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

Akshaya Patra: What India Can Teach the World

Before completing a four-week study tour in India, I had barely considered India’s role as a global leader. India’s influence was not taught at school and hardly touched upon in my degree of Development Studies and Cultural Anthropology. My knowledge of Asia taught at school as the Vietnam War and Edmund Hillary being first to scale Mount Everest in Nepal.

With 1 in every 4 people in the world being Indian, why is India given little weight in the education, media and business sectors?

India has the fastest growing economy in the world and it is predicted to become the biggest economy by 2050. Not only that, it is one of the few countries in the world to have more than 50% of its population below the age of 25. An aging population is a challenge which many countries in the global north will face in the coming years. For example Japan’s average age is 48, compared to India’s who sits at 29 years.  A young population means opportunity. Whereas aging populations come with challenges such as decreasing numbers in the workforce. India will have the advantage of their population entering the workforce.

Nick, one of the leaders of Indogenius, was effective at drilling this fact into our heads: for every problem there is a solution in India. From rickshaw drivers to CEO’s of start-ups – so many Indian’s seem to possess a spirit which drives them to do better for them and their families. This creates an environment perfect for start-ups. Passionate people with an idea and the drive can bring their to life which may not be realistic in places such as New Zealand. We interacted with many people who had successfully turned their vision into multi-million-dollar companies, from Delhi to Pondicherry.

This is not only limited to the world of business in areas such as tech which India is gaining a worldwide reputation for. NGOs such as Jaipur Foot and Akshaya Patra are touching the lives of millions of people in an extremely practical and productive way.

Akshaya Patra Foundation is a non-profit organisation founded in 2000 which feeds 18 million children in schools daily. It is the largest school lunch programme in the world, which believes that “No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.” We had the privilege of touring the kitchen. Their kitchen holds the title of biggest kitchen in the world which produces 1.4 million meals a day. One cooker could fit 2500 kilograms of dhal.

Making Dahl for 1.4 million people

Not only are meals an initiative for students but parents themselves as it takes the financial pressure off them to provide a meal. An article published by Education New Zealand (2019) says that between 150,000 and 250,000 New Zealand children are in poverty, depending on the measures used. Jacinda Ardern has announced that Year 1 to 8 students in thirty schools will be provided with a free school lunch, it is projected that 120 schools and 21,000 students will be provided with lunches by 2021. I think that the New Zealand government would benefit from looking at a system like Akshaya Patra has perfected. A child is fed a nutritious meal five times a week for a school year for only twenty dollars.

A simple but effective initiative that Akshaya Patra Foundation has introduced is including a sweet within the one of five days meals are served. They keep this day random as they have seen attendance increase to 100 per cent for the day including a sweet only. By switching this day weekly, attendance has increased throughout the week by five percent. When operating at such a scale this is an amazing accomplishment in attendance.

Akshaya Patra is only one example of what can be achieved in India. Good people are changing peoples lives domestically and international. With 1.4 billion brains India is a gold mine of potential that the rest of the world can learn from.

Annalise O’Sullivan-Moffat

JCB – the underbelly of an emerging India

India’s recent development is often attributed to the tech revolution or government driven initiatives such as the construction of 60 million toilets. What often goes unnoticed is the machines (literally) paving the road to India’s success in a local and global sphere. JCB was founded in England by Joseph Bamford. JCB India Limited was founded in 1979. We visited the Ballabgarh factory near New Delhi, which is the Headquarters for JCB India.

Infrastructure is vital in every society around the world. Buildings, roads and food are central to peoples everyday lives around the world and can be the difference between life and death. Governments can introduce policy to develop infrastructure and farming, but it is the people and machines which deliver their vision.

Within development I feel the focus is often on the contrast between rich and poor. This narrow focus overlooks the people in the middle. People which are often driving development, working within construction with machines such as the ones that JCB develops and distributes. The motto of JCB is simple but effective: “always looking for a better way”.

Our tour of the JCB factory provided an insight into these people’s roles in the factory and society. Along with these machines, they are transforming the landscape of India. From that moment on, during every bus ride we never failed to spot a JCB tractor, digger or backhoe.

Within the factory itself, there were hundreds of workers on a vast and precise construction line which transformed parts into yellow, shiny machines which were to be shipped off around the world.

