Saturday, May 9, 2009

My Dalit Servant and a Case of Thermodynamics

SOME TIME ago, Sajan, a friend, was busy setting up his biogas plant in his kitchen. I was one of those who keenly monitored the progress of the effort, and in fact I was disappointed when Bindu came up with a note of dissent, reporting that the plant simply did not give sufficient gas to do the cooking. That was bad. Hence Sajan started hunting around for kitchen waste to refuel his plant.

I was interested in the affair not (only) because all of us are very keen on what goes (wrong) in the other guy's kitchen (and possibly bedroom too.) I had a private motive because I was also having troubles in my kitchen. My problem, then, was a Parishad-type chulha which I had set up that simply did not work.

I talked to many people what was the problem with this chulha, which instead of pumping out smoke through the chimney, was spreading it inside the kitchen making the claim a 'smokeless chulha' somewhat of a misnomer. My wife kept grumbling, and I kept my mouth shut (I was the person who suggested we must have a chulha too!).

Then our servant, a dalit lady who travels from a village to the city to work, said the problem was with the way it was designed: It did not have sufficient space for allowing the smoke to escape into the chimney pipe especially when we kept big pots above it. The problem, then was that of thermodynamics and I decided this was too much of a task for me. I left it at that accepting failure.

But the indifatigable lady was not like me. One day she showed me how to do it. Push it a bit lower and allow more space, and it worked beautifully. Now we cook in it quite often.

I wrote about it because this week I read Sunita Narain, in her Down to Earth column, write about a woman she met in Udaipur, Rajasthan, 25 years ago. She too had such an improved chulha which, however, did not work. What she did was to break it a bit and make it useful, or using our own improved terminlogy, re-engineering it.

I think these incidents are very important and they give us lessons about how to go about improving our people's lives. We need to listen to people who have grassroots level experience, or in other words our technocrats and knowledge-creators need to be a bit more down to earth. Otherwise their wonderful inventions would remain just that: inventions with no practical application.

(For those interested in the Sunita Narain column, see


Unknown said...

N C Narayanan writes in an email:

Dear NPC

Great. I am marking this mail (in fact taking a print out) and going to discuss this with two of my colleagues since we are meeting for lunch. AW Date is an old guard appropriate technology person and Anand Rao a bio gas enthusiast. I'm sure Date would put it in his favourite "peoples' science" (innovation) terrain.

Unknown said...

R V G Menon writes in an email:

First of all let me congratulate Chekkutty's kitchen assistant for her technical insight. As a matter of fact, the Parishad aduppu was developed by a team which consisted of technical persons as well as 'concerned' laymen, all of whom worked with their hands and tried out various innovations and tested them out in the parishad bhavan courtyard as well as households. The present design is an optimized product, even though it also needs improvement, undoubtedly.

In the inital days parishad volunteers used to set up the aduppu in houses as a part of their voluntary work, in a campaign mode. Later, when it became a National programme, ANERT was asked to institutionalize it. Then hundreds of SEWs (Self employed workers) were trained by ANERT and they were asked to make it their livelihood activity. It has some plus and some minus points.
I suspect that what has happened in the case of Chekkutty's aduppu is that the SEW who set it up, got his/her proportions wrong, and the kitchen assistant has set it right.

Ideally, this is as it should be. Keenly observing how an aduppu functions can vastly improve the technical knowledge and capability of a person. As MP (Paramewaran) is fond of saying, aduppu is a good pedagogical tool!

Unknown said...

Sajan G writes in an email:

Dear Che,

Thanks for bringing back mundane affairs. I am happy to report that
our SEWA designed biogas plant is still working well despite its
design problems. Now it is more about waste recycling at home and not about gas alone which comes as a bonus. In the last four months we
have not sent a piece of bio waste to Vilappilsala.