Speaker: Prof. Anil Gupta

From Knowledge to Wisdom

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In 1985, when Prof. Anil Gupta was invited by the Bangladeshi government to help restructure their agricultural sector, a moral dilemma gripped him. He noticed how the marginalized farmers were being paid poorly for their otherwise unmatched knowledge. As a consultant, for merely compiling the innovations of the villagers, he was being paid in huge multiples of what was being offered to the villagers. The gross injustice of this imbalance led him to found a resounding social and ethical movement— the Honey Bee Network— bringing together and elevating thousands of grassroots innovators.

"When the knowledge of people is collected and compiled, people should not feel exploited just as flowers don’t complain when Honey Bee collects pollen" - This was the first founding principle of the Honey Bee Network. Cross pollination of ideas, overcoming anonymity of creative people and sharing of benefits  are its key founding principles, which it adheres to even 3 decades after its inception. For over three decades, Professor Gupta has traveled through rural lands unearthing innovations by the ranks—from the famed “Mitti Cool” refrigerator to the living root bridges of Meghalaya. He insists that to fight the largest and most persistent problems of the world we must eschew expensive research labs and instead, look towards ordinary folk. Over the years, the Honey Bee Network has mapped creativity of scattered communities all over the country and in more than 50 countries. The realization that anyone can create an outstanding piece of work or discover a solution to a niggling problem is the idea that lies at the heart of the Honey Bee Network.

This khadi clad socialist whose life’s work lies among indigenous rural people makes for unlikely coupling in one of India’s most premiere management schools (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) seeped in capitalist principles and with students gunning for jobs with the top MNCs and global consultancies. That said, one of his most popular courses included shodh yatra, under which he walks with management students to different parts of the country to learn from local communities and study their knowledge systems. Two shodh yatras are conducted during the year – the summer edition takes off to the hottest places in India and the winter one, to its coldest regions - this helps weed out tourism motive. During shodh yatras, the invitation is to learn from four teachers viz., the teacher within, among peers, in nature and among common people.   

Professor Anil Gupta with IIMA students during a Shodh Yatra (Picture Credits: DNAIndia)[Professor Anil Gupta with IIMA students during a Shodh Yatra. Photo credits: DNAIndia]

The interactions en route with the locals open up avenues of inquiry among the students. Prof Gupta revels in the culture of sharing – the hallmark of a community of innovators - that is so visible in the country side amongst the indigenous artisans. Here is a story he shares, “During a shodh yatra, we came across a Purulia village where beautiful life size terra cotta horses were installed under a tree. We asked the potters as to why were these beautiful horses kept under the tree – someone may crash into them, harming your creations or steal them. The potters replied, “These are not just our most beautiful creations, but these are our best creations. When our children walk along this street to their schools, they would know what is the current benchmark of the best is, and also know that they must do better.” The horses were kept there as proofs of open source standards of excellence. Being a management professor, I had read but never expected to see it this practices in a rural setting – that if you offer your best to the commons, then your next gen will do better than you.”

Triggering children’s creativity is another area that excites the Professor. It is his belief is that when children from mixed backgrounds, well-endowed and disadvantaged together, research on social problems, they can come out with strikingly original ideas which adults, conditioned in a uniform way of thinking often miss. Children, he says, are often treated as a sink of advice and assistance rather than a source of new ideas. He reminds us of the fact that real innovative ideas come from the most unexpected places. For facilitating this emergence, we need to bridge the gap between formal and informal schools of learning and that the focus should be on corroborative learning and not on competition alone.

In his TED and other such talks, Prof Gupta tells us that majority of grassroots innovations are borne out of “samavedana” – understanding the pain of someone else, as our own. He often calls upon his audience to think about the ladies on the tea farms picking tea leaves - balancing a heavy basket on their heads, or the women labour bending inconveniently to transplant paddy in plantations with knee high water levels. His tryst with those with scientific temper bring him insights into the minds of innovators. He says, “I do not agree with Abraham Maslow's hierarchical model of human needs theory that proposes that in order to achieve self-actualization, one's basic requirements first need to be met. I have met many innovators, who without even knowing where their next meal would come from, have persisted and created stunning artwork or provided a solution to the problems of a community.

An evangelist for the grass-root innovator, Prof Gupta believes in crafting a public policy that encourages such inclusive frugal and grassroots innovation. Born to Gandhian parents, and always dressed in khaadi, Prof Gupta believes that such an innovation environment must also be rooted in the Gandhian values of compassion, collaboration and co-creation. For an innovator, he balances inner work with outer work, asking, “Can grassroots innovations trigger humility, harmony and healthy reciprocity?”  

Anil Kumar Gupta is the founder of the Honey Bee NetworkSRISTINIFand GIAN . He is a visiting faculty at IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay, a Padma Shri winner, and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place.

Prof Gupta is a prolific artist, both as a poet and a painter. His haiku-s talk about an invitation to celebrate the present, of surrender, and of sublime longing. One of his poems is appended below. 

His daily personal practice of samavedana (compassion for all sentient beings) is to feed sparrows at his balcony each day before he has his own meals.        

Escaping is not an answer

Where will you go?
It is here that you belong

This Teachers' Day, on September 5, 2021 at 10 am IST, Professor Anil Gupta will converse with his students Shobhana Madhavan and Ravi Gulati. 

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