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Magazine Editorial

Scouting and Documentation

Thousands of examples from India and elsewhere have shown that the people at the bottom of the pyramid, the people at the grassroots the farmers, artisans and the like] have been relying on their own ingenuity to solve their local problems. When nobody outside comes to solve their problems, the only option left with them is to come up with their own solutions. The point now is that if a low cost solution is found addressing a problem at one place, can that be applied to solve a similar problem elsewhere? Can that solution be converted into a product and be used as tool of revenue generation for the solution provider? If the answer to the two questions is yes, the search for such innovations stands justified.

Similarly, for traditional knowledge, for hundreds of years, the traditional communities, the autochthonous people have been optimally utilizing the available resources of their eco-niche for medicinal and other uses. When they can survive a disease using natural products, why cant anybody else? Where is the need to use single chemicals as constituents of medicines when reliable herbal products are available aplenty around the world to solve the same problem? The need is to properly identify such unique practices and document them. Apart from preserving bio-diversity, documentation of the traditional knowledge serves another very important purpose, which is to preserve the fast eroding knowledge. Imagine if all this knowledge is properly identified and documented, it will result in a huge database of traditional practices from all over the world, from where medicines for various ailments, crop protection and yield increasing measures, etc can be assessed and used, thereby benefiting the whole mankind.

Scouting or looking for such knowledge/innovations is the first step towards attaining this goal. Though, it must be added that socially useful innovations have been contributed in the past, and may also be contributed in the future by not so poor people. Scouting is done to discover and recognize grassroot innovations and traditional knowledge practices among various rural or urban communities. Special effort is made to look for creative knowledge among communities alienated from the mainstream. It is true however, that while proportion of local innovations may be higher in economically disadvantaged regions, such innovations do occur even in the developed regions. The nature of problems is different and so also the focus of innovations. But what is worthy of underlining is that even in most developed regions, urban fringe areas, slums and other places, viable and functional traditional knowledge and grassroots innovations can always be found. There are always problems, which remain unsolved by modern technologies and institutions in an affordable manner even in urban areas. Local knowledge systems help in seeking solutions to such problems in a spontaneous manner individually or collectively.

Scouting involves extensive fieldwork to search for experimenters and knowledge experts in local communities. The scouting of innovations and traditional knowledge has traditionally been achieved through the following modes.

Through the following means NIF actively attempts to look for innovations and traditional knowledge practices/grassroots innovations. Various means are used, which are mentioned as below.

Shodh yatra is a walk through the villages and towns in search of knowledge, creativity and innovations at grassroots. It is an attempt to reach out to proximal as well as remote parts of the country with a firm belief that hardship and challenges of natural surroundings in many cases may be the prime motivators of creativity and innovations. We have organized some Shodh yatras in urban fringe areas also to study the rapid erosion of traditional knowledge and create a consciousness about the need to conserve useful knowledge on an urgent basis and recognize relevant innovations by people too at the same time. Every year, Shodh yatras or the ‘journeys of explorations' are organized twice, once in extreme summers and winters, where people walk through villages around a distance of 100 to 200 kms in a span of seven to ten days. Innovative farmers, artisans, students and scientists join the Shodh yatra and walk with the objective of participatory learning, dissemination of information, as well as spreading experimental and inventive ethics among communities.

The Shodh yatra aims at unearthing and honoring traditional knowledge and grassroots innovations that have not only enriched the lives of men, women and farm labourers but have also significantly contributed towards the conservation of biodiversity. Honey Bee database is shared with farmers in their local language through laptop computers and print publications, posters and some time through street plays. A mobile exhibition on medicinal plants, posters, artifacts, working models of innovations, etc. , is used for making the presentation more relevant to the local context. During the Shodh yatra , following major activities are generally taken up:

Walking through the villages: The most important event during the Shodh yatra is to walk through villages, urban areas if these fall on the way, forests, deserts, mountains, valleys, sea-shores etc., with an objective to discover, learn and share. The Shodh yatris meet many people on the way and interact with them. Very often the casual interaction turns out to be an interesting source of information about some creative experiments. During the walk, the mutual knowledge sharing among the Shodh yatris is also an interesting experience.

Village meetings: The objective of the meetings during the Shodhyatra is to initiate a dialogue on innovations, traditional knowledge and creativity, so that people with outstanding creative potential can come forward to share their innovations and knowledge. Mutual exchange of knowledge will not only encourage the innovator and the traditional knowledge holder to think more creatively and critically but also would help him/her to know about other experimenters in different parts of the country.

