I doubt that you would have heard of Pengdhusi village in Odisha. Until recently, neither had I. Pengdhusi is in Kalahandi district, in the tehsil/block of Thuamul Rampur. As per the 2011 Census, it only had a population of 568—285 male and 283 females—distributed across 149 households. While Odisha’s literacy rate is 72.87%, Pengdhusi’s is 48.13%—69.26% for males and 28.51% for females. Of its 568 people, 281 belong to scheduled castes and 284 to scheduled tribes. Block and district headquarters are kilometres away. Pengdhusi is deprived and marginalised, still bypassed by development. Out of its 149 households, more than 110 are BPL. However, Pengdhusi is rich in bamboo. Ballpoint pens have proliferated. Typically, these have a tube, with a ballpoint, socket and a store of ink—all of this is encased in a shell. I recall there is a Mont Blanc ballpoint pen that is priced at almost $750,000.
But ballpoint pens with bamboo shells are cheap and they can be produced by artisans in Pengdhusi. They are now sold over an area that has an ever-increasing radius, extending to block and district headquarters. I know about Pengdhusi thanks to SBI’s “Youth for India” initiative, in existence since 2011. A Fellow has one year to work towards being an agent for change in rural and deprived segments, in association with NGOs, instead of perennially complaining about lack of change in others. Some such Fellows subsequently stay on in the development sector.
Pengdhusi bamboo ballpoint pens were the outcome of such an intervention. There was an ICDS centre (Anganwadi) in Jeypore block (Koraput district of Odisha). There were problems with supply of food (mid-day meals) to the Anganwadi and malnourishment was high. Kitchen gardens solved the problem considerably. An ‘easy cooker’ made out of hay, bamboo and a jute bag is a bit like a hot-case. It is cost effective, economises fuel usage and keeps rice hot for six hours. Weavers and SHGs can make and sell these cookers, providing an alternative income source to poor households. There is a story from the Dang region of Gujarat, another area where there is plenty of bamboo. How about introducing mechanical tools (axes, splitters, etchers, sanders) made out of bamboo? This worked in villages like Ambapara and Dagarpada. Not only are tools relatively cheaper and locally made, by selling these, artisans can add to incremental income. Conventional stoves for cooking resulted in thick indoor smoke, with adverse health outcomes. Redesigned smokeless stoves with local material (also in Dang) reduced firewood consumption and improved health. These stoves are easy to make and SHGs can sell them to add to household income. These SBI Fellows can be between 21 and 32, though they tend to be towards the higher end of the range.
Whenever one feels depressed about what is happening, or not happening, in the country, thebetterindia.com is a good site to inject optimism. Better India isn’t only about the young, though young populate it with a high degree of frequency. In Ahmedabad’s slums, instead of donating raincoats to slum children, someone teaches them to make raincoats with tarpaulin, buttons and rubber bands. In Mumbai, two young people have thought of a wi-fi dustbin. The garbage can is connected to a router and has a LED display. When you use the dustbin to throw in your trash, an access code is generated and you can use the wi-fi network. Instead of plastic cutlery, have you heard of edible cutlery made out of a mix of jowar, rice and wheat flour? Did you know that human hair, sawdust and bird feathers can be used to clean oil spills from water?
My point is not to harp on innovations. Other than Better India, you will find plenty of those on the Honey Bee Network and SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) websites. My point is that several of those innovations and interventions emanate from the young. There is a slice of the young generation that does want to change India, for the better.
Does the ecosystem facilitate or hinder it? Many countries have a system of compulsory government service, not necessarily equated with conscription or military service. If you look at a list of countries that have such systems, there is no correlation with countries that have, or used to have, command and control systems, equated with compulsion. Instead, paragons of market friendliness and economic freedom possess such compulsory service.
Apart from anything else, such compulsion probably instils a sense of national pride and helps integrate the country.
You might argue the voluntary National Cadet Corps (NCC) or mandatory SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work) introduced into school curriculum was meant to achieve this end. Neither achieves that purpose—it can’t, if it is part-time. When someone from Tamil Nadu spends a year in a rural village in Odisha and learns Odia, under the SBI initiative, can you imagine what it does to her perspective? On the other hand, if a student applies to an institution of higher education and says she has taken a gap year, not used for coaching, eyebrows will still be raised.
A gap year sounds a bit more acceptable than compulsory government service. Without getting into compulsion, can one not incentivise (with weights at time of admission) gap year choices? (NCC has incentives, but they don’t amount to much.) As a metaphor, I haven’t come across the expression “rat race” before 1930s. There may be a moral there.
The author is Member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal