"I learnt more in the last 12 years travelling from one village to another than I learnt in 60 years of my life before that. Each story I have heard is unique," says Brigadier (Retd) P Ganesham, beaming.
Seated in front of a laptop in a simple office, Ganesham sips green tea as he narrates the tale of 'Palle Srujana'. The name, which translates to 'Rural Creation', is a volunteer organisation that works to identify, aid and promote creativity at the grassroots-level in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Set up by Ganesham and other like-minded individuals, the organisation travels to villages to identify innovators. So far, they have identified more than 200 innovators across the two states, besides documenting close to 2,500 traditional practices.
Among these, 13 innovators have won the Rashtrapati Award, and two have won the Padma Shri. The organisation has also helped 24 innovators patent their devices.
"The innovators have collectively generated a turnover of close to Rs 4 crore, affecting more than Rs 5 lakh families," the retired Brigadier said.
The stories they found were mind-boggling, including that of Chintakindi Mallesham, a weaver by profession, who invented the Laxmi Asu Machine, which eventually managed to reduce the time taken to weave a Pochampally sari from six hours of manual labour to an hour-and-a-half.
Mallesham won the Padma Shri in 2017.
"The organisation has highlighted countless such innovators, and it is a topic that I can talk about for days,” Ganesham said, the wide smile returning.
According to Palle Srujana's website, the Shodha Yatra is a "pilgrimage to the forgotten temples of knowledge."
The idea of Palle Srujana is that rural innovators leverage knowledge derived from nature for their livelihood. There is abundant creativity in villages to find solutions which are simple, affordable, sustainable and user-friendly.
A group of volunteers, ranging from 20 to 40 people, decide on a route that would allow them to travel through several villages in two to three days and interact with locals so that they can identify rural innovators.
"The concept of the yatra was done by professor Anil Gupta, and I feel it is a revolutionary idea. We have conducted 26 yatras so far and the results have been great," Ganesham said.
During the yatras, we document rural knowledge, explain intellectual rights and the importance of consent to them before patenting their device and showcasing it in exhibitions etc," he said.
How the idea was born
Brig Ganesham was born in Bhoompally village of Telangana. An engineering graduate, he went on to serve in the Army for 35 years. He commanded a battalion in Kashmir during the insurgency, and developed a multi-role weapon platform ‘Windy’, which was displayed on the Republic Day Parade 2004.
He was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) by the President in 2005, before he retired in 2006.
"Even in New Delhi, I stressed on the need for innovation in the Army, and in 2005, we held an exhibition showcasing grassroots-level inventions by rural innovators on one side and Army jawans on the other. There, I noticed that there were no Telugu entrepreneurs," said Ganesham.
The reason was that the Honeybee Network, under the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), India, did not have enough volunteers to travel to the then combined Andhra Pradesh.
"I immediately got to work after I retired. I came back to Hyderabad and decided to travel to the villages and explore the real strength of the country. That’s when I realised how disconnected I was," Ganesham added.
"For example, in Mallesham's case, he began to think of building a machine to relive his mother of the pain that comes with the ‘asu’ process in weaving. Therefore, he wasn't looking for material benefit," Ganesham pointed out.
In May 2006, the organisation also launched a bi-monthly Telugu magazine, which provided a platform for the innovators to display their creations and inspire others who read these stories to innovate.
"Palle Srujana is published with the sole aim of providing horizontal dissemination of this wealth of rural knowledge from one village to another," Ganesham explained.
It does not cost any money to buy the magazine and delivery is subscription-based. Volunteer-driven, the magazine does not have any sponsorship or advertisements, and the foundation pays for the printing cost with the contributions it receives.
(Innovations on display at the organisation's Innovation Diffusion Centre)
"I would love it if 'non-resident villagers' who have moved away to cities, ensure subscriptions of the magazine to their own native villages. Then once the knowledge is exchanged among the rural innovators, there would be no need for us," said Ganesham.
"If this happens, they will also question the government and force politicians to support and strengthen local knowledge that is already present amongst us," he added.
However, Ganesham strongly reiterates that all credit goes to the organisation's volunteers.
"There is no money taken and no money given. This is all because of the combined effort of the volunteers, who make this possible," he says.