Bio-diversity Competitions: The objective of the biodiversity competitions among the children aims at making them aware of their ecological surroundings. The competitions initiate a process of knowledge churning within the village where the inter-generational dialogue on biodiversity takes place. The knowledge transfer that occurs from grandparents to grandchildren during the process not only makes the children aware about their environment but also ensures a sustainable transfer of ecological knowledge and values of preservation. In the competition, the participants are asked to identify and stick the samples of vegetation found in their village on a cardboard/old used pages of notebooks or just bring these in hand and list down or narrate orally their various usages. Each participant is orally tested about the samples they bring. The students with best performance are given prizes, where as all the participants are given certificates.

Recipe Competitions: The recipe competitions are organized for the women in the villages. The women who prepare the most interesting recipes using the minor millets, lesser known crops or crops with medicinal values are given awards and participants are given certificates. The whole objective is to make the people aware about the unique nutritional value of the indigenous crops and their importance in maintaining the ecological diversity.

Felicitation of Creative Problem Solvers: During the Shodh yatra the farmers active in organic farming, those who had developed new methods through their creative abilities and ingenuity, the villagers who had helped in publicity of the aims and objectives of the Shodh yatra and the centenarian men and women are felicitated. The felicitation by some people outside the village not only creates curiosity among the villagers but also in few cases helps them to widely share their innovations/ traditional knowledge.

Shodhyatra has turned out to be one of the major movements across the country that has taken the spirit of innovation to the doorstep of common man. So far we have organized twenty one Shodh yatras in different parts of country covering more than four thousand five hundred kilometers. The last journey on foot was in Araku valley and hills of Vizag district of Andhra Pradesh in June 2008.

The concept of Shodh Sankal (a chain of experimenting farmers) to generate a lateral learning environment among grassroots innovators was started by SRISTI. The idea was to bring together experimenting farmers and discuss the results of trials that farmers have taken up on their own to solve various local problems.

The discussion also enhances the esteem for local knowledge systems apart from speeding up the process of technological change in regions where formal technology generation system has not been very successful, such as dry regions, mountainous regions and other disadvantaged areas.

There have been many experts at the regional level, who did not get due credit and recognition for their work just because they did not publish their ideas in English. It is similar situation for contemporary writers publishing in regional languages. As a result, many time it so happens that we end up giving credit to others for ‘reinventing the wheel'. One of the purposes of scanning the old (and contemporary), vernacular literature is to bring these unaccredited knowledge systems to light. Much wisdom has been found in such systems.

Interested journalists are identified and persuaded to publish articles on grassroots innovations and innovators. Many newspapers and magazines also write about the innovations and traditional knowledge scouted and recognized by NIF & the Honey Bee network. It has been a mandate of NIF to bring together various stakeholders on a common platform in the mission of giving visibility and creating a market for grassroots Innovations. Many other times regional newspapers and magazines publish stories of people who have done something ‘different' and have attracted the attention of others. Such news items are picked up by us or are provided by supporters of our work and philosophy. We work on these interesting leads and try to get the information though local scouts, resource persons, volunteers or collaborators. Apart from these initiatives, advertisements are regularly issued for the national campaigns in all the major newspapers of the country in different states. The newspapers are selected on the basis of approximate circulation in different regions and languages. Special attention is given to local language/vernacular press targeting the rural pockets of each State rather than mainly the urban areas.

In 2006, a college in Tamil Nadu, Lady Doak, started a course on "importance of traditional knowledge and grassroots innovation".

Uttarayan is the kite flying festival in Ahmedabad, which is celebrated widely. We flew kites with messages written on them asking people to contact us if they knew of any innovations. 5000 such kites were distributed. The idea behind it was to make our message reach at various places along with popularizing innovations through the festival.

NIF has initiated steps to identify similar networks in different parts of the scout to involve them in scouting and documentation activities.


NIF takes help of all the regional collaborators and other network members for identifying such local geniuses from all over the country. NIF has tried several methods to scout and document grassroot innovations and TK from various parts of the country and these methods include publication of local language versions of the Honey Bee newsletter, organizing workshops of innovators and volunteers, network members, local press conferences, arranging the visit of volunteers in villages in search of innovators and knowledge holders etc. The network collaborators and coordinators help to reach interiors regions which might have been bypassed by the state as well as markets. There are six regional publications of Honey Bee magazine for networking and reaching out to people. More than eighty percent of the total entries received at NIF are the contributions of the Network collaborators.

