Angela Saini: How India is harnessing innovation for development

Angela Saini portrait

3 February 2016

Author: Angela Saini


My job as a science journalist has taken me to the farthest reaches of innovation, from a peek at Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft to the myriad wonders inside the famous Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But it was while writing my first book, Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, that I gained my deepest and most moving insights into what innovation can mean to everyday people. Engineers and scientists across India work under some of the most challenging circumstances to develop new products and processes that have a real impact on the lives of the poor. India’s most renowned innovations are the ones that take known inventions and re-engineer them to make them both affordable and suitable for mass-production. Sometimes this work is done by big, powerful corporations. India’s IT outsourcing industry as exemplified by the multi-billion-dollar firm Infosys, for example, was built in the 1990s on the Global Delivery Model, which links relatively low-cost Indian engineers with foreign companies that need their coding talent. But it extends to products, too. The Tata Nano car was launched in 2009, billed as the world’s cheapest family car. Today, frugal innovation of this kind is even bigger business. A team working for GE Healthcare in India, for instance, built a portable electrocardiograph machine in 2007 for less than half the cost of a conventional one. By 2011, they had sold 10,000 of these low-cost machines.

But ordinary people, too, are working away quietly and with a steely determination to make lives better for the people around them. One glorious example is Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man from a poor family in southern India who was shocked to discover that his wife had no choice but to use old, dirty rags when she was menstruating because she couldn’t afford sanitary towels. Spending his own money on research and shocking his neighbours with inquiries into how sanitary pads absorbed fluid, he spent years building a cheap machine to make sanitary towels by breaking down cellulose into soft, fluffy padding. From four pence for a normal towel, he lowered the cost to as little as a quarter of a penny. His invention took off and is now used in towns and villages across India. This year he was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour

This kind of rough-and-ready, workaround type of inventiveness has its own word in parts of India: Jugaad. And you can see examples of it all over the nation. It is invention born of necessity. It is the old Bollywood movie posters being used as makeshift canopies by a slum-dweller, for example, or the farmer’s tractor built out of spare parts and wooden crates.

When you can’t afford to buy what you need, you make it yourself. Ultimately, I believe, this is what lies at the heart of the human desire to invent, create and innovate. Our imaginations can be powerful tools when we are poor, forcing us to see objects such as used plastic water bottles and bent-out-of-shape paperclips in a wonderful new light. Suddenly, the desperate push of necessity transforms the world into a scrapyard full of useful things. Writing Geek Nation taught me, as someone comfortable enough to be able to buy most of what I need, the value of making do in this way. Our throwaway, disposable culture makes us believe that we can no longer be every day innovators. But we only have to look to people like Arunachalam Muruganantham to understand that we can. We all have the power to invent what we need.

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More on the author, Angela Saini

Angela Saini is a British science journalist, broadcaster and the author of books, of which the third, Superior: The Return of Race Science, was published in 2019. Her work has appeared in Science, Wired, The Guardian, The New Humanist and New Scientist. She is also a presenter on BBC radio.

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