The businesses we were exposed to were producing high quality products with an emphasis on worker safety and wellbeing. One of my highlights of the JCB tour was seeing the ‘employee of the month’s’ photo proudly displayed in the middle of the factory.

Visiting the JCB factory and many other businesses producing products made in India such as Hidesign and Fabindia developed my understanding of what ‘made in India’ means to a consumer. It’s beyond the sweatshops commonly associated with Asia. Made in India is a label which Indians take pride in and consumers should be proud of.

Annalise O’Sullivan-Moffat

Cultural Consciousness in India: What can New Zealand Learn?

India. An opener of eyes. A challenger of assumptions. India is every exception, and every rule. India is cruel. India is kind.

A week after my cohort and I left Delhi, my Facebook Feed was filled with footage of riots. Taken less than 20 minutes’ drive from our hotel, I saw protests on the steps of temples we had visited, buses burning on roads not far from those we had walked upon. The BJP Party’s new Citizenship Law sees religious persecution, tension, and restriction rampant within India. This is why the many steps toward cultural solidarity I encountered in India are all the more remarkable – and worthy of noting as an antithesis to how India has appeared in the media as of late.

Jaipur Foot is a hospital where amputees are guaranteed replacement limbs, free of charge, upon arrival. In the waiting room one will find Jesus, Shiva, and the Buddha framed and hung side by side to ensure no patient feels less entitled to Jaipur Foot’s services than another. As we were guided through the halls, I met a man who had lived without legs for an entire year before getting word of Jaipur foot. Before my very eyes, he took his first steps since his machinery accident in 2018.

Auroville is a community of three thousand which functions independently from the rest of India. A home to individuals from 124 different countries and all Indian states, Auroville works to deconstruct religious and cultural barriers by mandating the renunciation of all religious affiliation upon accepting membership. During my two days here, I was able to visit the Matrimandir, a golden dome which acts as a centre for worship. Devoid of candles, incense, or any artefacts connotative of religion, the only rule users of Matrimandir must abide by is silence – so that all may focus upon and explore their own spirituality independently. While this approach toward cultural identity involves deconstruction of religious identity, it is fascinating to see how this is utilised as a vehicle for solidarity within an independent community context.

What do Jaipur Foot and Auroville have in common? Both reject the narrative of cultural division that pervade India’s religious politics. Auroville does this by asking members to renounce all religious ties. Jaipur Foot does so by making sure to accommodate all individuals. While different, both approaches speak to a desire to realise a manner of human interaction which functions independently of religious identity. While I am unable to speculate which is more successful in combatting religious stereotyping, both experiences assured me that there is an Indian population active in shaping a narrative of tolerance. Looking forward, I see the projects of solidarity either entity tend to being essential refuges to the Indian population. Perhaps New Zealanders, too, can take note of how religious tolerance can be brought to the forefront of Indian migratory experiences in Aotearoa.

– Zak Devey

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

Jenna: Insights into Education in India

An article was inserted in 2002 in the Constitution of India to provide free and compulsory education of all children aged 6 to 14 as a Fundamental Right. Poverty, however, is an undeniable reality. Many families in India choose not to send their children to school due to the cost of transport, ease of access, concerns about what will be taught, and because their children could be earning money instead. According to UNESCO Out-of-School children report (published in 2015), 17.7 million children in India are estimated to be out of school. 

During our tour of India we visited Gurudwara School which was established in 2006 to provide free education to children of nearby slums. They started with 12 students and were met with reluctance from families to send their children. Today they have approximately 750 students with 3000+ on the waiting list. They are a private school, funded completely by donations. They provide transport for the children, a warm meal at lunch, uniforms, and stationery. Donations also pay the teachers’ salaries.

It was a privilege meeting all the children at Gurudwara

Enjoying their midday meals made on site

The curriculum at Gurudwara is more aligned with ours than I would have expected, with the same amount of learning hours per day. They have reading, writing, mathematics, science (complete with a science lab), environmental or social studies, physical education, and music specialist classes. All religions are welcome here, as is the case in so many places we have visited across India. The children here are lucky to be led by a principal who truly cares, and it is heartbreaking to know that there are 3000 more who are waiting for this same opportunity just at this one school.

Another initiative having a huge impact on education in India is Akshaya Patra. This foundation is the world’s largest non-profit organisation which provides more than 1.8 million midday meals to children at 16,856 schools across India, to try and help combat classroom hunger. This kitchen is amazing to watch in action, with hot nutritious meals being made so efficiently each day. 

