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Innovation a hallmark of fast-growing India

Patients receive prosthetic limbs during a campaign to distribute free artificial limbs at a hospital in Mumbai on Oct. 28, 2009. (Reuters/Arko Datta)

In India, the word "jugaad" has become part of the lexicon.

It’s slang for "frugal innovation" in the face of scarcity, and throughout India, there are countless examples of such creativity. During my posting in South Asia, I loved to write about entrepreneurs who developed innovations such as a pomegranate de-seeder, a cheap, portable infant incubator and a bamboo-framed bike.

The innovations aren’t limited to the Indian countryside. In Bangalore, the doctor Devi Shetty is turning heads with several initiatives, including his construction of a new hospital for cancer patients where the operating rooms all line the outer edge of the building. That allows doctors to operate using mostly natural light, instead of fluorescents.

A new report by the British charity Nesta attempts to document some of India’s most impressive innovations, which are occurring, the report notes, even though India’s expenditure on research and development remains under 1 per cent of GDP. That suggests India’s remarkable entrepreneurs are developing the innovations largely in the private sector and in universities. Nesta notes there are opportunities for British universities to partner with Indian schools, opportunities that similarly exist for Canadian rivals.

One of the best-known examples of frugal innovation in India is the Jaipur foot, which was developed by a temple sculptor who identified there was a lack of affordable prosthetic limbs. While existing models cost as much as $12,000, the Japiur foot is made of rubber, wood and cords, costs less than $45, and is now fitted on 20,000 patients a year.

Another noted by the new Nesta report highlights the Swach water filter, developed by Tata Chemicals. The filter costs $20, 50 per cent less than the cost of the lowest competitor filter. It uses a rice husk and silver nano-particle filter and runs without electricity or running water.  Developed in conjunction with M.I.T. in the U.S., the filter cleans 3,000 litres of water before it automatically shuts off.

Nesta also highlights 10 especially noteworthy Indian innovations. My favourite is Mumbai’s new version of 911. Users can dial 1298 for an ambulance. Patients going to a private hospital are charged the full amount, while others who are taken to a government/municipal hospital are charged a subsidised rate and free services are provided to accident victims, unaccompanied unconscious individuals and victims of mass casualty incidents.

In 2007, the company had 10 ambulances in Mumbai. Now it has close to 100.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead


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