When it comes to India’s future, Raghunath Mashelkar admits he’s an optimist. Although millions of Indians are still living below the poverty line and many will continue to do so for decades to come, Mashelkar, an accomplished polymer scientist who has held a wide variety of leadership positions at prominent research and scientific institutions, believes that India has the raw materials — the talent and drive — to overcome its challenges and become a nation of innovators.
These advances, Mashelkar argues, should be developed to help the poor at a price they can afford; not just in India, but in emerging nations around the world. He calls this concept Gandhian engineering, citing examples such as the Tata Nano, the cheapest car in the world at a cost of about US$2,200; a hepatitis B vaccine that is 1/40th the cost of traditional vaccines but meets UNICEF’s quality requirements; and Aravind Eye Care’s cataract surgeries, performed on 300,000 patients annually, which cost 1/100th the fee charged in other countries but meet global quality standards.
Mashelkar, currently the Bhatnagar Fellow at India’s National Chemical Laboratory (of which he was formerly the director) and the president of the Global Research Alliance, a network of publicly funded R&D institutes from the U.S., Europe, and the Asia/Pacific region, sat down with strategy+business in Mumbai in January 2010 to discuss his views on innovation and creating breakthroughs, and his belief in the power of inexpensive and accessible technology to change lives.
S+B: What is Gandhian engineering?
MASHELKAR: It’s a term I coined for getting more from less for more people, a new way of expressing one of Gandhi’s teachings: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” In other words, Gandhian engineering is inclusive innovation: developing products and services that improve life for everyone, innovation that doesn’t leave out the poor. We are talking about 4 billion people whose income levels are less than $2 a day. To raise their standard of living and quality of life — which is critical for India, China, and every other emerging nation to fully join the global economy as equals — we have to make goods and services that are ultra-low-cost; not only affordable, but extremely affordable; not “low performance, low price,” but “high performance, low price.” That’s what Ratan Tata [chairman of Tata Motors] did with the Nano. He set out to make a car with safety, comfort, and fuel efficiency available at a cost that was affordable to somebody who was driving a two-wheeler. [See “Too Good to Fail,” by Ann Graham, s+b, Spring 2010.]
S+B: Can you provide another example of Gandhian engineering at work in India today?
MASHELKAR: For the millions of people along India’s coastline who depend on fishing for their livelihood, a new system of satellite-based potential fishing zone (PFZ) forecasting has raised productivity levels and thus incomes. Before this technology was accessible, fishermen often returned home in the evening without any catch. Today, scientists can see the chlorophyll — the green coloration of water created by the activity of the fish — and can also measure the sea surface temperature, which changes due to the activity of the fish. The PFZ information is disseminated to the fishermen in two ways: first, through electronic message boards, where the information is posted. Second, some service providers are supplied with the information, which they then send by SMS text messages to the fishermen’s mobile phones, which can be purchased very inexpensively in India today. When the fisherman goes to these regions where the fish density is higher, his income level will rise. And, also significant, when he used to come back after catching the fish, the fisherman’s catch might rot because he wouldn’t be able to secure buyers quickly enough. Today, using his mobile phone even before he comes ashore, he has fixed where he’s going to sell.