India must look to the past for sustainable innovation

By Prodipto Ghosh

A typical sight in Delhi is a small rickshaw piled high with tin cans, being pedalled across town. Now a load that size anywhere else in the world would go by a small truck.

But you don’t need a truck for this load, because these cans are empty. So this rickshaw represents a very intelligent, efficient use of labour and energy.

Then you see a slightly larger rickshaw and it’s carrying bags of cement and bricks.

This is much more than the rickshaw’s been designed to carry, and it’s beyond the strength of one person to pedal. Elsewhere, again, it would normally go by truck.

But here people have taken the backside of a motor scooter and bolted it on to the rickshaw. And now you have a 100cc engine doing the work of a 2000cc truck. This is frugal innovation in action.

Cycle and motorised rickshaw drivers in India are famous for their ingenuity (Pic: Flickr/archer10)

There is a TV advertisement showing an Indian family on a tour of an aerospace museum in the US. The guide tells them all about the spaceship, which can go out to the farthest reaches of the solar system.

Then he asks if there are any questions. And the Indian father immediately responds: “Yes. How many miles does it do to the gallon?”

Look at the kabaadiwalas [dealers in scrap and junk].

Every month, one will come to your doorstep and buy anything that is potentially reusable or recyclable: all your accumulated newspapers, bottles, plastic bags, tin cans, old shoes, tyres, plastic, utensils, your old TV sets, your old computers.

And since every household is paid for it, it is worth their while to segregate everything. So we have a fairly sophisticated system of waste recovery built into our culture.

Typically, if you go to an Indian appliance store to buy a new refrigerator, the shopkeeper will ask you if you have an old one to sell in return. What happens to the old refrigerator?

It is not stripped for its metal. It is refurbished, repaired, repainted and it goes to a market of unbranded generic refrigerators which are available for a third of a price of a new branded model.

So the cradle-to-grave life of an average Indian refrigerator is about 20 years, far greater than in the West.

Kabaadi system

It is a system which extends all the way up to the ship breaking yards at Alang [in Gujarat].

In the market there you can buy anything from a ship’s refrigerator to a 500kW generator.

A significant quantity of India’s steel requirements come from there, which is a much less energy-intensive way of sourcing them than making steel from iron ore, limestone and coke.

Everything of value is recovered. Sure, there have been concerns about working conditions, but they can and should be fully addressed.

It is the most efficient and sustainable way of disposing of ships, so it serves a function not just for India but the world.

Harnessing tradition

Even though India is building up its infrastructure, it remains for now a relatively resource-efficient economy, and much of this has to do with the presence of these traditional practices.

If we really want sustainable innovation, we need to harness these practices and adapt them, rather than consign them to history.

Prodipto Ghosh is a member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, and a Distinguished Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute. Interview by Martin Wright.

This feature appeared in Green Future Magazine’s ‘India: Innovation Nation’, a Special Edition produced in collaboration with TERI, Unilever, Interface and Mlinda.

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