THE POWER OF AN IDEA
They are driven by curiosity and armed with creativity. From harnessing everything from the sun to the ground below, Majid Maqbool reports on Kashmiris who are inspired by the belief that one bright idea can change their world.
Refaz Ahmad Wani and Ishfaq Ahmad Wani, 17-year-old twin brothers, are unlike other youngsters in their neighborhood. They look alike, think differently, and work together as a team. Fascinated by innovative ideas since childhood, the inquisitive brothers always wanted to make new things. Hailing from the remote Wandewalgam village in Kokernag town of south Kashmir, some 80 kms away from Srinagar, the twins have more than fifteen innovations to their credit.
Refaz and Ishfaq were awarded for their innovations by the National Innovations Foundation (NIF) recently, at an event held at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. While giving away the award to the twins, former president APJ Abdul Kalam called them “creative twins.” The brothers study in 11th in a government high school.
Out of the total 4104 entries received from across India, NIF shortlisted 32 entries, and finally 23 innovations were awarded. NIF had received 160 entries from J&K, and only the twin innovations of Refaz and Ishfaq won the award from the state. They stood second at the all-India level in the high school category.
When the twin brothers arrived at IIM to receive the award, they were delighted to see one of their innovations—the two-in-one spade and hoe—manufactured by an Ahmadabad-based company. Their innovation was presented to them at the event. The two-in-one spade and hoe, they have been told, is ready to make a debut in the market. The brothers say this concept came to them when they went shopping for a spade and a hoe that they needed in their field. “We had to buy a spade and a hoe from the market and it cost us Rs 1000,” says Ishfaq. “And when we were working in the field, we thought of making a two-in-one spade and hoe which is easy to carry around and also saves the cost of buying two items,” says Ishfaq.
Another award winning innovation made by the brothers is a foldable water bottle. Its size can be reduced by folding it in, based on how much water is left in the bottle. Additionally, the brothers have come up with several other innovations in the past which have been accepted and registered at the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), Ahmadabad.
As young children, Ishfaq and Refaz would make mud sculptures of animals and birds. One day, when they were in 5th standard, they saw a JCB vehicle on the road outside their home. Fascinated, they wanted to make a similar model at home.
“We thought of making one at home but since we didn’t have the required material, we made a mini model out of clay,” says Ishfaq. “Then we made it using wood as it was readily available and inserted some springs in the model,” recollects Refaz. It took them twelve days to make a wooden road roller.
With maturity came creativity, and their experiments continued.
Ishfaq and Refaz say their parents have been incredibly supportive. Their father, a vegetable seller in Jammu, is a diabetic. The news of his sons being awarded brought him some relief. “Whatever he earns is spent on his treatment there,” says the mother of twin brothers. “We have to depend on our relatives to run our home,” she says. The brothers, aware of their financial limitations, are worried about their father. Their innovations have not yet yielded monetary gains. They want to come up with more innovations, with the hopes that it will support their family financially.
Some of their innovations that have already been registered by NIF include an injection breaker, apple catcher and clipper, easy meat cutter, a geometrical pen, bread thrower, egg breaker, and a lighting pen. The brothers say they created these and other innovations based on the need for them, and they believe their creations are beneficial for all people. “The injection breaker idea came when I went to a medical shop for an injection. I saw that when they would break the injection, the glass would fall on the floor and it could even injure people,” says Refaz. “When I came back, I shared the idea with my bother and we started working on the injection breaker,” he says. “It can be a useful device for doctors and nurses,” says Ishfaq.
Similarly, the idea of an apple catcher and clipper struck them when they had gone to a nearby apple orchard in their village. They saw people struggling to bring down apples from distant branches. At their home, they brainstormed about the idea of making an apple catcher and clipper to solve this problem. “Our apple catcher and clipper has a long stick and a clipper which can pluck apples from even distant branches, which cannot be otherwise reached by hand,” explains Ishfaq. “When the apple is clipped, instead of falling down, it falls in a pouch which is attached to the apple catcher,” he says.
The enthusiasm for doing something different has also rubbed off on their sister Runcy Jan, also studying in 11th. Last year, when Runcy was washing dishes one day in the kitchen, an idea of making a plate washing machine came to her. She shared it with her brothers. “She told us that she wants to make a machine which can wash dishes, and then we helped her to make a model which has been accepted by NIF as well,” says Ishfaq. “But it needs money to make the machine,” Refaz points out.
The brothers have converted a store in the second storey of their modest home into a small science lab. It’s filled with used electrical devices and other locally acquired equipment. All their certificates, clay and wooden models made over the years, and their paintings are on display in this room. They have named it “Science Innovation Club.” On the door hangs a simple white paper, with these words written on it: “Welcome to my life!” Whenever a new idea strikes them, they start working on it in their humble science club.
