Low-cost solutions like Bharti’s—given India’s socio-economic realities—deserve all the recognition they can get, and to that end, the Padma Shri is richly merited, especially against the backdrop of the Padmas suffering from the taint of being a tool of political favour-currying and expediency.
Among the Padma Shri honorees this year is Omesh Bharti, an Indian epidemiologist who came up with a rabies prevention protocol that brought the cost down from Rs 35,000 to Rs 350. Dr Bharti’s improvement of the protocol was endorsed as the global standard in rabies prophylaxis (preventive action) by the WHO in 2018, which made particular note of its comparable efficacy with the previous prophylaxis regimen and its crucial cost- and time-saving advantage over the same. Under the earlier prophylaxis regime, apart from the rabies vaccine, rabies immunoglobulins (RIG) were injected at the site of the bite-wound and at a distant intramuscular site in cases where RIG injection was strongly indicated. Bharti’s protocol, involving only localised intradermal RIG injections at the site of the wound in proportion to the patient’s body weight, yielded 100% rabies prevention in clinical tests. As against 363 vials of expensive RIG needed under the earlier protocol, in all of the 269 test cases, Bharti was able to prevent rabies with just 42 vials. In remote and rural areas of the country—given India accounts for 36% of all rabies deaths in the world, the disease is an especially serious threat in such areas—Bharti’s new protocol means the difference between life and death for the poor.
Low-cost solutions like Bharti’s—given India’s socio-economic realities—deserve all the recognition they can get, and to that end, the Padma Shri is richly merited, especially against the backdrop of the Padmas suffering from the taint of being a tool of political favour-currying and expediency. Frugal innovation has, in fact, become India’s calling card over the past few years. From the $50 Mitticool clay refrigerator that uses absolutely no power and yet keeps food fresh for nearly five days to ‘PadMan’ Arunachalam Muruganathan sanitary napkins whose costs are anywhere between one-tenth and one-fifth of branded alternatives, depending on the latter’s price, India’s frugal innovation has been making a mark internationally, and more importantly, bettering the lives of many for whom costs are a barrier to even basic necessities for healthy and hygienic living. Many are also pushing the envelope on the thinking on sustainable solutions to modern-day problems. A low-cost solar water purifier, developed by the Indian Institute of Science and Suryagen Renewables, an early-stage solar thermal company, for instance, can be used to make water from nearly any source—river, pond, wells, or even harvested rainwater—potable. Based on the principle of distillation through solar thermal energy, it can be used to provide drinking water in areas where the water has high arsenic or fluoride content.
Examples of frugal (jugaad) innovation are dime a dozen in India, and many of these can achieve scale—like the low-cost sanitary napkins story shows—but that can’t come without linking innovators with industry and significant government help. A Padma for Bharti will certainly encourage research, but for translating that research into impact on ground, much more will be needed.