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  • Published 13.02.07

Steered by a decades-old habit of chewing raw wheat grains, sports goods vendor Makarand Kale from Sangli, Maharashtra, has developed what he claims is a “herbal” bulletproof jacket

School dropout Prem Singh Saini from Ambala, Haryana, claims you could use his mobile-operated device to turn on your microwave from office or to prevent your car from being stolen while you are on holiday

Eighth-grader Supriya Chotray, 13, from Khurda, Orissa, displays an umbrella that will ensure that a person underneath will not get a heatstroke

Dwarka Prasad Chaurasiya, 76, from Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, complains that no one is helping him fulfil his desire of walking across the English Channel — with his self-fabricated shoes that allow him to walk on water

The four are among India’s grassroots innovators — discovered by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), a movement hunting for ideas from hinterland India — in the capital today to receive awards from President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

While Kalam gave away prizes — certificates and amounts from Rs 100,000 to Rs 10,000 — to them, the department of science and technology (DST) announced it would provide annual funding of about Rs10 crore to the NIF.

In nearly a decade of scouting, the NIF has documented over 65,000 ideas but enthusiasm over that large number is tempered by concerns that few have hit the market. Indeed, most ideas have yet to shed their image of amusing curiosities.

But NIF officials believe many have the potential to capture tiny market corners. “We’ve sent products to five continents,” said Lalmuanzuala Chinzah, NIF’s coordinator for business development. For the moment, it doesn’t seem to matter that most shipments involved single units.

A raisin-sorting machine has been flown to Peru, a milking machine to Uganda, a pomegranate de-seeder to Turkey and the US, a device to assist in tree climbing to the US and Australia, Chinzah said.

NIF officials recall how a Boston University scientist bought four tree-climbing devices — developed by an inventor in Kerala — to help in forest canopy studies in Costa Rica.

“The US sent a man on the moon, but to send a man up a tree, they turned to this inventor from Kerala,” said Anil Gupta, professor, Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and executive vice-chairperson of NIF. But officials concede the ideas need more than rural enthusiasm.

“We need to improve efficiency of products through research,” said Chinzah. “It’s beyond the scope of what the NIF has been able to do so far.”

Kalam today underlined three elements necessary for the move towards the market — “the heart” of India’s scientific community, “the mind” of Indian industry, and funding from banks.

The annual funding to NIF — expected to be approved from 2007 onwards — will help intensify business development activities, said DST secretary T. Ramasami.

Most inventors complain of lack of industry interest. Ambala’s Saini bagged the second prize for a mobile-operated switch that can be used to remotely control electronic equipment but doesn’t have companies knocking on his doors yet.

It has been years since Chaurasiya fabricated flat thermocol shoes that allow him to walk on water and an amphibious bicycle with air-filled floats but he has not heard from industry either.

Kale’s hoping defence scientists in Hyderabad who are now evaluating his bulletproof vest will authenticate his claim. The idea, he says, emerged after years of chewing wheat grains.

“After 10 minutes chewing, you get a tasteless residue, much like chewing gum,” Kale said. One day, five years ago, he stuck the “gum” to a wall, where it dried under the sun. When he returned, it was hard as stone.

After months of backyard research — using a grain-crunching machine instead of his mouth — Kale developed his “bulletproof” material, fabricated from a mixture of grains — wheat, millets, and dal — and layers of cotton cloth.

NIF’s Chinzah says in one test, the vest resisted a bullet from a Walther PPK. “We expect this vest to be cheaper and lighter than standard bulletproof vests used by police and army,” said Chinzah.

A heat wave prompted Chotray to fashion her umbrella. It is hooked to a bottle, a thermometer, and a layer of sponge. When it gets hot, the thermometer causes the bottle to release water into the sponge and produce a cooling effect.

A defence expert in Hyderabad who is evaluating Kale’s jacket is not willing to vouch for its claims yet.

“We’re putting it through standard procedures that all bulletproof vests undergo,” said P. Ganesham, director of production at the Bharat Dynamics Limited in Hyderabad. “Wait for three weeks.”