Innovation for Diversity: A Tale of Two Villages

The mention of an Indian village conjures up a standard, consistent image. But this is not reality. With 833 million people speaking 780 languages India is unique in its diversity. Moreover, large parts of India are testimony to having been left behind, while several states now bear the progressive face of the emerging rural economy. And this strong diversity, rooted both in culture and development, is the dual nature of rural India.

Design and innovation is about understanding context. But designing for rural India, is much more complex. Most often, deep rooted cultural beliefs interact with the business of economics, to create a potent concoction. Only when we understand this context, can we successfully design for the people. Last year, over 6 months, ethnographers and designers from Future Factory lived in tiny Indian villages scattered across the country. We lived their lives to understand how culture and economics shape their hopes and dreams. We shared their food, their anxieties, their celebrations, to understand how we might design for their lives to be better. The two stories of Radha and Bhavani, are a living testimonial to how different the two faces of Rural India are, and what makes them this way.

Radha’s Story: The boundaries of privilege

Radha was born in Uttar Pradesh, in a village with a population of 2000 people. But what made her special is that she was born a Hindu upper caste, a thakur, of the landlord community. With 78% of its population living in the rural lands, UP bears the distinction of being the largest rice and the second largest wheat producer in the country, a state which truly represents the rural face of India. But in stark contrast, it also bears one of the highest statistics of female infanticide, and one of the lowest literacy rates for women. It is these social pressures that bind Radha’s privileges and keep her future in the past. Moreover, it has a culture of violence and lawlessness. And this doesn’t leave Radha much privilege despite her high birth. Radha isn’t allowed to leave her home after dark. In fact, she mostly doesn’t leave the house at all. Her privilege entitles her to domestic help from the lower caste and labourer communities in the village, so as a thakur she suffers little physical hardship. But beyond household chores her life is limited. She has a few friends limited to her privileged community. She was allowed to be schooled at the local village paathshala where she learnt to read and write. But Radha has the beating heart of the inspired, ambitious India. She convinced her family to allow her to school at the district headquarters, 50 km from her village. She went escorted by a family member every day for years, until she completed her major in arts. Her family believes this will get her a good husband and she must now turn her attention to look for one. Her father is worried that farming is not profitable, that he may not make enough for her dowry. He wants her responsibility taken by another man, one who has the means to look after her. Radha knows that from hereon, her life will now be the same as her mothers and that of her grandmother. She longs for a life that bears some independence from her male relatives. She has convinced her brother to sell the sweaters she knits, secretly to his friends; so she might make some of her own money. She speaks to us of the wonders of traveling free without an escort, or making new friends. We left as friends, even confidants. But in her parting words, was a plea to keep in touch, to continue her access to the outside world. One from which she fears she will retreat further after she is married. Into her privileged, confined, existence.

Bhavani’s Story: A Benefactor’s Support

Bhavani was born in Muttuvakam village near Chennai in Tamil Nadu. The village is as small as Radha’s village, and is also primarily agricultural. But the roads are paved, and electricity is available for a few hours everyday. Almost every family has at least one mobile phone and most villagers have intermittent data access, so the internet is not new here. But there is no water. Despite it being a good monsoon, Bhavani’s father knows that he will struggle financially because the groundwater levels have dropped another 10 feet this year. Progress for Bhavani’s village is a strange phenomena. Radha’s village believes in their women. Her mother was elected the village leader, the “sarpanch” of the village. Like Radha, she too comes from a privileged family, but with a difference. Being high born does not restrict her contact with others. Bhavani attended the village school until primary level, and then naturally accompanied the village boys on the bus to the district school as she grew older. She had the same burning ambition that Radha did, but also the support of a proud father. On completing school, she left her village and moved to Chennai, the largest city in Tamil Nadu where she studied engineering. For years she lived in a hostel focusing on her studies, while her family from the village visited and supported her. Bhavani now drives the new metro train at Chennai. She is a motor-woman and one of the first to be trained on the new high tech trains that Chennai is proud of. Even prouder is her father. We sit in his tiny village house, as he shows us a youtube video of his daughter operating the train, on his CRT computer monitor. She will visit her village during Onam next month, he tells us proudly. She has made our village proud.

Innovation and design is about context and technology. It is clear that economics, infrastructure, society and education make the lives of Radha and Bhavani different. And we do consider these as we design for their lives. Both villages have the leverage of mobile technology and also intermittently, the internet. Economics is also much more than money. Water, and natural resources are key to peoples livelihoods. But design is also about understanding people first. About what drives them, what makes them special. Both Radha and Bhavani are driven to a new tomorrow. They both believe they can change their future, and they have the confidence to do so. And Bhavani seems to succeed further, because the men in her life believe she can. As with most innovations, design is often as much for the influencer as much as for the user. It seems that as India struggles with resource deficiency, uneven infrastructure development and clashing social values; it is the self-belief of our people that will drive our communities into the future.

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