If corporates produce technologies and solutions to improve the quality of life of rural population, then they need to reduce the profit margins for rural goods and services
I have been running a rural Science and Technology NGO for last 40 years. In that time, we have learnt lessons regarding rural development and feel that corporates can play an important role in bringing social transformation.
Rural population has the same aspirations as urban dwellers, and I feel those aspirations can be fulfilled by corporates by providing goods and services at affordable prices. I also believe this can be helped by doing excellent R&D specifically for rural problems.
I would like to share the lessons learned while developing innovative technological solutions for rural areas on a shoestring budget.
One of the biggest lessons we learned is that we need excellent and dedicated people on the ground for rural development. I can share our own example where we pioneered so many technologies which were first in the country and maybe in the world because we applied the best tools of S&T to the local problems. I have written about them in my book “Romance of Innovation – A human interest story of doing R&D in rural setting.”
Thus, some of our brightest and most talented scientists and engineers are needed to solve the complex technological problems of rural India using local resources, materials and workforce. How to make them interested in rural problems is really a great challenge for all of us.
For example, very few of our bright students opt to study agriculture. When all other avenues like engineering and medicine are closed, then the students choose agricultural subjects. How to make agriculture glamorous and a vocation worth pursuing will really exercise our minds. Because it is agriculture which provides us the most important thing for our survival and that is food! We cannot eat nuts and bolts or software.
Embrace rural areas
Also, by just staying for a month in a rural area or casually visiting it will not solve those problems. When one stays and works in these areas for a longer time then one understands the problems better. I feel that smart people can think about them and can produce out-of-the-box solutions to solve them. A stay for a year or two with S&T NGOs will do a lot of good to these people.
This can be done by creating and nurturing fellows who will work specifically on rural technologies. These technology fellows (TF) will be corporate employees and should be given handsome fellowships to work in rural areas. They may be attached to S&T NGOs for this internship programme.
Not only will it help the fellows to become aware of problems in rural areas but may help them to initiate projects in their companies so that some new business avenues develop. So, there is a need to create such fellows as technology managers for rural projects. Besides, it might also change their perspective on life when they see and feel rural poverty.
Smart people enjoy challengers. They thrive on them. For some it gives a high and then they forgot about the pinpricks associated with their working environment. I feel that once the rural junoon gets into the DNA of these fellows, then we may see a new corporate culture develop which will look at a more inclusive growth and development. It will be like starting a grassroot S&T development programme in different parent companies!
To my mind the creation of technological solutions through R&D which will lead to wealth generation for rural areas should be the best use of CSR funds. Wealth generation in turn can bring in social transformation.
The second lesson that we learned is the need to develop unique technological solutions for rural problems. Our rural problems are unique, and they require home grown solutions. Presently most of the technologies of our products are imported and made for urban areas after which they trickle down to rural areas.
We need to make the goods and solutions in or near the rural markets rather than shipping them through thousands of kilometers at enormous cost. This will require very innovative use of local decentralized energy sources like solar, wind and biomass together with locally available materials to produce the final products. In this process, very innovative technological solutions like 3D printing and artificial intelligence could be used.
It is the corporate world which provides goods and services to people both in rural and urban areas. So, the technological and innovative solutions have to come from the corporate world. The Indian government sometimes can help and facilitate this process.
One of the biggest challenges in rural India is to improve the farming systems so that the income of farmers is increased manifold. Most of our farming is still done in a primitive manner. The wealth of the country comes from its land and the most important commodity is food.
I feel technologies exist which can increase the earnings of farmers. What is needed is the identification of these technologies, their suitable modification and matching them for end usage and products. This could be the challenge for technology fellows.
We cannot simply import farming technological systems from abroad because the farms in the US and Europe are huge and hence those systems are not suitable for small holdings (< 1 ha) of Indian farmers. Scaling down these technologies may help and will tax the best brains. But I think a better solution is developing our unique technologies for small farms. This will be a right step in creating Atmanirbhar Bharat which the Prime Minister is stressing upon. Small and efficient farm machines for plowing, seeding, pesticide application, harvesting and weed removal are needed. This may include drones and autonomous farm machines. They may work on AI technologies and could also be electric-powered.