Unlike the agricultural practices, the search for artisanal and farm machinery innovations is far more complex. One village may have several hundred farmers but only one or two artisans. To meet 100 artisans, one may have to survey 50-100 villages. However, over a period of time we discovered that social network of artisans is reasonably strong. Once we identify an innovative artisan or mechanic, we ask him to look for others of his kind. This process has helped in discovering many innovators. Also, many of our innovators themselves start looking for other people like them and encourage them to submit their innovations/traditional knowledge practices to us. This in turn contributes to the growth and strengthening of the network. It also helps in spreading the message as the word of mouth is the best form of information dissemination.

Understanding the tremendous potential of information and communication technology in furthering the cause of grassroots innovators, NIF has taken special efforts to use it for scouting purposes also. The network websites viz. www.nif.org.in, www.sristi.org, www.gian.org, www.honeybee.org, and www.indiainnovates.com have popularized the missions of Honey Bee and other collaborating institutions. We receive quite a few entries through these websites as well along with emails addressed to campaign@nifindia.org and info@nifindia.org.

Though numerically less in number as compared to the ones received from the collaborators, NIF also receives many entries through regular mail. The entries received through websites and emails are also included in this.


Students from different universities and colleges are sensitized about the need to scout and document grassroots innovations, knowledge and explore their potential for development of a community. The possible benefits are also shared such as award/recognition at national level, business development, ability to learn from each other, generating low cost solutions to persistent problems etc . They are encouraged to appreciate the innovations created by their family members and neighbors in the village to begin with. They are also asked to narrate some of their own experiences, which are interesting, intriguing and/or inspiring . These students are then motivated to scout such innovations/TK from their respective regions. By underlining what is relevant for the search, students are given examples based on their own experience. When outsiders (some times more educated and expert in specific field of knowledge) share in a humble and honest manner that some of the insights shared by students were not known to them, it reinforces the self confidence of young explorers.

One of the most successful results of documentation has been achieved by the network of students from Gram Vidyapeeths (rural colleges based on Gandhian philosophy of education). A large number of students, mobilized every year from 15-20 vidyapeeths , work for two months during their summer vacation at SRISTI. They are given orientation about the richness of local knowledge/innovation domains, and are trained in scouting and documenting innovations. In the whole process, while listening to their experiences, efforts are made to convey to them precisely what kind of practices they should look for and how to identify traditional knowledge/grassroots innovations.

Fairs are vibrant traditional institutions, where people assemble in large numbers, either for religious or cultural celebrations. This platform is used for scouting and disseminating. Many farmers, artisans, community leaders and professionals visit the stalls and get information about the innovations developed by other farmers. While accessing this knowledge base, they also share their own innovations with network members. Some of the common platforms of such kind have been the organic haats (open markets akin to weekly rural markets) organized as part of the traditional food festival. Farmers from different parts of the country display/ sell and share with people their knowledge about ‘not so popular' food grains and millets.

NIF has been supporting the traditional food festival organized by SRISTI with the help of GIAN to focus on the organically produced traditional food by farmers. The object of the fair is to stimulate demand of local crops and their varieties. In this event stalls are set up by various organizations, farmers' collective and individual farmers to display and sell organic foods. Recipe contests are also organized during the food festival. Through this process, NIF received a large number of nutraceticle and food processing related practices.

This food festival is also used as a platform to reach out to as many people as possible to sensitize them about the importance of thinking creatively and the need to not live with an unsolved problem for long. On the spot idea and innovation contests are organised daily for the visitors. Idea boxes are put in strategic places in the venue and posters/banners announcing the idea competition are displayed all over. We receive some very interesting and useful ideas during this exercise.

Fellowships schemes has been started for innovators, scouts, and research students to enable them to go to their field and collect traditional knowledge practices and innovations. This fellowship covers their travel expenses, stationary and packaging and forwarding of the data collected. These fellowships have been given to different individuals in Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Chattisgarh. They are provided all the necessary guidance from NIF.


The plant sample(s) for the mentioned practice is (are) collected from the herbal healers' place only. The sample, which is brought consists of the twigs bearing flower or fruit and is preserved by preparing herbarium for record and identification.

