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Blossoms in the dust: (Re)covering lessons in innovation from history

Baba Prasad
Published: 23, May 2013

Baba Prasad (Prasad) is a leading thinker in the area of management strategy and innovation. He is President & CEO of Vivékin Group, a management strategy consultancy that has developed frameworks such as the Vivékin Intelligences Framework and the Vivékin Agility Matrix. Prasad's book, Nimble: How Intelligences Can Create Agile Companies and Wise Leaders, will be published by Random House/Penguin in 2015. Prasad is also a Sloan Fellow at the Wharton School, and Visiting Professor of Management at the International Institute for Information Technology-Hyderabad (IIIT-H). Prasad has Bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics (Bangalore University) and Electrical Engineering (Indian Institute of Science), Master’s degrees in Artificial Intelligence & Robotics (University of Hyderabad) and Computer Science (Kansas State University), and a Ph.D. in Operations & Information Management (The Wharton School). He was on the business school faculty at Purdue University (where he was rated MBA faculty of distinction), the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. His students have consistently called him “insightful,” “inspiring,” and “one of the nicest persons they’ve known.” Prasad and his wife, Professor Leela Prasad of Duke University, often work in economically-underprivileged elementary schools in Hyderabad. They helped to set up “Aksharavani,” a school for children of migrant construction workers—Vivékin Group recently adopted the school. Prasad and Leela are making a documentary movie titled "Moved by Gandhi."

Not many people know Kusum Nair today. The simple description of “agricultural economist who wrote from a cultural perspective” perhaps describes her scholarship but is woefully inadequate to describe her as a person. She was considered brilliant in her insights and was unafraid to criticise Nobel laureates in Economics like Gunnar Myrdal and Theodore Schultz to their face. Despite that—or perhaps because of that—they and numerous other scholars were her friends.

My wife, Leela, and I were graduate students in the USA when we first met her in the university café one day. Over the next two years that Leela and I spent getting our Master’s degrees and over the years that followed, Kusum became a close friend–unknown to all of us, these were what would become the last few years of her life. She died in 1993, seventy-four years old. She called us “her children” and telephoned us even on the day she died—we were in Philadelphia and she in Kansas. Leela was perhaps the last person she called.

Kusum was sharp, acid-tongued, and even bordered on being ego-centric. But she was forthright, enormously generous and would fight with all her soul for the underprivileged. Her book titles are characteristic of her—In Defence of the Irrational Peasant (1979), or The Lonely Furrow (1969), for instance.We loved her despite all her eccentricities because she made us think—to see things in a different way, to courageously challenge orthodoxy when necessary, and she made us always look at things from the human perspective. During the Desert War of 1991, she insisted that the three of us should go and watch a re-run of “All Quiet on the Western Front”—one of the best anti-war movies ever made, I think—and she was equally firm about sitting between the two of us. Throughout the movie, we listened to her curse the folly of the war in Kuwait and Iraq. And to think that this woman had played a significant role in the 1946 “Indian Naval Mutiny” in Bombay—to use the British term for the movement. She was disgusted and angry that I was going to work with a Wall Street firm. “India needs people like to you to go back and join politics!” I did not have the guts to tell her that I did not have the guts to say no to the job offer. She was only mildly appeased when I left the Wall Street position to go back to graduate school for my Ph.D.

In any case, why would I begin a business and strategy blog post with Kusum Nair? In 1961, Kusum wrote a seminal book called Blossoms in the Dust: The Human Factor in Indian Development. It was primarily a journal that recorded her travel through the agricultural regions of India where she found that despite all the propaganda, the Indian government’s five-years plans were providing no benefits to the Indian farmer. As she recounted to us, “Sometimes the farmer did not even know we were independent of the British!” She began the book as follows:

On the stroke of midnight on 14th August, 1947, the Tricolour was hoisted to the strains of the national anthem. India became independent.

The monsoon night was starless but aglow with the brilliant illuminations below. Every man, woman and child was out to witness the supreme, historic moment and the air was filled with jubilant cries of "Jai Hind!".

An elemental force had burst its confines and swept like a flood across the land. Would it also wash away the cobwebs, the inertia and deadness of centuries? Would it create overnight a brave new country in which everything would be perfect? Anything seemed possible.

Next morning, the sun rose in the eastern sky to reveal the same squalor, the staggering poverty and hunger, the deep inequalities as the day before. Myriads of flowers, yellow and orange marigolds and pink rose petals, lay scattered on the ground, stale, scentless, trampled.

