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Education should enable youth to focus on local problems

Navodita Jain

Recently, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) and its director Anil K Rajvanshi have been in the news for the invention of a solar powered water purifier. NARI has been actively involved with the rural and agrarian community of Phaltan, Maharashtra and is credited for almost a dozen innovations. Most remarkable innovations have been: e-rickshaws, ethanol powered lantern cum stove- lanstove and the development of a twin lamb producing Suwarna sheep. A snapshot of NARI’s activities and innovations can be found here.

We solicited Rajvanshi’s opinion on education and its role in motivating the exploration of indigenous problems.

Rajvanshi with his invention: ethanol powered lantern cum stove (lanstove)
Rajvanshi with his invention: ethanol powered lantern cum stove (lanstove)  

What according to you are indigenous problems and what are the perks of solving them?

All my work is centered around this one thought – “how to improve the quality of life of our rural population.” Any time spent on the study of this idea could qualify as working on an indigenous problem. I would suggest interested people to visit the rural livelihood. To youth who is motivated to work in this area, my question would be - “what is it that fires your imagination?”

I believe that fundamental science and technology can be created by practicing applied science - I term it as the “Langmuir approach”. Irving Langmuir was an industrial chemist who won the Nobel Prize for discovering atomic hydrogen and establishing the field of surface chemistry while developing a light bulb for GE. Our scientists at premier scientific establishments much too often work in areas of interest only to the western world - probably since they can publish in international journals. However, since 30% of our population is poor and 15% undernourished, it provides a large bed of challenges for scientists to study, assess, research and offer solutions. Working on such problems offers the advantage of novelty and creation of fundamental science.

The innovations of NARI stem from an experimental zeal, has that zeal explored the field of education?

When my wife and I decided to start base in Phaltan, there were no good kindergarten and elementary schools. We founded a school - Kamala Nimbkar Bal Bhavan (KNB) and enrolled our daughter - the school graduated up a standard along with my elder daughter! We initially faced reluctance as parents preferred English to a Marathi medium school, now, with the results nearing 100% (for 10th standard), we receive hundreds of applications. It might come as a surprise that a lot of the school students are little journalists! Their reporting about their region and school can be found at the blog: KNB bulletin. The effort was fruitful as most alumni including my daughters have had successful careers (my younger daughter is a teacher at KNB, other notable alumni include the head of a literacy module operating at 150 Zila Parishad schools and the head of Balwadi programme at Pragat Shikshan Sanstha).

I focus on ethics and feel strongly about its teaching in schools, that in fact, is the mandate of the school. It’s the teacher’s job to provide role models to students in the fields they are interested in. The culture of good work has to be ingrained early – for example it is important for students to know the relevance of learning, as opposed to the mindset of qualifying exams. I, therefore, feel that experts in their own fields should regularly interact with schools of their cities/towns.

Another important area that needs attention is the teaching of the development or the history of science - discussing the lives of scientists, the challenges they faced and their contributions. The iconic figures of science could be good role models to students.

Your opinion on the state of higher education in India?

I feel that the curriculum of science and engineering colleges needs to be modified to emphasize on hands-on work. Students should do functional projects that will help them develop an interest in research. Education should focus on using analytical skills in problem solving. Students can then apply this methodology in any field they choose to pursue.

Students can also be exposed to research during their school days – for example, by emulating the USA-based - Maker Movement. The USA has an old tradition of youngsters tinkering in their garages - making household items and developing revolutionizing softwares! With 3D printing technologies and emphasis on hands-on training, schools in USA are making students interested in creating designs and toys. If introduced to students here in India, it is possible that they could engineer and create hardware oriented products early in their education.

Together with emphasis on research, the curriculum needs to include the topics of social entrepreneurship and technical management. Social entrepreneurship should introduce the students to the problems of rural India and the usage of science and engineering in solving them.

What according to you are key areas in agriculture that require innovative thrust? Are there possibilities of intervention by policymakers?

I have identified 3 key areas : rainwater harvesting, energy harvesting and precision agriculture. Rainwater harvesting has the potential to impact agriculture as well as watershed development.

The technology development requires large-scale deployment of qualified engineers - thus the technology and its management should be made a compulsory minor in all engineering and agricultural curricula.

India produces 600–800 million tonnes of agricultural residue per year (post-harvest plant remnants). A major portion of this dry residue is burnt in the fields and responsible for creating a brown haze over the subcontinent – also, an alarming contributor to climate change. Theoretically this residue has the potential of producing close to 80,000 MW of electricity through biomass - nearly 50% of India’s total installed capacity! Farmers need to be incentivized for using the agricultural residue.

Currently, 80% of farms in India are less than 2 hectares in size. This small farm size is actually a boon, as it allows the use of small autonomous machines for precision agriculture which includes timely and precise crop management, consequently increasing productivity. Since precision farming is mostly robot and drone driven, students might be attracted to it. We need creative programmes in engineering and agricultural sciences to sustain this interest.

Policymakers and government could encourage industries to pursue research for rural areas as a part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR). Government gives sops and tax write-offs to the corporate sector to the tune of INR 5320 billion per year. This is in addition to the billions that the Indian banks write off as bad loans. Incidentally, this much money is five times more than the entire subsidy given to the poor via the Public Distribution System scheme. The prescribed 2% limit of spending on CSR can be increased by the government, hopefully enhancing funding towards rural research.

The mark of your innovations can be seen in their impact; however, you publish only in Indian journals. Why is that so?

I have three reasons for publishing in domestic journals:

  • Papers are published relatively fast
  • The journals charge no or very little money
  • With the upward trend of science communication, our work reaches a bigger audience, even if we do not publish in famous journals

As far as research is concerned, I do not believe in metrics but in the true impact of the work, and feel sad that scientists are judged by the number of publications (and their impact factor). We started work on the electric powered cycle rickshaw in 1995 and published it later in 2002 in Current Science. We are proud that this paper popularized the concept of e-rickshaws throughout the country.

How can the youth community join your organization?

They can join us as interns – though we do not pay! Accommodation will be provided, and once you settle in, sky is the limit! Imagination, hard work (and a streak of madness!) is what we are looking for. A key contribution we are looking for is the enterprising zeal of the youth: to manufacture and market our products. Contact us if you are passionate about nation-building.

Written By

Science Education and Communication Coordinator