In search of grassroots innovations: Anil Gupta’s Shodh Yatra passes through Tamil Nadu villages


Sixty people from across India walked through remote villages in Tamil Nadu, from Paramakudi to Rameswaram, as part of the 47th Shodh Yatra, documenting traditional knowledge and innovation

Sixty people from across India walked through remote villages in Tamil Nadu, from Paramakudi to Rameswaram, as part of the 47th Shodh Yatra, documenting traditional knowledge and innovation

“Remember those dusty mud roads we pass by on bus journeys?” asks handloom entrepreneur C Sivagurunathan, “The ones we yearn to take, but never actually do? We walked on similar roads every day. ” The 36-year-old was among 60 participants at the recently-held Shodh Yatra from Paramakudi to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. The yatra, held twice a year in various parts of India, is a search for traditional knowledge and grassroots innovations. It is led by scholar Anil Gupta, the founder of the Honey Bee Network and is organized by SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiative for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions).

The Rameswaram edition was the 47th such walk that the team undertook, ever since the idea took shape in 1998. “Shodh Yatra tries to recognize creativity at people’s doorsteps,” says Gupta, speaking over phone from Ahmedabad, where he teaches at the Indian Institute of Management. On May 22, 60 people from various walks of life, took Gupta’s lead along a narrow mud road at Paramakudi, walking in scorching sun across 25 villages, covering 125 kilometers over six days.

The Rameswaram edition is the 47th such walks that the team has undertaken, ever since the idea took shape in 1998 | Photo Credit: U Rajesh Kannan

At the core of Shodh (meaning ‘research’ in Hindi) Yatra is the Gandhian philosophy of self-reliance and simplicity. “We travel to cold places during winter and hot places during summer,” points out Gupta. “This is part of our process of sharing what people there are experiencing. They will trust us and will articulate their thoughts and feelings better. ”

They stopped at village squares, school grounds, and temple halls, eating what locals ate, walking door-to-door in hamlets whose names are unfamiliar to many of us, inviting men, women, and children to share their innovations and knowledge. In return, the team offered solutions to problems they heard, for many of them were innovators themselves.

“We travel to cold places during winter and hot places during summer. This is part of our process of sharing what people there are experiencing ”Anil Gupta

The villages, dotted with palm trees and scented by the sea, had many stories to share. The team distributed certificates in appreciation of local innovators. For instance, “At Vanniya Vallam, a school student had modified his cycle to look like a KTM bike,” recalls Sivagurunathan. At another village called Thethangal, a team of school boys had put together a plant book with cuttings of local, labelled medicinal herbs. At Chinna Akkramesi, boys learning silambattam performed. There was information sharing on both sides: V Sreevardhan, an entrepreneur demonstrated his tree-climbing machine, which can be used by both men and women.

Gupta was impressed at how women there were far more articulate and assertive than the men. Among the key problems the team documented, was an iron sickle that was used for harvesting. “The handle was heavy, even for male hands and women told us it was difficult for them to use it,” he points out, adding that with a little design intervention, the tool can be easily handled.

A boy at Chinna Akkramesi puts up a Silambattam performance

A boy at Chinna Akkramesi puts up a Silambattam performance | Photo Credit: U Rajesh Kannan

The travelers met Keelakarai-based Rukamma, a seaweed diver who spoke to them about the kinds of seaweed women in the region collect. Jothi, who does cremation services stopped by chatting and shepherd Kumar told them how goat’s fur, when spread out on fields, acts as manure. Then there was the tea-seller who uses palm jaggery to sweeten beverages, and also promotes organic products at his humble outlet, as well as women who weave mats with palm leaves with mechanical precision.

The Shodh Yatra ended on May 27 at Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s memorial in Rameswaram. “A lot of planning was done much ahead of the actual walk,” says participant B Stalin, an entrepreneur who runs a palm-jaggery based candy company. Stalin recalls behind handed a 40-page booklet that was a complete database on the district, before they set out. “We were supported by Madurai-based NGOs Dhan Foundation and Seva Trust,” points out the 37-year-old.

60 people from various walks of life participated at the Shodh Yatra

60 people from various walks of life participated at the Shodh Yatra | Photo Credit: U Rajesh Kannan

Stalin says he was amazed at how most people they met opened up to them willingly. “I am quickly writing down everything before I forget,” he smiles, adding: “I am already 70 pages down.” There is so much he wants to record, such as how he witnessed proof to the belief surrounding rain. “One evening, women from Thethangal performed the kummi dance for us,” he recalls. “They just surrendered themselves to the dance. Right after their performance, it started pouring. ”



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