Why is Indian Innovation Unsung in the West?

Let us reconsider today’s narrative of innovation, and understand the reasons why India stands at its forefront in 2020.

During my third week in India I was lucky enough to visit Akshaya Patra, the world’s largest midday meal programme. A 5am start still found us late to the factory, where workers were well awake while stirring 3 metre deep tubs of curry and rice. The food was then speedily packaged into trucks which would deliver over 1.8 million meals by lunchtime. While profit-incentivised alternatives to Akshaya Patra have brought the quality of such programmes into question, sites such as that which we visited commented on the immense impact for social change that their work can have. For example, Akshaya Patra found that if they randomised the day a sweet was included in student lunches, the attendance of students increased.

The same week, I was fortunate enough to visit Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums. Here, one would be shocked to learn that a recycling ecosystem thrives! This is because plastic collected for reuse is a source of income for individuals, and thus collection of plastic is incentivised. Moments into my entry into Dharavi, I could see that innovation was not glorified here – yet it was fiercely understood.

Photo by Mumtahina Rahman on Pexels.com

Minutes have passed, and our group finds ourselves shifting between alleyways that can only be described as cracks between buildings. As if a Shangri-La, we come across a store selling leatherware handcrafted by Dharavi residents. While the shop clearly targets tourists, it was incredible to hear the story of how leather tanners in the slums became dissatisfied making products for third parties who would conveniently omit their manufacturing location. The residents innovated, using the location in which they created their products as a mark of pride in their craftsmanship, and a reason to purchase from the slums directly. This has ensured that more money has bypassed businesses profiting off of Dharavi’s cheap labour and goes directly to slum workers.

What strikes me about India’s innovation is that it is unsung. Akshaya Patra and Dharavi alike appear to be hidden heroes, speaking to how child hunger can be combatted systemically, or pride in local craftsmanship can create community income. If we are to understand what it means to be innovative – and be so in an holistic manner – then community consciousness such as that Akshaya Patra and Dharavi demonstrate should be studied. Given 1 in 5 New Zealand children live in a family in which food insecurity is moderate-to-high, what could Akshaya Patra teach us to ensure an organisation like Eat My Lunch has systemic impact? What could Dharavi teach us about recycling, given we discard 15.5 million tonnes of waste annually? To be innovative is to acknowledge that there is more to learn; India is the perfect reminder that innovation can a conscious, frugal restructure as much as a cutting-edge breakthrough. Let’s start to reshape what it means to innovate.

– Zak Devey

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