Covid Champions

Defying lock-down, curfew and the internet at snail-pace, scores of young men in Kashmir have offered amazing solutions to the various challenges triggered by Covid-19. Right now, they have innovated five ventilator designs and a series of robots, sanitizing systems and other protective gears for the frontline workers in health and sanitation. Now the real issue is how to sustain this initiative on a long term basis and encourage this culture to grow, asks Masood Hussain

Demonstrating his low-cost ventilator in a garage, Waseem Nadaf, made his audience crack into laughter when he introduced the sources of the spares he used in his innovation: “This is the soapbox that I got it from my bathroom and it is home to the oscillator of the machine the vital part of which I got from an old radio set,” Nadaf, a resident of Eidgah, said. “The main machine that pushes the Ambu (Artificial Manual Breathing Unit) bag is the CD driver of an old computer. It opens and pushes the bag and goes back.”

Waseem Nadaf with his prototype ventilator that he created out of scrap at home. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Nadaf, who has been breaking and re-making things for a long time is a social innovator. Currently, in the second semester of his designing course at the SSM in Srinagar, Nadaf was amongst the first to respond to the call by a group of like-minded people who wanted young men and women to innovate with a specific purpose to fight the Coronavirus.

Since the acute scarcity of the ventilators dominated the discourse from Washington to London to Milan, creating an alternative to the prized machine became a top priority of the Jugaad brigade across the globe. Jugaad is an old sub-continental word that explains a phenomenon envisaging creating an ad-hoc solution to newer challenges or offering alternatives to items not available around.

“When I started hearing about the crisis, I did not know what the ventilator is all about,” Nadaf said. “Finally, I contacted some doctor friends who helped me understand the machine and its purpose that I came to know about it and then I decided to give it a try with items that can easily and locally be available.”

The total cost that Nadaf incurred in making his ventilator work was less than Rs 1000. He said if his prototype gets some kind of aesthetic up-gradation or a facelift, it will add up Rs 1000 more. “It maintains its pressure and pushes a particular amount of oxygen out of the bag,” Nadaf said. “It has the mechanism of altering the speed as well.”

Nadaf was told by doctors that his equipment must take care of the sneezes of the patient. “While the oxygen is pushed into the lungs, a patient’s sneeze could burst his lungs,” Nadaf said. “So I installed two sensors that detect a sneeze and jam the operations for five seconds.” His machine can be controlled by an IR (infrared remote) or it can have an attached cord.

Giving a new impetus to Kashmir’s Jugaad innovators at the peak of a pandemic was the outcome of a series of discussions of three like-minded persons, Dr Parvez Saad, who teaches at the NIT, Srinagar; Dr Sheikh Fayaz, who is an innovation researcher at the Zhejiang University’s School of Management and was stuck in Srinagar and Raheem Green’s promoter, Abdul Hamid Bhat, a self-made millionaire. The trio also played a role in the making of the frugal ventilator that was born in the laboratory of the Islamic University of Sciences and Technology (IUST) at Awantipore. “After the experiment succeeded, they (IUST) tactfully closed the ranks and we did not object,” one of the three men said. “We wanted to use the university as a platform for the budding innovators but they had their own priorities which we do not resent.”

The trio behind the innovations: Dr S Fayaz Ahmad, Dr Parvez Saad and Abdul Hamid Bhat KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The three announced Covid-19 Open Challenge and gave innovators barely 10 days to submit their creations. “We suggested them to prioritise on items required to fight the pandemic,” Dr Saad said. “These included ventilators, PPEs, sanitizers and robots.” They raised a sum of Rs 100 thousand as rewards for the competition, part of which came from Rahim Green’s, Aaraf Foods and STC, a technology major in Srinagar.

Fayaz said the responses were amazing. “We have a society completely living in lockdown since August and then there were additional restrictions to avoid the infection spread,” Dr Fayaz said. “But these young men and women managed the spears to create their own wonders. When we started seeing it, we were speechless literally.”

Srinagar Deputy Commissioner, Dr Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, who had been helping the group to work, was personally amazed to see the creations of the Jugaad brigade at the exhibition on April 24. “The government said they will also give an equal amount to the initiative so the reward money is doubled.”

What shocked the organisers was that they had asked for some working model of a ventilator, innovators came with three. “We knew the complexities in creating a working model given the experience we had at IUST,” one member said. “We had to request two friends to fly some material from the US. But here we were amazed to see machines working and almost all had most parts from the scrap.”

T Gall, a Srinagar based Swiss engineer, with his ventilator. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

One of the innovators was Titus Gall, a Swiss engineer who operates his Pai Engineering Services from Nishat in Srinagar. His ventilator is a simple machine fixed in a plyboard box, which he created in five days. Gall had retrieved the motor of the machine from his old car – it is a motor on which the windshield wipers work. “These motors are meant to work for longer hours,” Gall said. “I used some pieces of abandoned pipes, took some empty cold drink bottles and even got something from my kids like glass marbles.”