The brothers say they’re upset that they’re studying arts subjects, when all they really want to study is science. They hope they will be allowed to study science in 12th next year. “We didn’t get any support from our state government,” says Refaz. “Even our school is unaware of the award we recently received. Some teachers even discourage us from asking questions,” says Ishfaq.
The brothers are hoping to develop their Science Innovation Club into a learning center for other children who are interested in making innovations. “If this club is registered and the government helps us with funds, we could encourage many other students to come up with innovations,” says Refaz. “We want to help students who are interested in practical science and innovative ideas,” adds Ishfaq.
The brothers say they have many innovative ideas which they want to work on in future. “We have 71 innovative ideas in our files, and out of them, we have sent 37 ideas to NIF for reference and registration,” says Refaz. “The scientists at NIF often tell us that the ideas that come from us are excellent,” quips Ishfaq.
Despite their poverty, the inquisitive brothers are rich in ideas. They’re driven by a passion to do something different. New ideas come to them all the time; sometimes, in the middle of the night. “When a new idea comes, we work hard on its execution in our science club,” says Refaz. “We look at the market viability of the innovation and how it can be beneficial to people,” he says with maturity. “As we grow up, more ideas will come to us,” says Ishfaq.
Methane-Collecting Dairy Farm:
A few years ago, Zulfqarul Haq—who is presently pursuing his Masters’ in veterinary from the college of veterinary science, MHOW in Indore—came up with an innovative idea of a “methane collecting dairy farm” to reduce the greenhouse effect. His proposed dairy farm can collect methane burped by cattle. Each cattle burps about 250 - 500 liters of methane per day, which is 25 percent more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping atmospheric heat, a cause of worry as far as global warming is concerned.
“This hypothesis is given on a scientific basis, using chemical properties of methane,” says Haq. “I attempted to establish new ideas to reduce methane, which has caused an alarming concern.”
The heat-trapping gas could dramatically accelerate global warming. The dairy farm has two phases, closed phases and open phases. “It is closed when methane production reaches peak level (2-3 hours after feeding). Animals respire through specially designed Tobin tubes open at their manger. The rest of the dairy farm is kept open as usual,” says Haq.
As methane is lighter than air, he explains, methane will rise up and will be sucked by a pump and deposited in the methane collecting chamber which is surrounded by liquid nitrogen, to provide critical temperature for methane and critical pressures is applied. “Air will not liquefy as its critical temperature and pressure are not attained. Thus the collected methane will be used as fuel to meet the energy crisis and also reduce green house effect,” he says.
Zulfiqar presented the methane collecting dairy farm hypothesis at the Annual Conference and National Symposium of IAAVR (Indian Association for Advancement of Veterinary Research) early this year in Jaipur, where he awarded a certificate of merit for the best innovative idea.
Recently, Zulfiqar also stood first in his university and third at an all-India level competition of Vetoquinol Vijeta champ, which was organized by Vetoquinol India across 20 renowned veterinary colleges of India.
When Abid Hussain Nagoo was 12, he would work as a mechanic after school and repair tippers in Athwajan. His father was a daily wager and Abid needed to financially support his family. Fiddling with things came naturally to him. After dropping out of school in 11th, Abid started experimenting with electrical devices and other spare parts at his home in Rainawari. And before he knew it, Abid, now 26, was on his way to becoming an innovator.
As a kid, Abid was fascinated by how solar-powered calculators would work. “I became interested in things that work on solar energy,” he says. Soon after dropping out of school, he made a small solar lantern, which he later sold to a roadside hawker. “I pulled out the base of kerosene lantern and instead placed a battery and a nine volt bulb,” he says. Soon, he started making solar lanterns.
Abid wanted to explore the market for his handmade solar lanterns. He went to Khayam and placed his handmade solar lantern inside a store. “The store owner started asking about how I made this lantern and if he can buy one,” says Abid. But Abid sold it to a roadside hawker for Rs. 500. “I gave it to him since he sold things on the roadside, and the lantern would be seen by many people,” says Abid. Some days later, the same hawker approached Abid, asking him to make more lanterns. The hawker now wanted to sell his handmade solar lanterns. “I asked a friend for some money to buy some kerosene lanterns,” says Abid. Then I converted them into solar lanterns at home,” he says. “I made ten lanterns in two nights, and all of them were sold by that hawker in one day.”
Abid has come up with around 15 innovations since then, including a high intensity solar light, a mini solar inverter which can give a six hour backup. “I have also made a high pressure air blower, which can be used on roads to clear heavy stones,” says Abid. He is also working on a solar water purifier, which will convert dirty water into drinkable water.
Abid does not have a regular job. He earns his living by repairing streets lights for the tourism department and installing solar lighting systems at homes. “I approached the bank for a loan to set up my own workshop and I also applied for many government schemes but no one helped me,” laments Abid.
