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Ride the second wave

India’s emerging revolution of innovation can bypass old legacies and benefit millions — if the government uses those benefits. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:45 IST
Samar Halarnkar

You know those red eyes from the flash of a digital camera? Well, sometimes they appear white, which is not a good thing — it means light is being abnormally reflected. Alefia Merchant will tell you that parents who found this white reflection, or reflex, in photos went on to find their child had an eye cancer called retinoblastoma.

Using this knowledge, Merchant, a third-year medical student, now in Canada, developed a test to detect not just cancers but many eye problems in children. She used a simple digital camera that can be used by health workers, instead of expensive ophthalmologic equipment that needs specialists. When Merchant tested the camera in the remote rural areas of eastern Karnataka’s Pavagada — once notorious for wolves that made off with children — she found rural health workers could perform and interpret the technique.

“We are clear that we are not inventing a new product, but we are inventing a new process by which we can use simple technology to help get information on the health of a child’s eye,” Merchant told me.

A former graphic designer who likes rock climbing and dancing the tango, Merchant is one of an elite group of under-35 innovators chosen by Technology Review, a magazine on innovation founded in 1899 and published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Over the last two days in Bangalore, I’ve listened as excited young men and women with varying research interests, backgrounds and accents presented their work at TR35, the third annual edition of the event in India, the first country to have it outside the US.

Last week in New Delhi I visited another national showcase of innovation, older and earthier. The brainchild of one man, Anil Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, the National Innovation Network provides a national stage to farmers, handymen, students and anyone else with an idea that makes life easier, cheaper and better. So, from Delhi’s Vasant Valley school, I met three schoolgirls who had created a bicycle-driven street sweeper. I tried to talk — but failed, since he spoke only Gujarati — to a wizened farmer who proudly displayed the seeds he had developed.

Whether globally networked or locally isolated, the common thread to these innovations is that their ideas are largely inspired by India’s vast array of unsolved problems. For instance, Aishwarya Rattan, a TR35 awardee and researcher at Microsoft India, explained how her team developed a pen that writes on paper and can simultaneously generate digital records. India has 6 million self-help groups, encompassing 86 million women who use their collective power to get loans, run businesses or government social security programmes like shops for subsidised food. These are decentralised, autonomous institutions, ideal for rural India, but their barely legible, often incomplete, financial records end up with banks, which are professionally audited. In tests, Rattan’s system cut errors by half and time by a third. Not only does it process, against a database, what is written, but it also reads out to illiterate women, in their language, what has been entered.

So here is the problem with this explosion of innovation: very little is likely to be used under India’s current system. How does India ensure the scaling up of innovation from grassroots, from start-ups, from multinational research laboratories, some of them using India’s best brains? How can these innovations be tested, verified and deployed for public applications and needs?

If the government is serious about using Indian talent to solve Indian problems, it must appoint an innovation tsar. The prime minister does have an advisor on innovations, Sam Pitroda, who in a previous 1980s avatar mainstreamed the telecommunications revolution. His ambit is now grossly inadequate. The innovation tsar must work full-time, seek out and vet bright ideas, and connect organisations and innovators with implementing government agencies or interested companies. Today, too many innovators endure old, obstructionist India. Even those in premier research institutions up the innovation ladder aren’t spared.

Chetan Chitnis explained how difficult it was to get permission for clinical trials of a promising malaria vaccine at his global research laboratory, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in New Delhi. Chitnis, the principal leader of the malaria group at ICGEB, told me how a month’s dealing in the US with one state organisation, becomes about 18 months in India, between four government departments, with much we-have-not-got-the-file kind of responses.

The innovation tsar must be authorised to cut through such roadblocks and ensure that those who need it most — the 500-odd million at the bottom of India’s pyramid — can benefit from India’s revolution of innovation.

Merchant’s guide, Dr Ashwin Mallipatna, a paediatric eye surgeon at Narayana Nethralaya, a privately run centre of public healthcare innovation, explained how the white-reflex test should ideally become a part of the government health system. “That is something we want to do,” he said.

In a recent book, Jet Age, American writer Sam Verhovek reminds the reader how the aircraft synonymous with the commercial jet age is the Boeing 707. Yet, the first jetliner was the British de Havilland Comet, which after three explosive crashes never regained its first-mover advantage. Boeing waited and learned from the Comet’s mistakes, and its innovations truly launched the age of the commercial jet. Vast, dark parts of this country, similarly, have no technology legacies. They wait for their own jet age. India’s innovators are ready to provide the technologies; India only needs to put its second-mover advantage to good use.