Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Engineering innovations for rural India

I spent a wonderful evening listening to and talking to Michael Mazgaonkar today. Michael is an electrical engineer by training. About 15 years ago, he (with his wife and colleague Swati Desai) went and started living in a Bhill village (Juna Mozda) in the Narmada region of Gujarat, and never left. Since then, they have been working with the villagers on environmental, adivasi, watershed, and technology issues for rural areas. This is the first post (of two) about his conversations with us.

The technologist in me couldn’t resist the technological innovations they are enabling in the village, so this post is about technology. The next one will discuss some of the (horrifying) environmental issues of the area.

A major effort of theirs has been on alternative energy. This village (like many others) is without electricity. Now any energy researcher will agree that energy is best managed locally (due to large energy losses in long distance transmission), and given India’s inefficient system, even if electricity comes to this village, it’s likely to be inefficient. But they have made substantial innovations in this area, focusing on local resources, and inculcating abilities in the locals.

A first innovation (which he brought along with him) is a torch. Now, typical torch bulbs are moderately expensive, use a lot of energy (batteries), and burn out quickly. Michael and his local friends (tribals, mostly illiterate) innovated around this. They designed a torch (with the case made out of wood and cloth) using four super-bright LEDs (light emitting diodes). These are (surprisingly) remarkably bright, and use next to no energy (so batteries last 10 times longer). Their lifespans are also thousands of hours. Pretty handy in a dark village!

Another nice innovation was a pedal power generator. They made one of these for the village school. Of course, the concept is simple. The pedals (of a bicycle) charge batteries, which light up the school. All it takes are twenty children, each pedaling for just five minutes a day, to charge the batteries to light up two schoolrooms for five hours daily.

But the most ambitious project was an electricity-generating windmill (which they set up quite recently). The windmill is a10 feet in diameter, 1200-watt creature, which generates 1.3 kWHr of electricity (for 8 months in a year, when the winds are strong). This cost Rs. 76,000 (less than $2000), and was a first prototype, using fiberglass panels. Future windmills will be fashioned locally, using local wood (Teak, which is termite resistant, hard, and extremely durable). This windmill charges batteries in a battery bank. Villagers use these batteries to light up their houses (each battery allows 4 lights in each house), and pay a small fee for this. In just a couple of months, fifteen houses have started using this (and numbers grow by the week, in the village of ~45 houses). To prevent excess discharging of the battery, they innovated a low voltage discharger (to cut off supply when the battery charge runs low). Here’s a WMV clip about their windmill.

Another technological innovation is more mundane. Michael and Swati helped create a womens’ cooperative, where the women process and sell organic dal (lentils; both thoor and channa dal) in cities like Baroda. Now, the dal is traditionally split by a hand-splitter, slow and laborious. Electric or motorized ones of course are expensive. They innovated and improved a hand-ground mill that splits dal about 10 times faster than the traditional mill (at a rate comparable to the electric one), that’s saving a tremendous amount of time and energy for the women.

Another effort of Mozda (for the public domain) is to design Scheffler reflectors for use primarily to sterilize and dispose biological waste in hospitals in the greater area. Now, these reflectors are widely used in mega-temples like Tirupathi, Shiridi or Mount Abu to cook food for thousands of devotees daily. It’s perfectly suited to be modified to autoclave medical waste (usually sloppily done in hospitals in India, often due to erratic electricity supply). Their innovation meets World Health Organization standards. They are now also working on a needle crusher to get rid of hospital sharps.

And all of Michael’s co-innovators are the local tribals.

Someone in the small audience asked Michael if he worked with universities and students on these projects. A definitive yes was the answer. But then he added that most universities and students wanted something cool and flashy (that would be publishable or will result in a thesis) but weren’t interested in making something already known doable at a low cost. They wanted innovations to make things cost $5, not innovations that would cost $150.

I (like many of us) was an engineering student in India too. Sadly, I can’t remember any of us doing any useful projects of this kind. More power to useful technology, that can be adapted for local needs, and more power to innovators like Michael.

Here is an article about Mozda in the Indian Express.


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