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Innovating solutions for India's challenges

By Arvind Singhal
July 29, 2010 12:32 IST
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India first needs to innovate the solution itself, and then focus on the product, writes Arvind Singhal.

Last week, Kapil Sibal unveiled the prototype of a Rs 1,500 tablet pc aimed at providing an ultra-low-cost solution targeted towards making computer literacy accessible to those who are at the bottom of the pyramid.

The minister believes that not only it is possible to see a commercial launch of this prototype as early as in 2011, but also a price-point which could eventually be as low as Rs 500.

A few months ago, Tata Group launched an ultra-low-cost water purifier (Swach) with the same admirable intention - to make clean drinking water available to the poorest of the poor.

Similar efforts have been undertaken towards the development of low-cost, smokeless chulhas; low-cost, solar-powered or conventional battery-powered LED-based lighting solutions; low-cost housing solutions; and other such products for the very poor.

And, of course, the world took note when Tata Motors launched the ultra-low-cost Nano for the masses.

Yet, while all these efforts are inspiring and laudable, most may not really make the impact that would have been anticipated when such projects were envisaged and taken up for research and development. The reasons could be many.

However, perhaps the most fundamental flaw is that each of these initiatives, at some point in their development cycle, has become an academic exercise in meeting a single objective, namely "lowest cost".

The visionary (individual or the organisation) loses track of the fundamental objective, which is to find an affordable solution to a real problem faced by the masses, and finally comes up with products or solutions that end up being sub-optimal or even at a tangent to the fundamental objective.

Hence, in the realm of transportation, India needs efficient, very low-cost mobility solution for the masses, but somewhere in the visualisation process, the objective became to produce a Rs 1-lakh car for a few individuals (even if the number of such individuals may be a few hundreds of tho usands) while hundreds of millions still end up using jugaads or hang perilously on rooftops of trains and buses.

The second most fundamental flaw could be that almost all of these efforts are directed towards the individual user (or an individual household) rather than a group of users or communities of households.

Micro-solutions directed towards individuals may not be as feasible or as cost-effective as mini-solutions which could be directed towards communities.

India's social infrastructure challenges are well understood. The biggest ones include accessible, affordable and acceptable (quality) solutions for education, health care, drinking water, energy for lighting and cooking, and sanitation.

Making these infrastructure available to the hundreds of millions below or on the cusp of poverty line requires financial resources in hundreds and thousands of billions of dollars, and then to meet other logistical challenges, be it in the acquisition and development of land to build physical infrastructure or in the availability of trained human resource, such as teachers, doctors and technicians.

Fortunately, technological advances and digital communication allow conceptualisation of some practical solutions in the near future which could have been in the realms of fantasy even 25 years ago.

India will not be able to train the additional 10-plus million teachers needed right now to staff all the K12 classrooms the country needs if it is serious about providing universal access to education, and nor can it build the hundreds of millions of square feet of classroom space.

A PC-based solution which has education-related multi-media/multi-lingual capabilities, with high-speed wireless broadband connectivity, could make basic but quality education reach the slums. Even if such a device costs Rs 15,000, it does not matter since such resources can be raised.

Similarly, small community (say, in units of 50-households)-based water purification systems, community kitchens allowing groups of households to use the facilities, community-based power generating solutions based on solar, coal, oil, hydel or wind energy, community-based sanitation systems (adapted Sulabh models), and even innovative small community-based primary healthcare systems (technology is available for very compact and reliable pathological labs that can be operated like the village PCOs/post offices, integrated with digital access to physicians who could be anywhere, and then dispensation of medication again through such "PCOs/post offices") may offer more feasible and much more impactful solutions to India's challenges.

Hence, India first needs to innovate the solution itself, and then focus on the product.
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Arvind Singhal
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