The municipal sweepers came and swept the streets, and the blossoms mingled in the dust.

My post is about one such blossom that we have swept into the Indian dust. “Frugal innovation” is today being termed by some as a “new paradigm”—but there is a nearly 2000-year old blossom—an Indian engineering marvel—that holds lessons for frugal innovation. Here is the story.

An innovation blossom in the dust

Grand Anicut
The Grand Anicut across the Kaveri

The flow of the Kaveri, the great river of south India, is arrested at Tiruchirapalli by a stone dam built by the Chola kings in the 2nd century AD. Locally the dam is called Kallanai (Kallu=stone; anai=dam in Tamil) but it is more popularly known by the name the colonising British gave it—“Grand Anicut” (anicut is perhaps a corruption of anai=dam and kattu=build). More technically, the anicut is not a dam, but a stone weir—a rather low structure that breaks a river into multiple streams. The Grand Anicut— a 5.4 m high wall that is 29 m long and 20 m wide—separates the Kaveri into four streams: Kollidam, Puthu Aru, Vennaru, and Kaviri.

Our story begins much later than the Cholas, however. In 1827, a 24-year old British engineer, Maj. Arthur T. Cotton, was charged with the task of inspecting the Grand Anicut. The young engineer recommended some minor but urgent repairs to the structure, but the British Government of Madras dragged its feet. It was not until 1830 that Arthur Cotton and his younger brother and assistant, Frederick Cotton, also an engineer, were commissioned to cut sluices in the Grand Anicut so that the silt sediment would flow through.

The Madras, or the Cheap School of Engineering

Lady Hope, Arthur Cotton's daughter recounts a memorable event in her biography of Arthur Cotton: Upon cutting the anicut, Frederick discovered a strange fact: to his amazement, he found that the Grand Anicut, “was hardly more than a mass of rubbish, mud, stones, and logs of wood, the safety of which depended solely on its then plastered surface.” As Bret Wallach sums up, “It was an important, perhaps even a revolutionary discovery: simple inertia had been great enough to withstand 1,600 annual floods.” What is important to us today is that for Arthur and Frederick Cotton, this discovery gave rise to what they termed, “The Madras, or the Cheap School of Engineering.”

In his next project, which was to build the Coleroon Anicut slightly downstream—Coleroon was the Anglicised name for Kolidam—Arthur Cotton applied what he had learned from the Grand Anicut: instead of a grand European style of dam, he chose a minimalist design inspired by the Grand Anicut. And we can say that he learned the lesson well for the Coleroon anicut stands even today irrigating a vast tract of about half a million acres. Some modern refurbishments had to be made over the years, and a subsequent similar dam further downstream had to be constructed when the river threatened to change course, but despite this, the Coleroon anicut is a shining example of the Madras Cheap School of Engineering.

Emboldened by his experience at replicating the design of the Grand Anicut in his work on the Coleroon anicut, Arthur Cotton used the same minimalist, resource-savvy design elsewhere. As Frederick Cotton writes, “it may be of interest to those who are following Sir Arthur in his work in Hydraulic Engineering that the most important step in his education was the lesson he learned from the builder of the so called grand anicut…it gave him, even with the slender means extended to engineers of that period, the power to control and master the greatest river of the country.”

And the greatest river Frederick Cotton is referring to here is the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh. The British estimated that the maximum discharge of the Godavari was more than 200 times the water of the Thames and 3 times that of the Nile. Arthur Cotton took the lessons from the Kaveri and applied them in the four anicuts he built across the Godavari. Indeed, Arthur Cotton is worshipped even today by the people in Andhra Pradesh for transforming through his irrigation engineering the once-famine struck delta regions of the Godavari into the rice-bowl of India that it is today. Frederick Cotton writes about his brother:

The fact was learned from an engineer of old times, but the courage with which Sir Arthur put the idea into practice in his great works was all his own….The four anicuts he built across the Godavari are not solid masses of masonry, but surface coatings of stone over the sand of the river bed, for which he substituted cut-stone for the plaster of the early engineers, but the principles are the same. …Indeed, the cheap School of engineering, which he did much to introduce is, it appears, set aside for the extravagant system of England. And after all, what is good engineering but economy! Any engineer can do anything with money; the question is how to do great things at little cost.”

If there is one lesson that Arthur Cotton’s life and work teaches us, it is that blossoms in the dust can teach us much. The 2000-year old Kallanai across the Kaveri in Tiruchirapalli is one such blossom.

