Citizen scientist

Suprio Das quit his well-paying engineering job to work on low-cost technologies for the poor in West Bengal. His inventions are not about rocket science but the routine needs of the people.

kolkata Updated: Apr 16, 2012 20:24 IST
Arpit Basu
Arpit Basu
Hindustan Times
Arpit Basu,Suprio Das,engineering

Last year, during a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, scientist Suprio Das was asked what drew him to invent low-cost technologies for the poor. Das’s answer was typical — find out what sucks and then fix it.

He applied this thumb-rule to all his inventions. The poor couldn't afford electricity, so his gadgets left it out. It was a career-defying choice: the 55-year old scientist was a trained electrical engineer. "To me, the idea is very clear. I need technologies that will not be complex, be easy to maintain and have minimum recurring expenses," said Das.

Consider some of them. His first project, a wheel-cum-pulley attached with a mobile battery charger charged the cellphones of Sunderbans residents without any electricity when the cyclone Aila struck in 2009. In 2006, he devised a unique battery, the Firefly, fitted on the wheels of a cycle-rickshaw that could be charged with a few hours of pedalling. The charged battery, when attached to a LED light, could illuminate a room. “Six hours of light with four hours of pedalling,” summed up Das, with some pride.

The process cut down the recurring cost of kerosene for lamps usually used in the households of rickshaw pullers. “My invention will reduce capital cost by 50% even when compared to solar power,” added its inventor, a former senior manager with the Nicco Corporation Limited, a well-known cable manufacturing group. He quit Nicco in 2002.

On a different track

The leap from a comfortable and well-paying job into a life of financial uncertainty, the mercy of donors and related challenges was hard, but not unsurmountable. (His project on the hand-powered charger funded by the state government, for instance, was wound up when the government lost interest in it). But why do it?

There were, “primarily two reasons,” he said. One of them was called Thomas Alva Edison, and the other, James Watt.

Since his school days, Das had wanted to be like the American scientist, Edison, whose electric light bulb had been one of the products to use the principles of mass production to the process of invention.

Like James Watt, a Scottish mechanical engineer, who had improved the mechanics of the steam engine, Das considered innovation as the art of perseverance and the science of improving existing technologies.

Das established his name as an independent inventor a decade after he quit his job. From research to design, procurement of raw materials to assembling, he has been doing it all single handedly. He does not keep a research assistant for fear that his blueprints may be leaked.

“I could have started my day at a golf course and would have called it a day with a glass of whisky at a prominent club in the city. Instead, my days, generally starts and ends at my research room to invent technologies,” said Das sitting in his six-feet by four-feet research room on the first floor mezzanine at his Lake Town residence. He certainly looked like a man without regrets. He had done what he had set out to do. His inventions were not about rocket science but the routine needs of the people.

Accessible research

Some time in 2005, the presence of arsenic in Kolkata’s ground-water caught Das’s attention.

He started visiting villages of Bengal to collect water samples. In 2011, his invention, the Zynga, an automated chlorine doser, was installed in a small village near Gobardanga, Bengal. It was installed in five slums of Dhaka this January. So far, 3,500 slum dwellers of Bangladesh have used it.

In May 2012, Das will choose a few villages in North 24 Parganas to install the instrument with the help of a local NGO. Approximately, 6,000 more villagers are expected to be benefitted by the project. The International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research of Bangladesh, and a team from Standford University, is now carrying out research to ascertain whether the innovation would help generate bacteria or arsenic-free water.

“The cost for making a single Zynga is around Rs 5,000. It could be reduced 50% if it is produced in bulk. Most important, it requires no electricity,” said its inventor.

Das greets all questions on his future projects with caution. "Let me first see the fate of my Zynga. If need be, I will concentrate on its remodelling depending on user feedback… What next? I will definitely come up with another invention in future. After all, I am an inventor and there is no end to inventions," he said with a chuckle.

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First Published: Mar 21, 2012 21:37 IST