‘People who benefit from the status quo try to kill innovations’

After his PhD from the JNU, Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad joined the School of Management of the Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou (China) as an Innovations Researcher. A widely travelled man, he talked to Khalid Bashir Gura on a number of issues from his education in Kashmir to his profiling of innovators before joining the Chinese university

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): How you got interested in innovations?

SHEIKH FAYAZ AHMD (SFA): Me and my friend Nadeem, who is now in Korea, volunteered for an NGO, Honeybee Network set up by Prof Anil Gupta of IIM, Ahmedabad, to locate and profile the individuals who had creative ideas, and are innovative. The NGO would scale their value up. It was in that set up that started profiling the innovators of Kashmir in local media. It eventually documented into a book – Unsung Innovators of Kashmir.

Dr Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad

Eventually, I pursued my full-time doctorate on Innovations in Informal Economy at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy (CSSP), School of Social Sciences at JNU. 

 KL: Why is innovation important?

SFA: From treating cancer to managing jobs for the unemployed, innovation holds the key. Apple started from the garage. Since it was a powerful idea, it gave jobs to tens of thousands and now it worth surpasses the GDP of 141 countries. Ali Baba of China is a digital platform for selling and buying of goods. On a single day, on December 11, 2019, it recorded daily sale of 38.5 billion dollars.

The sustainable development goals set up by the United Nations for 2030 for the member countries cannot be achieved without innovation.

By 2050, almost nine billion people will inhabit the earth. For the world that is already half deficit in food, the question is will we have enough food to feed them? May be agricultural innovations has the answer.

KL: What is innovation?

SFA:  Anything that helps to overcome one’s own needs or community or nation we call it innovation. The standard definition, however, is anything new that creates exchange value, implemented in the market becomes innovation.

Ghulam Muhammad Parray was probably first to get a patent from J&K in 1977 for 14 years. He got patent for innovating improved stove (a modification of the conventional heating system of Bukhari’s) to tackle harsh winters Kashmir. His Patent No 146031 was issued on March 26, 1977.

 KL: Why innovations take place?

 SFA: It varies. Sometimes, it could be a personal choice, a personal issue. In Kokernag lived a person named Ghulam Muhammad Mir. He had a habit of sleeping naked. During the peak season of militancy during raids he would be late as it would take him some time to dress up and it would end up in his public humiliation. Then he thought of creating a solution in overcoming his problem. He designed a singing lantern that could alarm him of any movement within the 10-meter radius of his house. At the time of designing the solution to his personal problem, he was around 50 years old. His concept was not for the market but innovation it was.

KL: How is the scene of innovation in Kashmir?

SFA: Individuals I met had impressive ideas. If channelized properly they would have revolutionized particular sectors.  They think for the community but unless they get proper support, good ideas will always die.

I met Mushtaq Ahmad who had invented the walnut cracking machine. We still use the manual way of breaking walnuts, so he tried to mechanize the processes.

I met Abdul Rahman Parray from Shalimar, the son of an innovator who spent time in jail because of not being able to clear debts he had incurred for his innovation. Abdul Rahman had mechanized cleaning the Pashmina wool. His father got patent for a technology that he wanted to implement. He raised a loan of Rs 3000. The idea failed and he went to jail.

KL: What happened to all those innovators you documented?

SFA: Their ideas were impressive but none of them emerged as a successful entrepreneur or innovator because they failed to reach the market despite encouragement from different departments, and media. Success will come only after the government protects the rights of innovators and supports them to reach the market and create incentives for innovators. In China, it is the government that is nurturing innovations and innovators.

But there is no support to innovators in Jammu and Kashmir. There was a start-up policy launched in 2018, but nobody has got any grant so far.

KL: Which are the potential areas for innovation in Kashmir?

SFA: Pashmina, agriculture, horticulture, paper machine, apple, walnuts are the potential areas. For example, the only value we have of walnut is of kernels. The shell is burned because it is of no use because people do not know that it is used in making beauty creams. Almost all facial scrubs come from them. Even if people know, they don’t know how to create value to it.

 KL: How are universities contributing to innovations?

SFA: Universities have played a great role in terms of creating knowledge. Their research helps entrepreneurs. In Jammu and Kashmir, the situation is different. There is no role that the University of Kashmir University or NIT is playing. Producing basic knowledge is good but creating an impact within your setting is important.

KL: What kills Innovation?

SFA: People who benefit from the status quo try to kill innovations. The government put the Shalimar man behind bars. In south Kashmir, there was Ghulam Nabi Kamdi who innovated a radio station. He was harassed because the state felt insecure.

Some it triggers a reverse reaction. Recently, when there was a ban on social media network a person attempted to create his own version of Facebook. Sometimes the innovators try to crush state hegemony in order to alter the status quo.

KL: What is the role of policy-makers in nurturing innovations?

SFA: Policymakers have to facilitate the scaling up of innovations and implementing them as well. For protecting Kashmiri traditional shawl, they introduced two innovations – the Geographical Indication and the use of ICT for modernizing the craft. Lack of implementation kept the state of Shawl as it is.

KL: Why had JKEDI invited you?

SFA: I was asked to scale up already existing micro-entrepreneurs of Kashmir and focus on innovation. I approached Bangladesh’s Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Younis because he has worked on micro-financing and micro-entrepreneurs.  He agreed to come to Kashmir at his own expenses and also wanted to set three Younis Centres (Research Centres set up by Grameen). It would have benefited enormously from local entrepreneurs as they would have access to a global platform. But sadly in Kashmir, it is sad that noble laureates don’t get hosted or welcomed. The state was not willing. The file about his visit has either disappeared or is gathering dust somewhere.

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