'You need to starve to innovate'
Starvation, not necessity, is the mother of innovation, according to innovator Uddhab Bharali. Forty-five year-old Bharali hails from North Lakhimpur in Assam,. His pomegranate de-seeder has been nominated for The Create the Future Design Contest initiated by the publishers of NASA Tech Briefs magazine.
Bharali, whose mini-CTC plant for small tea growers has also been nominated for the World Technology Award, heard of the award through NRI acquaintances. He soon came to know about The Create the Future Design Contest and applied with his pomegranate de-seeder.
Among seven categories he is leading in his category — machine and equipments — and among 259 innovators, he is currently the most popular. Online voting will decide the outcome in September. Bharali seems confident of bagging both awards and even vows to nab three more international awards in the next three years.
These are not empty claims but promises from a man who has seen the hard side of life. Bharali first had to drop out of engineering college due to conflicts in Assam and then had to discontinue his engineering course in Chennai after his father’s demise. On returning home, he was hit by the news that his father had been in debt. Around that time, in 1988, a fellow engineer told him about the need for polythene film-making machines. Banks were willing to loan only a lakh for building the machine which costs Rs 5.7 lakh. Due to this obstacle, Bharali created his first innovation. He developed the polythene-making machine for just Rs 67,000. Initially, Bharali faced ridicule and insults from those around him including his family. In his own words, “I was labelled faltu. But I am a born fighter. I like to win, failure is not an option. I have always had to struggle for my livelihood but I still have a positive outlook.”
Since that day in 1988, Bharali has 98 innovations to his credit and numerous awards, including the Shristi Samman by National Innovation Foundation (2007), President’s Award for Innovation (2009) and Meritorious Invention Award (2011) from the Department of Science and Technology.
Bharali’s other innovations include the areca nut-peeling machine, garlic-peeling machine, paddy thresher and passion fruit-juice extractor. He took up work on the pomegranate de-seeder as a challenge. Many had struggled to de-seed the pomegranate without damaging its thin inner covering. Bharali says, “If an idea is not cracked within 48 hours, you will never crack it. One day in frustration, I kicked the pomegranate. It went rolling and hit a stone splitting into two. That’s when I got the idea. I often ride my bicycle, I don’t know where I’m going but when I return I have cracked an idea.”
A quick glance at his innovations and you realise that they are built to make the lives of farmers and villagers easier. Bharali even sources his manpower from rural areas for his machine design and research centre. He says, “Just because they are illiterate, it does not mean they are not sharp. I provide free boarding and food and a monthly stipend of Rs 1,000 to people who I think can work with me. The only condition is that they have to earn Rs 1,000 per month over three months for the centre. The elderly and differently-abled also receive employment.”
By his own admission, Bharali is eccentric. He says, “I love studying. I used to visit bookstores and ask them for books that no one else read.” He has a philanthropic streak that compels him to reach out to the needy. This, in turn, might not allow him and his family — wife, son, mother and siblings — to lead a luxurious life, but he is happy.
The only grouse he has is towards his allegedly corrupt state government, which did not act swiftly enough in the recent molestation case in Guwahati. One of the ways he shows his displeasure is by increasing his fees from Rs 24,000 to Rs 48,000. He says, “I finish the work within a month. If I take more than that, it would be amoral. Crores are pumped into the government’s reach and development departments but have you heard of them winning any awards? They sit in air-conditioned cabins with lakhs of rupees for salary. Why would they lose their sleep on work? You need to starve to innovate.”
It’s this drive that has lead Bharali to where he is –— work commissioned by international clients, students requesting to work under him and a possible award from NASA.