Other blossoms

There are many other innovations across the world that we have forgotten. For instance, James O’Kon, an American engineer discovered recently that in the seventh century AD, the Mayans built with hemp and stone, a 600-ft suspension bridge with two piers and three spans—this bridge was the world’s longest suspension bridge for 700 years. O’Kon believes it can hold lessons for bridge technology today.

I’d love to hear if you know about other blossoms in the dust.

  • Dr.A.Jagadeesh

    Very often Innovations mean Einstein,Leonardo da vinci,Edison,Newton etc. come to mind but not great Indian Inventors. Here are great inventors from India and their inventions: Mathematics • AKS primality test: The AKS primality test is a deterministic primality-proving algorithm created and published by three Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur computer scientists, Manindra Agrawal, Neeraj Kayal, and Nitin Saxena on 6 August 2002 in a paper titled PRIMES is in P. Commenting on the impact of this discovery, Paul Leyland noted: "One reason for the excitement within the mathematical community is not only does this algorithm settle a long-standing problem, it also does so in a brilliantly simple manner. Everyone is now wondering what else has been similarly overlooked". • Algebraic abbreviations: The mathematician Brahmagupta had begun using abbreviations for unknowns by the 7th century. He employed abbreviations for multiple unknowns occurring in one complex problem. Brahmagupta also used abbreviations for square roots and cube roots. • Basu's theorem: The Basu's theorem, a result of Debabrata Basu (1955) states that any complete sufficient statistic is independent of any ancillary statistic. • Brahmagupta–Fibonacci identity, Brahmagupta formula, Brahmagupta matrix, and Brahmagupta theorem: Discovered by the Indian mathematician, Brahmagupta (598–668 CE). • Chakravala method: The Chakravala method, a cyclic algorithm to solve indeterminate quadratic equations is commonly attributed to Bhāskara II, (c. 1114–1185 CE) although some attribute it to Jayadeva (c. 950 ~ 1000 CE). Jayadeva pointed out that Brahmagupta’s approach to solving equations of this type would yield infinitely large number of solutions, to which he then described a general method of solving such equations. Jayadeva's method was later refined by Bhāskara II in his Bijaganita treatise to be known as the Chakravala method, chakra (derived fromcakraṃ ) meaning 'wheel' in Sanskrit, relevant to the cyclic nature of the algorithm. With reference to the Chakravala method, E. O. Selenuis held that no European performances at the time of Bhāskara, nor much later, came up to its marvellous height of mathematical complexity. • Hindu number system: The Hindu numeral system was developed in India between the 2000–1500 BC during the Indus Valley Civilization. • Zero: Indians were the first to use the zero as a symbol and in arithmetic operations, although Babylonians used zero to signify the 'absent'. In those earlier times a blank space was used to denote zero, later when it created confusion a dot was used to denote zero(could be found in Bakhshali manuscript). In 500 AD circa Aryabhata again gave a new symbol for zero(0) with some new rules. • Infinite series for Sine, Cosine, and arctangent: Madhava of Sangamagrama and his successors at the Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics used geometric methods to derive large sum approximations for sine, cosin, and arttangent. They found a number of special cases of series later derived by Brook Taylor series. They also found the second-order Taylor approximations for these functions, and the third-order Taylor approximation for sine. • Law of signs in multiplication: The earliest use of notation for negative numbers, as subtrahend, is credited by scholars to the Chinese, dating back to the 2nd century BC. Like the Chinese, the Indians used negative numbers as subtrahend, but were the first to establish the "law of signs" with regards to the multiplication of positive and negative numbers, which did not appear in Chinese texts until 1299. Indian mathematicians were aware of negative numbers by the 7th century, and their role in mathematical problems of debt was understood. Mostly consistent and correct rules for working with negative numbers were formulated, and the diffusion of these rules led the Arab intermediaries to pass it on to Europe. • Pell's equation, integral solution for: About a thousand years before Pell's time, Indian scholar Brahmagupta (598–668 CE) was able to find integral solutions to vargaprakṛiti (Pell's equation): where N is a nonsquare integer, in hisBrâhma-sphuṭa-siddhânta treatise. • Pi, infinite series: The infinite series for π is now attributed to Madhava of Sangamagrama (c. 1340–1425) and his Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics. He made use of the series expansion of to obtain an infinite series expression for π. Their rational approximation of the error for the finite sum of their series are of particular interest. They manipulated the error term to derive a faster converging series for π. They used the improved series to derive a rational expression, for π correct up to eleven decimal places, i.e. . • Ramanujan theta