Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Engineering innovations for rural India

I spent a wonderful evening listening to and talking to Michael Mazgaonkar today. Michael is an electrical engineer by training. About 15 years ago, he (with his wife and colleague Swati Desai) went and started living in a Bhill village (Juna Mozda) in the Narmada region of Gujarat, and never left. Since then, they have been working with the villagers on environmental, adivasi, watershed, and technology issues for rural areas. This is the first post (of two) about his conversations with us.

The technologist in me couldn’t resist the technological innovations they are enabling in the village, so this post is about technology. The next one will discuss some of the (horrifying) environmental issues of the area.

A major effort of theirs has been on alternative energy. This village (like many others) is without electricity. Now any energy researcher will agree that energy is best managed locally (due to large energy losses in long distance transmission), and given India’s inefficient system, even if electricity comes to this village, it’s likely to be inefficient. But they have made substantial innovations in this area, focusing on local resources, and inculcating abilities in the locals.

A first innovation (which he brought along with him) is a torch. Now, typical torch bulbs are moderately expensive, use a lot of energy (batteries), and burn out quickly. Michael and his local friends (tribals, mostly illiterate) innovated around this. They designed a torch (with the case made out of wood and cloth) using four super-bright LEDs (light emitting diodes). These are (surprisingly) remarkably bright, and use next to no energy (so batteries last 10 times longer). Their lifespans are also thousands of hours. Pretty handy in a dark village!

Another nice innovation was a pedal power generator. They made one of these for the village school. Of course, the concept is simple. The pedals (of a bicycle) charge batteries, which light up the school. All it takes are twenty children, each pedaling for just five minutes a day, to charge the batteries to light up two schoolrooms for five hours daily.

But the most ambitious project was an electricity-generating windmill (which they set up quite recently). The windmill is a10 feet in diameter, 1200-watt creature, which generates 1.3 kWHr of electricity (for 8 months in a year, when the winds are strong). This cost Rs. 76,000 (less than $2000), and was a first prototype, using fiberglass panels. Future windmills will be fashioned locally, using local wood (Teak, which is termite resistant, hard, and extremely durable). This windmill charges batteries in a battery bank. Villagers use these batteries to light up their houses (each battery allows 4 lights in each house), and pay a small fee for this. In just a couple of months, fifteen houses have started using this (and numbers grow by the week, in the village of ~45 houses). To prevent excess discharging of the battery, they innovated a low voltage discharger (to cut off supply when the battery charge runs low). Here’s a WMV clip about their windmill.

Another technological innovation is more mundane. Michael and Swati helped create a womens’ cooperative, where the women process and sell organic dal (lentils; both thoor and channa dal) in cities like Baroda. Now, the dal is traditionally split by a hand-splitter, slow and laborious. Electric or motorized ones of course are expensive. They innovated and improved a hand-ground mill that splits dal about 10 times faster than the traditional mill (at a rate comparable to the electric one), that’s saving a tremendous amount of time and energy for the women.

Another effort of Mozda (for the public domain) is to design Scheffler reflectors for use primarily to sterilize and dispose biological waste in hospitals in the greater area. Now, these reflectors are widely used in mega-temples like Tirupathi, Shiridi or Mount Abu to cook food for thousands of devotees daily. It’s perfectly suited to be modified to autoclave medical waste (usually sloppily done in hospitals in India, often due to erratic electricity supply). Their innovation meets World Health Organization standards. They are now also working on a needle crusher to get rid of hospital sharps.

And all of Michael’s co-innovators are the local tribals.

Someone in the small audience asked Michael if he worked with universities and students on these projects. A definitive yes was the answer. But then he added that most universities and students wanted something cool and flashy (that would be publishable or will result in a thesis) but weren’t interested in making something already known doable at a low cost. They wanted innovations to make things cost $5, not innovations that would cost $150.

I (like many of us) was an engineering student in India too. Sadly, I can’t remember any of us doing any useful projects of this kind. More power to useful technology, that can be adapted for local needs, and more power to innovators like Michael.

Here is an article about Mozda in the Indian Express.


The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

as always you make science & tech subjects easy to read!inspiring and interesting.

gawker said...

Excellent post. Would it be very difficult to now propagate this technology in every village in India? Sounds like it's generic usefulness could benefit a lot of people, not just those of the village mentioned because these problems seem to be those faced by every village in India.

Transmogrifier said...

Hi Sunil

I had heard Michael's talk at the local AID chapter and it was really interesting. We are hosting him here next month. The work they have done is really great.

Re: Gawker's question about propagation of the technology in other villages, there are many organizations which are trying to promote and spread rural innovation like SRISTI and GIAN. AID-Orissa has a rural technologies center which is doing some work in this regard too. The problem in most cases is the need of local support. Every village has a different set of problems and even a generic solution needs tweaking to meet local demands. Where ever some local organization is ready to take the lead it won't be very difficult to implement the solution there.

Sunil said...

shoefiend.......in this case, it wasn't me, but Michael who made it all easy.....but yes, their lives are inspiring indeed!