Gall said he wanted to design something that had two important characteristics – it must be simple to copy and it should be repaired or reconstructed anywhere on earth. “If I need to create this machine in Tanghdar, I can,” Gall said. “Any mechanic who sees it once can replicate it.” His machine, he asserted has taken care of two key controls required for a ventilator – pressure and volume. “The diameter of the motor is managing the pressure control and diameter of the pipe takes care of the volume of oxygen that pushes into the lungs of the patient.”

Impressed Bhat said he has decided that the ambulance his group is operating for the people will have Gall’s ventilator fixed in the van to help the patients. “It is a low-cost alternative that can help the patients in transit,” Bhat said. “We have already associated with doctors who will suggest us if it requires any more modification.”

A trio comprising two students Sajid Noor and Jehangir Hameed Lone and their teacher Khan Arshad Iqbal, have taken a completely different route to the making of a ventilator. They have taken a digital printer’s main rod on which the cartridges move, and used it as the main assembly unit and connected it with two folding arms. As the arms fold, they push two Ambu bags on two sides thus pushing the oxygen supplies to two patients at the same time.

“We are working to improve it and make it a unit that can manage four patients at the same time with no added costs,” Jahangir said. “It is a rough model and it will take a bit more time to take it to the next level.” They insist that the entire material used in their innovation is scrap.

“While devising this, we had countless interactions with the doctors,” one of the innovators said. “We implemented whatever they suggested including 12 inhalations in a minute and it can be taken to the next level after they see it perform.” After all modifications, it can never cost Rs 10,000, they asserted because it has nothing very costly.

The two classmates who are in the seventh semester of their electronics engineering course have also devised a sanitizer. “It is plain and basic,” one of them said. “But it is need of the time.” The particular sanitizer has its discharge linked to a chip that detects hands and starts pouring the sanitizer over them. “Otherwise what would people do, they would first operate the sanitizer and thus infecting it too.” They said they have improved the visibility of the face guards used by the SKIMS doctors to 95 per cent by using the right material. The splash guards currently being used by doctors in Kashmir hospitals are locally produced by the Jugaad brigade.

Another model of ventilator came from Anantnag where a young electric engineering diploma holder used a multi-source operating machine to create his ventilator. “It is simple and perfect,” Sheikh Zubair, the innovator said on phone. “The small motor that I have used operates on three energy sources, DC, AC and on solar energy. It has two meters installed for volume and pressure and its size suits any ambulance.”

Zubair had earlier got a patent for grain thrasher. “Many months later, I saw agriculture department marketing the same officially,” Zubair said. “When I asked them why they have stolen my thing, they gave different reasons but nothing convincing. I wanted to take the case ahead because this is a patented technology but then the situation went bad.”

Zubair regretted that the lack of a proper platform is the biggest crisis the innovators are facing in Kashmir. “There is nobody who can help take these items to the market and there is nobody around who can handhold us to go the next level,” Zubair said. “We even do not know how we will manage to protect what is legitimately ours. People simply see and copy it.”

The competition organisers had listed priority areas for innovations. Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) including face masks was the priority so was robotics and sanitizing and disinfectant systems. From the IT side, they wanted applications and web sites that can give solutions to a crisis in which social distancing and lockdown are the two main players. They got a good response for almost every category.

Mudasir and Adeel, both engineering students devised a simple robot that can help a doctor take the round of his ward without physical interactions. Using his own cell phone, a doctor can communicate with the patients using the robot and also deliver medicines to him.

Najeeb Ahmad demonstrating his robot prototype. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Working with multiple sensors, the robot, named GRoot 1.0, can move on an uneven surface and give priority to a human movement if and when detected. Najeeb, who is pursuing bachelors in technology at the Srinagar School of Management (SSM), has created a cousin of the Groot 1.0, almost with similar functions though with a different body. Both these machines can be of good assistance to healthcare workers in the situation of a contagion outbreak.

There were many other things that the innovators carried in their baskets to the organisers while negotiating drop-gates and restrictions on movement. Nadaf’s brother Moin devised a mask that blocks any suspended particle on its striker. “Basically an aluminium foil shrouded in a khadi cloth, the mask has two chambers, an activated carbon chamber and a textile chamber,” Nadaf said. “What makes it unique is that it has a striker that prevents anything from moving out.” He said the reusable mask barely costs Rs 5.60 and is as good as N 95.

Irfan Ahmad Wani developed two Covid-19 apps. One of the apps is in use by doctors. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

A Kadil Kadal techie, Irfan Ahmad Wani devised one application and handed it over to the Doctors Association of Kashmir for use in taking the patient consultation to the new virtual levels. Once that started working with DAK, Wani created a new application; Suhiliyat (Urdu word for making easy) that merges all the requirements and information’s on Covid-19 and automatically informs the user that he is approaching a Covid-19 red zone.

Apart from managing virtual consultations with doctors, making on-line purchases in the surroundings, this app helps people report authorities about the people suspected of infection or with hidden travel histories. It has an inbuilt self-assessment kit for a user and relays the NDTV news and the important tweets from top functionaries of the government who are deployed to fight the Covid-19.

