we met with a boy carrying two buckets of water hanging from a bamboo pole. Two wheels attached to the pole made his water-carrying work easier (See the sixth picture under ‘Observations on Water Management Method’ displayed below). We saw several others carrying this bamboo pole, which indicated that this idea had been spreading in the villages. The bamboo poles brought to mind water drum rollers, another type of water carrier, promoted by development practitioners (This roller is a barrel-shaped water container that rolls on the ground; people roll it with an attached handle). Perhaps this roller, too, may have been a fine example of bottom-up, reverse innovation.

Another feature of grassroots innovation is its ability to promote equity in the society through knowledge sharing. One of the yatris, an entrepreneur from Haryana who once pulled a rickshaw, demonstrated to Kuki subsistent farmers how his multi-purpose food-processing machine would work (see the first picture under ‘Knowledge Exchange Sessions’). The shared knowledge and passion leveled the playing field for the observing villagers, prompting them to talk about their ideas. After conducting countless knowledge-sharing sessions, the yatris have testified that everyone’s idea counts.

My participation in the yatra made me curious about grassroots innovations in the hundreds of villages where Sehgal Foundation works. Surely these villagers have original ways of doing things worth sharing with other villagers and with the world. If so, does it make sense to create more opportunities through which villagers across India can collectively examine their innovations and share ideas with their peers? (National Innovation Foundation, SRISTI and several other organizations have been creating such knowledge-exchange platforms at the grassroots level.) After all, societies that promote free exchanges of ideas are more likely to generate better solutions than those that do not.

Observations on Water Management Methods

I later found the same dispenser for sale in a shop in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. This shop was selling various goods transported from Moreh, an India-Myanmar boarder town. The label in the back of the dispenser was marked as made in China. (Below) Water bottle made of gourd. Local people used to carry potable water with this bottle.

Observations on Non-Farm Livelihoods

I could not see many options for livelihood in the villages. In a house in one village, I met with a woman weaving a shawl. (Local women wear it as a skirt.)

I asked her if I could buy one. She said that she did not have one for sale.

More Observations

Female literacy rate in the Churachandpur District (78.9% above age seven, according to the Distict Level Household Survey 3 conducted in 2007-08) is above that of national average (65.46 %, Census 2011). (Below) Prof. Anil and two yatris play with a village child in a buggy car made of wood.

I found many sign boards of government programs throughout the yatra. A signboard signifying the completion of work under the Integrated Watershed Management Program. The same under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGS)

Knowledge Exchange Sessions

Grassroots innovator Dharamveer Kamboj, from Yamunanagar District, Haryana explains his multipurpose food-processing machine to the villagers. (Below) Villagers carefully listen to the translator.

A villager shows the yatris medicinal plants (Below). Throughout the yatra, I did not encounter a single pharmacy. The local people take medicinal plants, rather than allopathic medicines. A young male, who returned to his native village after his father’s death, told me that better access to hospitals is the first priority in his village.

A village chief shows the yatris a bottle half full of bamboo extracts used as manure.

Prof. Anil asks if it is possible to take it to his university for lab testing. He notes that people in Nagaland use bamboo extracts for a similar purpose.