Gawker, transmogrifier......there are a number of groups doing things like this across villages in India. Many are now medium sized (covering many dozen villages. Vigyan Ashram and Sutra (Sustainable transformation of rural areas) come to mind, especially in alternative energy ideas. GIAN and SRISTI are good examples also).

TM.....local support is indeed needed and essential,a nd some times takes time. But it does not always have to be a local organization, the organization just needs to have local support and develop in the locality.

Barefoot college must be the best example of a large organization, that's now in hundreds of villages across the country, where the "engineers" are predominantly local, semi-literate women. Take a look at their website: http://www.barefootcollege.org/

apu said...

Thanks for the inspiring read...

Anonymous said...

Good read! All we need in India is many such local movements - led by people like Michael...

Anonymous said...

Sunil, simple and effective ideas - the best part about these are the way they can taken from this village / community and implementted anywhere else in the country... it is also to be kept in mind that innovations may cost $150 in the beginning but the cost will keep getting lower and lower as they are perfected / taken on to a larger scale..

Patrix, did you mean Rani and Abhay Bang? they are doctors who did a lot of work in "maternal morbidity" in Gadchiroli. If Sanjay Bang is different, do give more details here - would be good to read.

Sunil said...

Apu, anonymous......there are many many such ideas in India....constantly at work.

Charu.....i think my phrase there was not clear. What i meant was that Mozda wants and makes products that cost $5 (figuratively) but academics want something that cost $150, and make a flashy paper. I should edit that bit sometime (lazy). Some of mozda's work goes beyond economies of scale....that torch for example, costs a pittance (even compared to a regular torch).

Patrix....it is indeed Abhay and RAni Bang. They have done some absolutely wonderful work, and the remarkable aspect of their work is the simplicity (they look at very basic parameters, and simple things like improving nutrition (slightly) amongs mothers has had a HUGE effect in child health.

There are simple solutions to many problems in India (unfortunately the government often tends to mess things up with its myopic top-down approach. The mai-baap mentality is yet to leave the government.

Sujatha Bagal said...


Very satisfying.

When I read the pedal power generator part, I was reminded about one of V's jokes about his Mechanical Engineering days - apparently they built a hand-operated pedal push motor for one of their projects. Sounds very flashy, eh? May be this is what those students are looking for as well..:))

Anonymous said...

Sunil, you are absolutely right - there are simple solutions to many problems in India - but the approach has always been to look for larger "dramatic" solutions at the cost of the simpler and sometimes right-under-your-nose ones

(Patrix, didn't mean to point that you were wrong - I was just wondering - I googled after I left the message and found that there was a Sanjay someone else in the team:))

Sunil said...

Sujatha.......yes, that's kind of the type of things profs and students want. Plus, in India, there is little incentive or encouragement for engg. students to get their hands dirty and do any kind of useful work.

Charu....i'm just the messenger, talking about and spreading the knowledge of all these people i get to meet or talk to quite often (either directly, or through volunteering with different groups). So, they're absolutely right :-)

PK said...

very interesting read.I was particularly impressed about the use of Scefler reflectors to sterilize and dispose biomedical waste.Even after 8 yrs. BMC and maharastra Pollution Control Board are unable to develop cheap and effective method for Mumbai hospitals.At present they have proposed dumping at 3 sites. Incenerator run by BMC at Sewree has stopped working for last 2 yrs or so.We have lot to learn from dedicated people like Michael.-PK

Sunil said...

PK.........you make a very good point, the same that Michael was making.

Sterilizers for biomedical waste are extremely expensive, and use up a lot of energy (to complete sterilization). Now, these might even be needed in colder areas (with long, dark winters) where solar energy cannot be harnessed by Scheffler reflectors, but it is almost perfect for a good part of india. There however remains a strong inertia to adopt such technologies.

This technology is not expensive, and is a single investment with little recurring costs. Perhaps you can convince your hospital to adopt this. If you (or any other doctors you know) are interested in taking up such a project, i'll be more than happy to hook you up with people like Michael.

Sourin Rao said...

Terrific piece. What is Michael's motivation? Is he a part of a NGO or a lone samaritan?
In this instance you couldnt fine a better use for the use "Necessity being the mother of invention". Simply amazing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read Sunil. Ofcourse the question is whether this can be done on a larger scale.

Sunil said...

Chappan....Michael and Swati aren't really "part of an NGO", but started off on their own, and then became an NGO...

Jim.....yes, it can be done on a larger scale....depends on what you call larger scale. Barefoot college (http://www.barefootcollege.org), another org has its presence in well over a 1000 villages. The entire region around Anna HAzare's Ralegan Siddi has been transformed. Many such examples (that usually the MSM doesn't care to highlight). But the important point is to work locally, with local needs. The needs for each region are different, and what works in one place doesn't in another. there isn't a one-size fits all (which is why many govt policies don't work...they try to force fit it). But a single group can work in a large scale if they get local support in each place.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I can’t remember any of us doing any useful projects of this kind

Me neither. At one of the neglected corners of IIT Bombay is CTARA, Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas. Most of us students never cared to see what happened there. But now, when I had a look at their webpage, they seem to be doing a good amount of work. Hope they keep it up and improve!

Anonymous said...

now they just need to expand the idea