function, Ramanujan prime, Ramanujan summation, Ramanujan graph and Ramanujan's sum: Discovered by the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in the early 20th century. • Shrikhande graph: Graph invented by the Indian mathematician S.S. Shrikhande in 1959. • Sign convention: Symbols, signs and mathematical notation were employed in an early form in India by the 6th century when the mathematician-astronomer Aryabhata recommended the use of letters to represent unknown quantities. By the 7th century Brahmagupta had already begun using abbreviations for unknowns, even for multiple unknowns occurring in one complex problem. Brahmagupta also managed to use abbreviations for square roots and cube roots. By the 7th century fractions were written in a manner similar to the modern times, except for the bar separating the numerator and the denominator. A dot symbol for negative numbers was also employed. The Bakhshali Manuscript displays a cross, much like the modern '+' sign, except that it symbolized subtraction when written just after the number affected. The '=' sign for equality did not exist. Indian mathematics was transmitted to the Islamic world where this notation was seldom accepted initially and the scribes continued to write mathematics in full and without symbols. • Trigonometric functions, adapted from Greek: The trigonometric functions sine and versine were adapted from the full-chord Greek version (to the modern half-chord versions) by the Indian mathematician, Aryabhata, in the late 5th century. Medicine Cataract in the Human Eye—magnified view seen on examination with a slit lamp. Indian surgeon Susruta performed cataract surgery by the 6th century BCE. Amastigotes in a chorionic villus.Upendranath Brahmachari (19 December 1873–February 6, 1946) discovered Urea Stibamine, a treatment which helped nearly eradicate Visceral leishmaniasis. • Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine: Ayurveda and Siddha are ancient and traditional systems of medicine. Ayurveda dates back to Iron Age India (1st millennium BC) and still practiced today as a form of complementary and alternative medicine. It means "knowledge for longevity". Siddha medicine is mostly prevalent in South India. Herbs and minerals are basic raw materials of the Siddha system. • Cataract surgery: Cataract surgery was known to the Indian physician Sushruta (6th century BCE). In India, cataract surgery was performed with a special tool called the Jabamukhi Salaka, a curved needle used to loosen the lens and push the cataract out of the field of vision. The eye would later be soaked with warm butter and then bandaged. Though this method was successful, Susruta cautioned that cataract surgery should only be performed when absolutely necessary. Greek philosophers and scientists traveled to India where these surgeries were performed by physicians. The removal of cataract by surgery was also introduced into China from India. • Leprosy: Kearns & Nash (2008) state that the first mention of leprosy is described in the Indian medical treatise Sushruta Samhita (6th century BCE). However, The Oxford Illustrated Companion to Medicine holds that the mention of leprosy, as well as ritualistic cures for it, were described in the Atharva-veda (1500–1200 BCE), written before the Sushruta Samhita.[ • Plastic surgery: Plastic surgery was being carried out in India by 2000 BCE. The system of punishment by deforming a miscreant's body may have led to an increase in demand for this practice. The surgeon Sushruta contributed mainly to the field of Plastic and Cataract surgery. The medical works of both Sushruta and Charak were translated into Arabic language during the Abbasid Caliphate (750 CE). These translated Arabic works made their way into Europe via intermediaries. In Italy the Branca family of Sicily and Gaspare Tagliacozzi of Bologna became familiar with the techniques of Sushruta. • Lithiasis treatment: The earliest operation for treating lithiasis, or the formations of stones in the body, is also given in the Sushruta Samhita (6th century BCE). The operation involved exposure and going up through the floor of the bladder. • Visceral leishmaniasis, treatment of: The Indian (Bengali) medical practitioner Upendra Nath Brahmachari (19 December 1873 – 6 February 1946) was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1929 for his discovery of 'ureastibamine (antimonial compound for treatment of kala azar) and a new disease, post-kalaazar dermal leishmanoid.' Brahmachari's cure for Visceral leishmaniasis was the urea salt of para-amino-phenyl stibnic acid which he called Urea Stibamine. Following the discovery of Urea Stibamine, Visceral leishmaniasis was largely eradicated from the world, except for some underdeveloped regions. • Science • Ammonium nitrite, synthesis in pure form: Prafulla Chandra Roy synthesized NH4NO2 in its pure form, and became the first scientist to have done so.