A herbarium is a collection or a bank of plant specimens, which have been usually dried and pressed, and are arranged in the sequence of an accepted classification. These should be available for reference.

The dried plant specimens should be dipped in 1% mercuric chloride solution and again placed under blotting paper for some time till they dry. Subsequently, they should be pasted on herbarium sheets of 11.5 x 16.5 inches with the help of favicole or glue. The specimens should be stitched with cotton thread so that they are not damaged during storage. An informative label is pasted on each sheet. This will carry the botanical name of the plant and its family, date of collection, location, and in brief the habitat of the plant. Each plant species should be given a voucher number so that whenever a new collection is to be ascertained, it could be matched. These sheets are to be placed horizontally in steel almirahs divided into shelves of appropriate sizes. Usually, the herbarium is fumigated after every three years to keep the specimens intact for decades.

The collected specimens are identified with the help local/regional floras and herbariums. The validity of botanical names is checked by consulting Index Kewensis. This is essential since the botanical names are regularly updated according to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. Botanical Survey of India (BSI), with which NIF has an MoU, for identification of herbarium specimens, also helps in proper identification and authentication of the collected plant samples.


Upon receipt of an entry, an initial prior art search (PAS) is done to ascertain whether the entry has a novelty, depending upon the sufficiency of the information. This is done by the staff of the NIF itself and the non-serious entries eliminated .Depending on the results, a letter is written to the innovator, mentioning that his entry (which can be innovation(s) or traditional knowledge practice(s)) has been received and whether it has been accepted or not . If the information collected/furnished is not sufficient to draw any conclusion, then the entry is put under exploratory category.

The innovator or the collaborator or scout is requested to submit the relevant details. These details can be about dried samples of plants (for botanical identification), symptoms of the diseases/ailments or photographs and videos, or any other information like educational qualification etc., which might be missing from the original document. This varies from case to case. A copy of the letter to the innovator is also sent to the person/organization that sent the information to us for their records.

In some cases claims are technologically correct but exist in widely public domain. These entries are put in a separate database called as PKD (People's Knowledge Database).

Doing prior art search is very crucial to establish originality and relative uniqueness or comparative advantage of the innovation. Majority of the innovators and traditional knowledge holders do not have web presence and hence mere web search will not reveal whether any other grassroots innovator or traditional knowledge holder or even small or tiny entrepreneur has already developed similar technology or not. Still, one may search web for any thing else done already by formal institutions or recorded by any other third party. In addition to web, one would normally look at the publications (books, journals and news reports etc.). It would be useful to consult experts where necessary as well as make field visits to industrial clusters or markets well known for selling goods related to the innovation or traditional knowledge under review. In addition, every innovation short-listed for recognition is also reviewed as a part of prior art.

Establishing originality or uniqueness or comparative advantage is important not only for deciding the innovations for recognition or award, but also for identifying scope for value addition, product development, protection of intellectual property rights, business development, diffusion through commercial or non commercial channels etc. This more rigorous prior art search will be outsourced most of the time and will be conducted in a thoroughly professional fashion.

The Innovation/practice, which pass through the sieve of the prior art search and have been found to be unique, are selected for further research and development work. Now the challenge to verify the claims of the herbal healer becomes very important.


The purpose to obtain the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) from the traditional knowledge holders is to get the proper authorization from them to enable NIF or any other agency pursuing documentation, to work for, and on behalf of them. Also, the purpose of the PIC is also to create trust and reciprocity between the TK holder and NIF, member institutions or agencies responsible for building value chain around green grassroots innovations and traditional knowledge.

Once an entry is accepted, NIF sends a PIC form in local language to all the innovators/TK holders to seek their written consent and choice of conditions for dissemination and value addition of their products/process/idea. Innovators/TK holders may decide among various options for scaling up their technology through commercial or non-commercial means or any other preference they may have. It is realized that many of the grassroots innovators and traditional knowledge holders can not read the PIC. In such cases, video PIC has to be taken. When an entry is short listed for any particular purpose, say value addition or research and development or business development, the PIC provides the framework of disclosure of the technology to the third party or taking up any further work.