The idea for Akshaya Patra came about after the founder saw children fighting a dog on the street for food. Through providing meals, children are encouraged to come to school, and once there, they have the energy to be able to focus on their studies. Akshaya Patra are also trying to combat attendance issues by providing sweets once a week on a random day. The children look forward to the sweets but never know what day it will be! 


The 40 foot machine which can produce 20,000 roti’s an hour
They aim to feed 5 million children by this year
Bulk food storage room

   Each day they clean 3000kg of rice by hand so it can be cooked in bulk like this

Everything at Akshaya Patra is highly transparent and it really is an NGO which is impacting so many children across the country. You can donate to Akshaya Patra using this link: https://www.akshayapatra.org/onlinedonations. 3 children can be fed for a whole year for just under $70NZD.

Whilst no one can argue that there are huge problems with education and nutrition in India which need to be solved, organisations such as these are constantly working on solutions and adapting to have large scale impacts. The rate of change here is phenomenal.

Jenna Aalbers

Katherine: Six Must-Eat Foods in India

During my four-week-long trip around India, I found out for myself just how tantalising Indian cuisine is! Since I tried many different curries, breads and desserts during my time there, it was difficult to create a concise list of must-try foods. However, written below are six of the foods I enjoyed the most:

1. Mason & Co Chocolate 

Inside the Mason & Co chocolate factory in Auroville

Why not start with something sweet!

Mason & Co is an India-based chocolate company with a factory located in Auroville. During our factory tour, we discovered Mason & Co’s “bean to bar” method of chocolate making, which involves roasting the fermented cacao beans received from organic farmers and grinding the eventual cacao nibs for 3-5 days. What’s particularly great about this company is that most of the chocolate making processes (e.g. the sorting, winnowing, tempering and packaging) are done by hand. The employees responsible for these processes are an all-female team of local villagers who have been trained as chocolate makers.

Mason & Co’s chocolate bars are organic, vegan, gluten free & soy free. They also have a natural taste because the cacao flavour is easily noticed on the palate. I highly recommend the 49% Crunchy Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Bar!

2. Food from Solitude Farm 

A vegan, gluten free platter made at the Solitude Farm
A salad made using freshly picked leaves and flowers from the garden at Solitude Farm

So, this entry isn’t a particular dish, but a recommendation for any food made at Solitude Farm. Solitude Farm, located in Auroville, bases its farming practices on permaculture and the recycling of bio-materials. When you eat there, you may have the opportunity to handpick some of the locally abundant plants from the farm to wash and prepare for cooking. That way, you get the chance to learn about sustainable farming as well as how to make mouthwatering salads, juices, smoothies, chutneys and soups.

3. Brinjal Curry

Freshly made brinjal curry

This is traditional South Indian curry made with aubergine (aka Brinjal), cooked in an onion, tomato and garam masala gravy. It doesn’t have too many ingredients, so the natural taste of the brinjal and tomato shines through. Enjoy this with freshly steamed basmati rice! 

4. Chai Tea

Store-bought chai tea from Chai Point

Chai is often referred to as the “drink India can’t live without”, and for good reason. This flavoursome hot tea is typically made with black tea, star anise, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, white peppercorns, cardamom, whole milk and sugar. It has a very soothing effect on the body and mind, and can be enjoyed first thing in the morning or after a long day’s work.

5. Thali 

Vegetarian thali served in a restaurant

Thali has more than one meaning; it predominantly refers to a large, steel plate on which food is served. However, it also refers to a particular style of meal, where several bowls (known as karoris in Hindi), containing different foods, are arranged on a thali. In the centre of the thali are usually rice, pickle, and some sort of bread (e.g. chapati). When you have a thali, it’s often served as a buffet, so a waiter will top up whichever dish you’d like more of. It’s a filling meal during which you can try many different dishes at once.

6. Puri

Puri bread with an assortment of dips, curries and side dishes

In the centre of the photo above you will see puri (also spelled poori), which is a deep-fried bread made from wheat four. Puri is highly versatile as it can be eaten with savoury or sweet food. It’s a delicious substitute for waffles or pancakes!

There are far more delectable dishes in India to try than the ones mentioned here. If you’re a foodie, India is a country you have to add to your bucket list.

Katherine Skidmore