Abid claims that he is the only person who can repair the solar power plant in Kashmir. “In government departments here, there are employees who take huge salaries, but they don’t even know the difference between a diode and resistance,” he says. The government departments often approach him whenever there is any technical fault in big electrical and solar devices which their employees are unable to repair.
Abid is bitter about the fact that one of his innovative ideas was stolen from him by an engineer he knew. He says he had come up with the idea of an electric jacket three years ago, which he had subsequently submitted in the USIC department of Kashmir University in 2009. “But that engineer stole the idea from me,” says Abid. “He approached me once and told me that in winters one can’t travel on a bike, and I told him that I have made an electric jacket that can keep the biker warm,” says Abid.
“Then he told me to develop it and I made the jacket in three days and showed it to him, but later I read in newspapers that he is claiming to have made the electric jacket which is not true,” says Abid who holds the university responsible for the theft of his idea. “My jacket was lying in the university for two years and they didn’t bring it in the market,” he says. “That man is now bringing the jacket to the market in his name, but he knows that it was my idea which he stole,” adds Abid.
Although disappointed by the theft of his innovation, Abid has not stopped working on other innovations. He is presently at work on a solar shikara, which will run on solar batteries. The idea came to him when he was sent by the tourism department to install solar lights at Char Chinar in Dal Lake. “An old man was rowing the shikara I was in. I saw him struggling for one and a half hour from the Nehru Park area to reach the Char Chinar,” says Abid. “Then I thought, why can’t we have a solar shikara that will be powered by solar batteries? It will save both energy and time,” he says.
In the backyard of his Rainawari residence, Abid started working on the concept. He had to buy equipment from Delhi, spending money from his own pocket. “I also hired a shikara on rent for a couple of days to test drive it on solar light,” he says. Once the solar shikara is functional, Abid says it will take only 15 minutes to reach Char Chinar from Nehru Park. “But I needs money to buy motors and others equipment,” he says. “I wish I had a lot of money to buy all these equipment.”
Abid has received recognition from USIC department of Kashmir University, and he has been sent several letters from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Delhi. However, Abid says no financial help came his way. He was not provided any employment, either. “The government science departments from Delhi would write in their letters that they will financially support my innovations only if I send them documents like a work plan and test certificates,” he says. “But who will give me a test certificate here?” He says the paperwork should have been done by the university itself, as he had registered his innovations with them. “Most of my innovations are gathering dust in the university,” he says. “But nothing is done to bring them to the market.”
Abid remembers calling the director of a scientific research institute in Delhi once last year. Since some of his innovations were registered with them, he wanted to know about their progress. “Abid, aap pehlay wahan pathrav khatam karo, phir dekhengay,” the director told him, and hung up.
“At times I feel had we been with China, we would have progressed,” says Abid. “They would surely valu skilled people like us,” he says. “India only wants to exploit grassroot innovators of Kashmir and exploit our innovations in their market without giving any benefit to the Kashmiri innovators,” he says.
Prof. G. Mohiuddin Bhat, the Director of University Science Instrumentation Centre (USIC) in Kashmir University, says the state government is not yet sensitized about our grassroots innovators who are in need of financial support for their innovations. “Several times, I have met ministers and even the Chief Minister in this regard, but nothing happened on the ground, despite their promises,” he says.
Prof. Bhat says 80 percent of innovators that come to their centre are from rural areas. “I see innovators who are mostly poor people, and they come up with their innovations to solve problems they face in rural areas,” he says. Bhat says in USIC, since 2008, they have patented more than 20 innovations coming from grassroots innovators, and four of them were awarded.
He says the state government should come forward with a detailed program to financially support Kashmiri innovators. “The central agencies take time to release funds and there is a lot of delay and paper work involved,” he says.
Researchers say local innovators require state government support as only one institute at the university is not enough to cater to the increasing number of grassroots innovators emerging from the valley. “Unemployment is rising. These innovators are coming up with new ideas. The government should recognize them. They should help them in reaching out to the market as these innovators cannot do it on their own,” says S. Fayaz Ahmad, a researcher and author of the book “Unsung Innovators of Kashmir” that was published this year. The book profiles grassroots innovators from across the valley.
Fayaz says the patent system is not proving to be beneficial for Kashmir’s grassroots innovators. “The patent concept works for bigger corporations and will not benefit our grassroots innovators,” he says. “Also when you get a patent, you have to maintain the patent and for that they have to pay a regular fee which these innovators can’t afford.” He says instead of patent system, there should be a reward system for local innovators. “The state government should recognize these innovators and take their innovation to the market,” says Fayaz.
Innovators, he says, should be allowed to explore their local market first, as their innovations are essentially created keeping in mind their local needs and concerns. “They didn’t come up with innovations so that they will be taken outside the state and exploited in other markets,” says Fayaz. “And even if their innovation is exploited in markets outside the state, the actual benefit should come to the local innovator, but that is not happening at present,” he points out.
(Originally published as cover story in Kashmir Life news magazine)