Introducing Gandhian Engineering

Learn about this growing movement and what it stands for

5 February 2010

“I would prize every invention of science made for the benefit of all.”
—Mahatma Gandhi

Do you need to sacrifice quality or features to produce an inexpensive product? Should only the world’s richest people be able to afford the newest technologies? Is developing technology only about making a profit? The answer to such questions is a resounding no, according a fairly new concept called Gandhian engineering.

Embracing Mahatma Gandhi’s ideal of “doing more, for less, for more,” the growing movement aims to democratize technology by developing ultra-low-cost products for the world’s poorest citizens while still creating a profit for companies.

To help IEEE members better understand the concept, the IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) group held a one-hour webinar on 2 October, the 140th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. The webinar is now available for free.

“The GOLD committee hopes that through this webinar it is able to motivate young professionals to become socially responsible leaders who can make a strong impact on society by seeking holistic solutions,” says IEEE Member Megha Joshi, who helped coordinate the session.

Who better to host a webinar on Gandhian engineering than the man who coined the term, R.A. Mashelkar, former president of the Indian National Science Academy. Gandhian engineering gives new meaning to Gandhi’s philosophies, including Ahimsa, which is innovation through non-violence; Swadeshi, or self-reliance; and acting in a selfless, compassionate, but unconventional manner to create a better world for all, not just a few.

“You will need to make space in your minds for this transformation,” Mashelkar told the attendees.

“I view society as an iceberg,” he continued, pointing out that most of society’s members exist below the visible surface. “I believe our challenge as engineers is to lift this iceberg above the surface so that everyone can have the quality of life they deserve.”

Mashelkar came up with the concept two years ago in describing the innovative thinking that led to Tata Motors’ Nano, the US $2000 automobile that is democratizing transportation in India. The Nano offers India’s have-nots a car that does not trade low performance for a low price, he says. Few analysts had predicted that anyone could manufacture a modern, four-wheeled vehicle that cost so little. Tata succeeded, but it took innovative thinking.

“An inventor is one who does not know that it cannot be done; an innovator is one who sees what everyone else sees but thinks what no one else thinks,” Mashelkar says.

The Nano is only one of several examples Mashelkar gives when explaining Gandhian engineering, which can have applications in any field of science, he says. He points to Varaprasad Reddy of Shantha Biotech, who created India’s first recombinant hepatitis B vaccine, which the company was able to supply to Unicef in 2002 at a cost of just 40 cents per dose. At the time, imported vaccines cost $18 per dose. Today, according to Mashelkar, 50 percent of the hepatitis B immunization programs around the world use the Shantha vaccine.

Another example is the Jaipur foot, an inexpensive prosthetic limb. He says the Jaipur foot is financially and mechanically feasible for a laborer who makes $2 a day, the going wage in many parts of India. Artificial feet from the United Sates can cost thousands of dollars, but the Jaipur foot, designed by Ram Chandra Sharma, costs just $28.

“An Indian foot has to perform better than an American foot,” Mashelkar adds, “because an Indian will walk barefoot, stand in a field all day, climb trees, jump, run, and ride a bike. Americans don’t necessarily do all those tasks.”

Creating literacy programs also embraces the concept of Gandhian engineering. There are about 200 million people in India who cannot read. Mashelkar told the attendees about Faqir Chand Kohli, the former chairman of the Indian software company TCS, who created a computer-based literacy program that teaches people to recognize words rather than letters. “For 100 rupees, or just $2,” Mashelkar says, “someone can learn to read in just six to eight weeks.”

Many of the attendees asked what they can do to get started. “You always need passion, but you must also have compassion,” he told them. “Those have-nots, the billions of them, do not have [a good] quality of life. That is the challenge in front of us. Combine the innovation in your heart and brain with passion and compassion. Anyone can do Gandhian engineering if they challenge themselves to think in this new direction.”

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