“The beauty of this application is that it operates on 2G speed flawlessly,” Wani said. “The application is currently being used by around 70,000 people in Srinagar alone.”

Another techie, Tabish Haider created website that can help manage the supply of basic grocery, medicines in an area thus linking the consumer and the supplier.

However, when the jury finally sat to see who did what and who must be honoured, they really faced a problem in making the best choices. “There were 160 entries and 40 of them were outstanding,” Fayaz said. “We never expected this much and now the objective is how to take it to the next level.”

Creative Twins

The jury was a grand one. The overseas evaluators included Shabir Hasan, a scholar at the Harvard Medical School, and Dr Ahsanul Haq Qureshi who teaches at the Khlifah University in Dubai. Experts who saw the demonstration and evaluated the prototypes included Prof Babar Ahmad, the head of the Mechanical engineering at NIT in Srinagar and Dr Talib Khan from the SKIMS.

In medical devices, the student-teacher trio bagged the top honour. Najeeb Shafi got the first position in robotics; Moonis-ul-Islam got the honours for devising the face masks; Irfan got the honours for his app, Asif Ali Lone’s system was recognised as the best for supply and distribution of essential items.

There was a category for devising a mechanism to reduce and overcome the stigmatisation of the patients with Covid-19. It was wrested by Ireland based Kashmiri doctor, Naz Usmani.

The winning trio: Khan Arshid Iqbal with his two students Sajad Noor and Jehangir Hameed Lone.

The interesting award, however, was that Mohammad Ismail Mir got for devising a full-body full-body sensor dispenser. Mir has an interesting story. A resident of Watpora in Bandipora, Mir is a mechanic and manages all kind of machines in his own area. He has studied up to tenth class and was keen to see his son reach the heights, he personal;y could not even attempt. He did.

Jamsheed Jameel, his son, was in the last year of his PhD. He was working on something in peace and conflict studies as a scholar of the Sikkim University. While busy with his research, he was detected with cancer. He died in the SKIMS in 2019.

This, however, did not force Mir Sr to give up. “He has many innovations to his credit. He has been working with sensors for the last 20 years,” Fayaz said. “After he got the award for devising the best whole-body sensor dispenser, he is now working on his own model of the ventilator.”

After China introduced the fumigation, disinfectant channels in Wuhan, it triggered a race for creating an alternative in Kashmir. It was the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) installing a number of them and later the society took over. One locality in Baramulla devised its own fumigation channel and ensured that all entries and exits to the locality are through this channel. Later, a similar channel was installed at the main gate of the sub-district hospital in Pampore. All these tunnels were devised by natives and implemented also by them.

Creating these fumigation tunnels was the first societal response to the Covid-19 crisis at a larger scale after the people started getting onto the mass manufacture of face masks and the PPEs and face guards. It was in the second stage that the like-minded people joined hands to manage bigger idea better.

One of the three innovators checking the working of their ventilator prototype. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Dr Saad said that Kashmir is behaving normally because pandemics trigger community responses by Jugaads’ and innovations. “What surprised everybody was that it all happened in 10 days,” Saad, who heads the IIED (Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship Development) at NIT said. “We got 160 ideas; we approved 40 and finally got 21 prototypes at the display. That is amazing.”

The real issue, Saad said is that which of these innovations can be taken to the next level and what are the required intervention at the innovation level and the production side.

Fayaz, whose parent department in the university was part of the exercise, said ideas and prototypes have clearly demonstrated the capacity and sincerity of what the youth wants. “They did it without internet, while they were under the lockdown and without access to any workshops, laboratories, mentors and guidance,” Fayaz said. “We have to see how many of these prototypes can be quickly tweaked into and taken to the next level.” Some of the items like face masks and PPE being innovated and produced locally are already in the use.

Bhat has been supportive throughout. He said he would go by what the team members say. He is willing to move the extra mile.

IUST Creates Ruhdaar, A Kashmir Made Low-Cost Frugal Ventilator

However, what the three gentlemen are seriously thinking is how to sustain the initiative. “These boys and girls are rear because everybody cannot be an inventor,” Saad said. “We want to have a platform that will help them grow by having the right kind of guidance and the right kind of industry that can produce what they design.” There are various innovation cells within NIT, the University of Kashmir and the IUST. But these centres have limited roles and then they stop.

There is a requirement for a platform for the innovators who have traditionally been getting exploited either by the market or by academics. They need to stand up on their own legs and this is the right time because seemingly they have the right solutions to an overwhelming situation.

Ideas Matter

And the most interesting thing that shocked the organisers was that one of the innovators who got the top honour refused to accept the small prize money. “I would like to inform you that please donate my wing prize money that could help in any Covid-19 response initiative,” he wrote them in response. “I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. I hope we could take these proposals ahead and make them useful and productive in the current prevailing situation.” This is a never-say-die spirit. Seize this opportunity.


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