Uddab Bharali : Inventor with a difference

Photos courtesy Uddab Bharali

At a time when more and more people are leaving their homes in the Northeast to build their careers and lives abroad, hidden from the glitz and glamour of the big cities, far from sophisticated laboratories, one man toils away to make life easier for those amongst us who are less fortunate. Meet scientist, innovator and social entrepreneur Uddhab Bharali, a person whose seemingly innocuous innovations mask their tremendous utility.

With various award-winning designs such as the areca nut peeler, cement brick making machine, mini-CTC plant for small tea growers, cassava peeler and pomegranate de-seeder to his name, Uddhab Bharali is proof that inventions can be a tool for social service.

It is a pleasant afternoon and the sun is just beginning to go down for the day. A light breeze tickles the senses and the leaves of the neighbouring coconut tree.

The little man sitting in front of me is attentive as I put forward my questions. I ask him how he would define innovation. Suddenly, he stares at the coconut leaves and remarks, “Except for a safety pin and zipper, we could innovate everything. The key to a new design lies in those coconut l eaves too. Let me illustrate. Almost every rural household in Ass am has a coconut tree and many people make a living by selling coconuts, but if there were a machine to process the leaves to make brooms out of them, this would add to the farmers’ existing income. This is innovation.” It is this zeal that has led him to come up with 98 engineering devices which help make life easier and generate income for previously unemployed and low income households. “I am perhaps the only man in the world who can proudly claim that innovation is my profession,” smiles Bharali.

Originally from North Lakhimpur, he has come a long way since the days of his first product design in 1988 and, as is the scenario in most cases, he didn’t have it easy. “I had to repay a family loan of Rs18 lakh and the bank was at my doorstep to take all our property. I was desperate,” he remembers. In those days, there was a great demand for polythene film-making plants which used to cost around Rs5.7 lakh. Bharali had in his mind a design for a similar plant for much less. The bank agreed to lend him Rs1 lakh. This was, he says, his only way to try and pay off the loan and save his family. He came up with a unit that cost only Rs67,000. The product became a hit and there was no looking back for him after that. He realised that he could make a living as an innovator. None of his gadgets are for largescale commercialisation. Instead, they are targeted at rural low-income households. He explains, “My designs are meant for people in need. Once upon a time I had nothing. I used to skip meals and sleep on an empty stomach. My devices should mean something to those who are deprived. I am not here to strike lucrative business deals with huge corporate houses.” Bharali charges nominal fixed sums of money from government and private parties as a consultant.

But the bulk of his ideas are for people who cannot afford to buy the machinery. To these people, he gives away his devices for free. To keep the cost of the product down, he makes the design itself simple. Machines are usually built at the UKB Agrotech machine designing research centre, Bharali’s own institution, which he says is the only machine designing research centre in the country. “Earlier, all the machines were made at the centre but nowadays, if it is a slightly larger device, the parts are made by different people in my home district and sent to UKB to be assembled.” He carries forward that same zeal into teaching too by having a unique training scheme where, irrespective of one’s education, youngsters are trained for three months on the job by allowing them to assist his staff at the design centre. Departing from the usual practice of charging money for training, the students are instead given a stipend of `1,000 and free medicines are provided to their families in times of need.

This, according to Bharali, is done to encourage the poor youth in t he villages to step forward. However, this training comes at a cost, a self-enriching one at that. At the end of three months, each trainee has to have acquired requisite knowledge to be able to earn Rs2,000 from Bharali. It is this attitude of thinking differently that has resulted in him getting recognition in the form of prestigious awards including the President’s Award for Innovation in 2009, Shristi Samman — Master Innovator Award by National Innovation Foundation, India, in 2007 and also the Meritorious Invention Award 2010 from the dep artment of science and technology, government of India. He is also a nominee for ‘The Tech Award’ a programme of Tech Museum, San Jose, California this year. He also found mention in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) journal in 2006 for his innovation of the pomegranate de-seeding machine. He was featured by Discovery channel in 2007, which he believes was responsible for some of his subsequent fame.

With so much fame and recognition, one would think that his dream would be to settle in a big city, but Bharali has shunned all glamour and is content working in his small hometown. He reasons, “See, it is very good to dream and the grass always looks greener on the other side but my philosophy is that if I cannot solve local problems here, how can I even dream of solving the problems of the globe ? I think the environment where I work now is conducive to my creations. Had I been in a big city, like Guwahati, the glamour wouldn’t have let me work as much as I do now.”

Ninety-eight machines later, t here are no signs of tiring. He is working on his dream project of building a mechanised toilet for the handicapped. He says, “The physically disabled in most cases have to remain dependent on a lot of things throughout life and in many cases for very private things like dressing, using the toilet and for feeding themselves. I would consider it to be my proudest moment as a human being if I could come up with a design in terms of a wheelchair which offers them all these benefits. The w heel chair will have a facility for automatic dressing and undressing of the person, attached toilet and flushing system. The chair is ready but I am still working on the certain aspects of this innovation.” He is trying to extract carbon from fly ash which is a problem for a client and also working on developing a rolling table for small tea growers. Two other future projects would be to remove iron and arsenic from drinking water in rural areas.

All of his devices are registered with the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), an autonomous body of the department of science and technology, government of India. Right now, all the designs are in the process of getting patented. Bharali’s work and talent has been recognised in different prestigious academic institutions across the country and thus he is associated with the Rural Technological Action Group (RuTAG) of IIT, Guwahati. He is also a guest faculty at the Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship (IIE), Guwahati and a resource scholar to numerous schools and colleges in the state. However, despite so much recognition, Bharali remains mindful of his humble origins and sees recognition as a means to connect to needy people. He says, “I have been fortunate enough to be recognised for my work. But today, I see recognition in a slightly different way. Recognition connects me to the needy and helps me to reach out to them.”

(The writer is the founder of the c ultural site