Advances in technology are key to the future of agriculture as farmers strive to feed the world with limited natural resources and combat climate change. It was with this in mind that ace innovator Uddhab Bharali began inventing and came up with over 140 gadgets whose simplicity of design and mechanism mask their usefulness in agricultural work.
Based in Lakhimpur on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam, Bharali says his vision is “to change the agriculture scenario and boost the economy while being environmentally responsible”. From simple tasks like pomegranate deseeding and peeling cassava to bigger ones like paddy seeding and processing tea, Bharali has designed machines for a range of uses.
Here’s is the story of ‘serial innovator’ Uddhab Bharali, a man whose energy-efficient and low-cost machines are simplifying several agricultural processes for many.
Born in a middle-class business family in North Lakhimpur District of Assam, Bharali completed his schooling from Lakhimpur. The academically bright Bharali was often asked by his teacher to stand outside the class because he asked ‘difficult questions’ in mathematics.
“I loved mathematics. I even tutored some of my classmates to help them get good grades. After completing first grade, I was promoted to third grade and from Class VI, I was promoted to Class VIII,” he states.
After graduating from school at 14, Bharali decided to take admission in the Jorhat Engineering College. However, had to drop out of engineering college because he could not afford to pay the fees and had to care for his family. In order to pay his father’s debts and to cater to his natural flair of developing new machines, he developed a new polythene making machine to cater to the demand from surrounding tea estates in Assam.
This new machine was developed at a subsidized cost of 67,000 INR as compared to the exorbitantly priced branded machines which then costed around 4 lakh rupees.
“People who craft success stories usually say that they started their journey from zero; I started from minus Rs.18 lakh. That was the amount of debt on my family. In 1987, the bank authorities told us that we would have to vacate our home if we did not pay them the money.
The odd jobs I took was not enough to support my family. I was aware that a company was looking for innovators who could design a polythene-making machine. But since the existing product was available for a price of Rs 4 lakh, I knew that if I wanted the deal, I would have to create a design that would cost less than that,” says Bharali, who was 23-years-old at that time.
The success of this machine gave Bharali the confidence to develop more machines. After repaying his father’s debts, in 1995, Bharali got a contract for the maintenance of the machinery used in a hydro power project in Arunachal Pradesh but he had to return home after three years as his elder brother had passed away due to liver sclerosis.
As the only earning member, he knew that it was up to him to take care of his family’s needs and pledged not only to earn enough to sustain his family, but also to help resurrect the lives of others living below the poverty line. With this vision in mind, he concentrated on making products to serve rural public and commercial purposes. Talking about the challenges and failures that came his way during this time, Bharali says,
“I have seen so many low moments in my life. Had I sat back and complained, I would never have known what I was capable of. I kept working and thinking until I overcame whatever hurdle came my way. So, I believe failure is just a situation. Your action is the solution.”
His early days of creating machines to simplify laborious tasks like peeling garlic or cassava were challenging, he says, recalling how he was constantly mocked for not doing something ‘worthwhile’. But he was undeterred. From 1990 to 2005, he invented 24 machines.
In 2005, Bharali’s talent came to the attention of the National Innovation Foundation, Ahmedabad and they took him aboard as a grassroots innovator. In 2006, his design for a pomegranate de-seeding machine was recognised as the first of its kind not only in India, but across the world.
This machine could separate the outer hard skin from the inner thin membrane without any damage to the seed, easily de-seeding around 55 kg of pomegranates per hour. Orders started pouring in, including for export to Turkey and the US after that, and he finally made his mark as an innovator. And since then, there has been no looking back for him.
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Bharali also developed an areca nut peeling device that could peel around 120 nuts in a single minute. With the aid of National Innovation Foundation, this and the other machines he invented (for different operations such as cassava peeling, splitting long lengths of bamboo, sizing, surface finishing etc) were installed at North Cachar hills. Reducing hours of back-breaking labour, his simple innovations were a great help to the large number of local people for whom agriculture was the sole source of livelihood.
In addition to these devices, many of his innovations like remi recortication machine, garlic peeling machine, tobacco leaf cutter, paddy thresher, cane stripping machine, brass utensil polishing machine, safed musli peeling machine, jatropha de-seeder, mechanised weeding machine, passion fruit juice extractor, trench digger and a chopper for cattle and fisheries feed are popular and being used in foreign countries.
Among his popular innovations is the mini tea plant for green tea and Crush Tear Curl (CTC) tea, aimed at helping the growing population of small tea growers of Assam.
“The plant consumes only 2 kW of electricity, equivalent to the power consumption of an average household, and can be run by semi-skilled labour. Green tea from this machine has fetched Rs.3,000 per kg in tea auctions. And the machine only costs Rs. 3.75 lakh. There is already a huge demand for it,” Bharali says, adding that he hopes that the machine will end the exploitation of small tea growers by big tea companies.
Bharali’s cement brick-making machine is another marvel that can be operated by anyone—including people with disabilities. The Central Silk board sought his guidance to redesign a sophisticated reeling machine. He also designed a stevia pulveriser & passion fruit gel extractor for North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project (NERCRMP).
Recently, he has invented a paddy seeding machine that doubles the rice yield while making the entire process easier and less time consuming. Resembling a cart, the machine, priced at a modest Rs.3,000, will also yield better quality rice because the seeds are encased in plant protection and germinating material. Supported by the Assam Agricultural University, the ‘Uddhab’ machine is now ready to be introduced to the farmers’ community.
Apart from the economic benefits, all of Bharali’s machines are environmentally responsible.
“The brick kilns for example are a major source of pollution, but the one that I have designed causes no such harm to the environment. My innovations are mostly manually operated—which keeps the cost in check too—and consumes minimum power,” says the innovator, who has received several awards, including NASA’s prestigious Technology Award and the President’s award for Grassroots Innovators in 2009.
Besides innovating new machines, Bharali likes to read books on medicine and also has an informal degree in Homeopathy. He also makes time for philanthropic work. Most of his innovations are available commercially and are exported as well, and he holds copyright for each of them, but a large part of the profit goes into his research and in supporting 21 families (whose main breadwinner is disabled) including health, education, food and clothing. His favourite innovation, in fact, is the one that helps people with disabilities—those who have lost their hands—to eat and clean themselves.
He has opened the UKD Trust through which he gives a monthly pension of Rs 1,200 each per month to six widows, while three physically challenged persons get Rs 2,500 each per month. He also runs a small research and training institute where he educates and train underprivileged students for three months on technology and its applications. Currently, he is in the process of setting up an orphanage, an old age home and a museum at his humble abode for students to take a look at all his innovations and understand how they work. Says Bharali,
“Through my innovations, I want to reach out to those who are living below the poverty line, nationally and internationally. I don’t want to make any profits for myself. I have made that clear to my family as well. Sometimes they think I am crazy, but I think it is the want of luxuries that drives you crazy. I believe that if you cannot help society through your knowledge and capabilities, you are living a worthless life.”
A guest faculty member in all the prominent varsities of Assam, Bharali is invited to the various Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) for lectures. A technical adviser to Rural Technology Action Group (RUTAG) for the advancement of technology at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati, Bharali has also been awarded a doctorate from the Assam Agricultural University. He has also been featured in History Channel’s TV Show, ‘OMG! Yeh Mera India’. We salute the spirit of this ace innovator and wish him all the best in all his future ventures!
Mr. Uddhab Bharali
K B Road, North Lakshimpur Assam: 787001