The story of Jaipur foot is quite well known. How a local artisan designed a low cost limb is a legend that has become a standard of frugality, flexibility and user friendliness world over. But when somebody reduces the cost of such a limb by one third and helps in fixing it in one third time to more than 8000 differently abled people, a new standard is born.
During the recent workshop on Grassroots Innovations for Inclusive Development at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, I came across such an outstanding example. Mr. Jaya Prakash, Haldour block, Bijnor district, UP was a polio victim and thus couldn’t walk properly. His wife was similarly challenged. To make ends meet and survive with dignity, he went to Jaipur to get artificial limb fitted. It costed him about Rs 9000 besides the cost of travel and lodging for three trips. He wondered whether he could afford that for his wife. But, getting a limb for his wife was very important for him.
He dissembled his own artificial limb made in Jaipur, understood the design, material and the way to make it. At that stage, he needed support not only to experiment but also to scale up his success, of which he was very confident. Mr. R.Mouli, then collector of the district extended full support, he also helped Jaya Prakash to get support from industry and other philanthropic organizations and individuals. Jaya Prakash made artificial limbs in less one third of the cost and fitted them in one third of the time. More than 8000 people have been benefited from this innovation. He is now working on making an artificial hand so that with newly made hand, people should be able to write. He has set up a voluntary organization viz., JP Vikalangshiksha evam Prashikshan sansthan, Kumharpura. Smt. Amrita Singh, the local district level officer for disabled has been helping Jay Prakash in serving the society in such an extremely affordable and effective way. Tens of thousands of such Jay Prakash are present in different parts of the country, unrecognized, unsung. The public administration never defined its role as purveyor of creative ideas for nurturing them. The experience of this workshop and numerous ideas that came out in a few hours demonstrate that a great deal more can be done to promote innovation in public system.
How do we create systems for scouting, spawning and sustaining innovations by individuals, institutions and networks? Tendency to create an innovation cell or a department is very tempting. Having done that, the function of creative and empathetic problem solving gets concentrated in a small department or cell. The whole idea is then doomed. How do we balance the desire to institutionalize and the need for autonomy, agency and authority for diversified, decentralized experimentation? I firmly believe that problem is less with generation of ideas, but much more with the missing support for such ideas. How do we test the intention of an organization to promote innovation? In my view, a simple test is that if such an organization is interested in responding ideas already existing within and outside with alacrity, empathy and necessary administrative and financial support, then more people will take initiatives and even more people would support them. It is the tendency to compartmentalize and “systematize” the innovation process which leads to the death of spontaneity and samvedana.
When we scale up innovations, we need systems but I am not so sure that for generating ideas, we can go very far with the formulistic approach. At the same time, given the stress of expectation and with a few illustrations, it is also not impossible to speed up the process of generating ideas to meet the unmet needs. Much will depend upon the credibility that participants feel, the system has. In the absence of demonstrative responsiveness, learned helplessness becomes the legitimizer of inertia. The societal expectations are increasing, their patience is going down and therefore administrative innovations cannot be delayed for too long. But we must ask a question. When in 1992, a whole issue of journal, The Administrator was dedicated to celebrate some of the most outstanding innovations at that time. Why would it take more than two decades to act upon some of them and scout many more? The initiative by the Cabinet Secretariat under Result Framework Document [RFD] is a good one provided it can be backed up by concrete measures to implement existing ideas, scale up proven innovations and support new ideas. The guidelines for the District Innovation Fund set up on the advice of Thirteenth Finance Commission, for which I had written the policy note, provide sufficient evidence as to how not to promote innovations in government. If a District Collector cannot be trusted for seeking ideas and supporting the last mile missing infrastructure at local level, then such a Fund makes no sense. The subsidiarity principle implies that decision must be taken as close to the point of action as possible. Will innovations ever grow if this principle is systematically violated in almost every policy?
Anil K Gupta