[157] Prior to Ray’s synthesis of Ammonium nitrite it was thought that the compound undergoes rapid thermal decomposition releasing nitrogen and water in the process. • Ashtekar variables: In theoretical physics, Ashtekar (new) variables, named afterAbhay Ashtekar who invented them, represent an unusual way to rewrite the metric on the three-dimensional spatial slices in terms of a SU(2) gauge field and its complementary variable. Ashtekar variables are the key building block of loop quantum gravity. • Bhatnagar-Mathur Magnetic Interference Balance: Invented jointly by Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and K.N. Mathur in 1928, the so-called 'Bhatnagar-Mathur Magnetic Interference Balance' was a modern instrument used for measuring various magnetic properties. The first appearance of this instrument in Europe was at a Royal Societyexhibition in London, where it was later marketed by British firm Messers Adam Hilger and Co, London. • Bhabha scattering: In 1935, Indian nuclear physicist Homi J. Bhabha published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series A, in which he performed the first calculation to determine the cross section of electron-positron scattering. Electron-positron scattering was later named Bhabha scattering, in honor of his contributions in the field. • Bose–Einstein statistics, condensate and Boson: On 4 June 1924 the Bengali professor of Physics Satyendra Nath Bose mailed a short manuscript to Albert Einsteinentitled Planck's Law and the Light Quantum Hypothesis seeking Einstein's influence to get it published after it was rejected by the prestigious journal Philosophical Magazine. The paper introduced what is today called Bose statistics, which showed how it could be used to derive the Planck blackbody spectrum from the assumption that light was made of photons. Einstein, recognizing the importance of the paper translated it into German himself and submitted it on Bose's behalf to the prestigiousZeitschrift für Physik. Einstein later applied Bose's principles on particles with mass and quickly predicted the Bose-Einstein condensate. • Chandrasekhar limit and Chandrasekhar number: Discovered by and named afterSubrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 for his work on stellar structure and stellar evolution. • Galena, applied use in electronics of: Bengali scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose effectively used Galena crystals for constructing radio receivers. The Galena receivers of Bose were used to receive signals consisting of shortwave, white light andultraviolet light. In 1904 Bose patented the use of Galena Detector which he called Point Contact Diode using Galena. • Mahalanobis distance: Introduced in 1936 by the Indian (Bengali) statistician Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis (29 June 1893–June 28, 1972), this distance measure, based upon the correlation between variables, is used to identify and analyze differing pattern with respect to one base. • Mercurous Nitrite: The compound mercurous nitrite was discovered in 1896 by the Bengali chemist Prafulla Chandra Roy, who published his findings in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal. The discovery contributed as a base for significant future research in the field of chemistry. • Ramachandran plot, Ramachandran map, and Ramachandran angles: The Ramachandran plot and Ramachandran map were developed by Gopalasamudram Narayana Iyer Ramachandran, who published his results in the Journal of Molecular Biology in 1963. He also developed the Ramachandran angles, which serve as a convenient tool for communication, representation, and various kinds of data analysis. • Raman effect: The Encyclopædia Britannica (2008) reports: "change in the wavelength of light that occurs when a light beam is deflected by molecules. The phenomenon is named for Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who discovered it in 1928. When a beam of light traverses a dust-free, transparent sample of a chemical compound, a small fraction of the light emerges in directions other than that of the incident (incoming) beam. Most of this scattered light is of unchanged wavelength. A small part, however, has wavelengths different from that of the incident light; its presence is a result of the Raman effect." • Raychaudhuri equation: Discovered by the Bengali physicist Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri in 1954. This was a key ingredient of thePenrose-Hawking singularity theorems of general relativity. • Saha ionization equation: The Saha equation, derived by the Bengali scientist Meghnad Saha (6 October 1893 – 16 February 1956) in 1920, conceptualizes ionizations in context of stellar atmospheres. In US and UK number of Universities offer courses upto Doctorate level in Science & Society and History of Science while in India none. There is the need to introduce the above courses in India(Source: Wikipedia). Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    on May 27, 2013
  • Dr. Rekha Jagannath

    Yes there are many blossoms to be recovered from the dust for India to move into the 8+% growth track.From Karnataka one such innovation to be recovered should be the project of managing liquid waste to generate electricity about which our former CM J.H.Patel struck an MOU with two Mumbai based firms. With his premature death, the project MOU fell into obscurity. If the present Government can revive the project, one of the greatest problems of global city of Bangalore will be solved for good.

    on May 23, 2013
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