All these require excellent S&T inputs, and they alone can provide long term solutions at affordable prices. This is quite different than jugaad which is a short-term tinkering-type solution. At our Institute NARI, we have developed many such innovations.
For example, we developed biomass gasifiers, Taluka energy policy, sweet sorghum for ethanol and syrup production and the use of low grade ethanol for rural household cooking and lighting fuel. These technologies have inspired similar efforts all over the world.
NARI also pioneered the development of e-rickshaws in late 1990s and today lakhs of e-rickshaws are running on Indian roads. We also pioneered the concept of rural restaurants where poor people could be given wholesome food at very low price. This concept was developed by us in 2012 and we feel that Amma Unavagam in Tamil Nadu and Shiv Bhojan in Maharashtra evolved from our study. Almost one crore low-cost thalis per year are served under these schemes. This concept of rural restaurants can be taken up by corporates as a part of CSR activity in areas where their companies are situated.
Another very innovative programme in animal husbandry was carried out by twinning of sheep through FeCB gene introduction and artificial insemination techniques. Large scale dissemination of this technology has been done by the state governments in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. About 10,000 shepherds have benefitted though this programme.
But the real frugal innovation has been in doing R&D on a shoestring budget. Thus, all the R&D in renewable energy in the last 40 years at NARI has been done in less than Rs. 4 crores. I feel that to do excellent R&D one does not need a lot of money. What is needed is deep thinking and passion for problem solving. This results in some very innovative solutions.
I also feel that for facilitating technological solutions in rural areas it might be beneficial if there is a partnership between corporates, S&T NGOs and R&D institutes, with S&T NGOs acting act as technology managers.
Marketing of technological solutions through startups. I believe that startups could provide an excellent bridge between prototype development and production scale-up and sales. Technology fellows may help in launching startups in their companies after their internship in rural areas.
This could be facilitated by the provision of venture capital funds in these companies so that a small grassroot science, innovation and incubation programme is developed in them. This programme may also help in changing the culture of these companies to become even more inclusive. There are very few venture funds for agri-tech startups in the country. There is a need to create such funds.
I now come to the last and the most important lesson. We need to reduce our greed and become sustainable in our personal life.
If corporates produce technologies and solutions to improve the quality of life of rural population, then they need to reduce the profit margins for rural goods and services. That is the real CSR. Profits are necessary but they should be tempered by the desire to do good and give back to the society.
For this to happen, the captains of corporate world need to reduce their greed for profits and resources. Be the change you want to see is what Mahatma Gandhi had said and we should follow that.
Greed can be reduced by practicing spirituality. Spirituality is concerned with the matters of spirit. When we think deeply and for a long time about anything -- whether it is an idea or an object -- then the brain has a tendency of focusing on it like a laser; in that process the object vanishes from the vision field and only its germ or the spirit remains. Then complete knowledge of that idea or object results.
This is the mechanism by which all great discoveries of the world have been made. Whether it was Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Beethoven, Christ or Buddha – all of them thought very deeply about their subjects. It is this deep thinking on anything which makes our brain very powerful, makes us spiritual, removes our insecurities and gives us a sense of peace and happiness. It also gives us a proper perspective on what is important in life.
Another important consequence of becoming spiritual is that one becomes internally secure, fearless and the desire to impress others is reduced. It also reduces our desire to control the events and the narrative, and this can lead to a more tolerant and happy society.
Consequently, spirituality helps us live a sustainable lifestyle since one uses good and services to fulfill ones needs and not to show off! This can help us reduce our energy and resource consumption and by judicious and efficient use of technology we can live a sustainable and emotionally satisfying life.
I have been practicing this in my own life for the last 40 years where we live comfortable with about one fourth the energy consumption of an average American citizen. If we live in a sustainable way, then this earth is sufficient to provide for all our needs.
I therefore believe that the mantra of India’s and world’s development should be: “Technology, guided by spirituality, can produce happiness and sustainability.”
(Excerpted from a speech delivered by writer, an IIT and US-educated engineer, a 2022 Padma Shri award winner, and Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra at Tata Affirmative Action Programme Conference at Mumbai on June 8, 2022. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)