In addition, PIC helps in enforcing the accountability of formal institutions towards the knowledge providers (individuals and community) and grassroots innovators. So far, the rate of receiving duly filled up PIC forms has been relatively low compared to the rate of receiving entries. Even consent from communities/groups has not yet been obtained in many traditional knowledge entries adequately. But the efforts are under way to improve the situation. It must be remembered that never in the history, had the people been asked to give their consent for such a purpose. PIC is a cultural revolution and it is also a sign that people's knowledge matters.

The concept of having Prior Informed consent for the knowledge documented originated with the evolution of the Honey Bee philosophy. The start was with a single PIC form, which evolved over the years, changing shape and content many times, based on the learnings on the way. Now there are discussions to have three separate PICs for different stages in the journey of knowledge/innovation, from initial documentation to value addition to possible business development and benefit sharing mechanism.

a) WHY? : Sharing of knowledge is a voluntary act and the participation has to be informed, both verbal and written, in a way that is understandable by the innovator. It is mandatory on the part of the data collector to explain the purpose of the exercise, in written, verbal way and video documentation.

b) WHAT? : Using the PIC note, every clause of the PIC form should be explained to the innovator and then his replies entered on the PIC form to enable the organisation to know, based on the innovator's preferences, what exactly can be done with the provided knowledge.

c) HOW? : The advanced stage PIC form should clearly define the way benefit sharing is desired by the innovator if the organisation goes ahead with a possible business development plan of his innovation. Clear explanation should be given to the innovator for all the options and then his preferences noted down.


There has been a considerable discussion among various collaborators and innovators about the need for institutionalizing Prior Informed Consent of the knowledge holders and innovators while accessing their knowledge and /or resources. The concept of PIC had started long ago at SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technological Institutions) although the form lacked a proper structure. The PIC was outlined in the form of a letter sent to everybody stating the philosophy and obligations of the network towards the knowledge providers. It took sometime to realize that sending letters is not sufficient. A more structured format was necessary to institutionalize the framework for PIC. Consequently an elaborate PIC form was developed after NIF came into existence.

As the experience was gained, it was realized that sending PIC form alone was also not serving the purpose. Therefore a background note explaining the possible implications of choosing various options in the PIC form in local languages was developed. As further experience was gained, the collaborators suggested that PIC should act actually as a contract between NIF and the individual/ and community concerned. This would also bind NIF to comply with the conditions specified by the knowledge providers. From time to time, in view of the suggestions received from various stakeholders, the PIC form was modified. The response to this concept is still not ideal and a great deal more remains to be done.

Apparently, one of the problems is that knowledge holders are not able to fully understand the concept. Many of the volunteers and collaborators find the background note slightly complex to explain it to the innovators in simple language. Though, an analysis of the entries received directly by HBN through NIF shows that in most of the cases PIC has been filled by the innovator/knowledge providers. More recently, it was felt by some members that the HBN may seek PIC in two steps. In the first step, we may ask their permission for sharing their knowledge with third parties or for exploring the opportunities for value addition and estimating market demand. However, after much deliberation with colleagues within NIF and outside experts and innovators, the ‘prior informed consent' form was modified. The form has been improvised and fields such as modes of benefit sharing, customization according to types of innovation or traditional knowledge and the contractual understanding between the innovator and NIF were simplified for making it more user-friendly for grassroots innovators / Traditional Knowledge holders. Also the idea was not to raise too much expectation at the stage of documentation itself. After all, only a very small fraction of the total entries received will make it to market or larger non –market diffusion.


i) Preliminary documentation:
Whatever may be the source of the information (directly from the innovator, through a scout, through media or other channels), the preliminary document may generally contain the innovator's name, address, contact number, educational qualifications, occupation and the description of the innovation and the details of the traditional knowledge. Further, samples of plants/herbs, exact methodology, etc., may not be available with the preliminary documents as these are mostly from the grassroots herbal healers. However, in many cases even basic information is not available. In the case of herbal knowledge, local name may be mentioned. Thus, further investigation can not be done till herbarium specimen is collected and authenticated.

ii) Verification of practices and secondary documentation :
All the necessary details are collected from the innovator/traditional knowledge holder. This is followed by a field visit by a team member where all the details including samples of plants, their local names, quantity/proportion of ingredients, method of preparation, symptoms of the diseases, precautions if any, dosage, photographs, videos, etc are collected. All verified practices are stored physically as well as digitally in an electronic database. It is absolutely necessary, that detailed documentation may be done with the help of people who understand technologies from different disciplines, i.e., technically specialized persons.