People's Basic Needs

After Grandson’s Debilitating Accident, Gritty 77-YO Helps Him Start Snack Business

Seventy-seven-year-old Urmila Jamnadas Asher starts her day at 5.30 every morning.

She makes tea and breakfast for her daughter-in-law, Rajashree, and grandson Harsh, and then reads the newspaper as she eats her own meal. After this, she starts preparing snacks to cater to orders placed by residents across Mumbai, who come to eat her delicious food at Gujju Ben Na Nasta.

Assisted by two people, including Rajashree, she begins delivering orders by noon. On the surface, this seems to be the routine of any woman who runs a homemade food business. But Urmila’s story reads differently. The senior citizen started her venture at the age of 77, to bury life full of tragedy, pain, and struggle.

Urmila’s daughter passed away when she was two-and-a-half years old, after she accidentally fell from a building. Years later, her two sons passed away as well — one due to brain tumour, and the other due to heart disease. All she had left was her grandson, Harsh.

Harsh completed his MBA in 2012, and worked with the Oman Ministry to promote tourism in India. In 2014, he quit his job to start a venture of corporate gifts and merchandise by collaborating with the consulates.

However, tragedy struck in 2019, when he met with an accident and lost his upper lip. “The accident left me disfigured, and I had to undergo surgery. It led me to face an identity crisis, and subsequently, I fell into depression. I refrained from stepping out of the house. I had been financially sustaining my family and myself since 2016, but that came to a sudden halt,” he tells The Better India.

A steady hand to hold Dhokla from Gujju Ben

This personal crisis was followed by a worldwide one, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. “I started losing business as the global pandemic situation worsened. By February 2020, I had to shut shop,” he adds.

Harsh’s grandmother was a first-hand witness to his pain and suffering. “I told him that he had only lost his upper lip and business, but I’d lost three children, and was still standing strong. I assured him I’d offer all my support,” Urmila says.

In 2020, Urmila and Harsh started Gujju Ben Na Nasta, to slowly get back on their feet. The business today earns the duo Rs 3 lakh a month.

Every day since March, the neighbourhood of Charni Road has found itself drenched in the aroma of fresh and mouth watering Gujarati delicacies. This aroma travels far and wide across different corners of the city through a plethora of orders that it receives on food delivery platforms including Swiggy and Zomato.

Harsh says the idea struck him in March, one day when his grandmother was preparing pickles. “I asked her if she was willing to prepare it in large quantities, and suggested we advertise it on social media platforms to check the response of potential customers.”

The picklers were an instant hit.

“My friends and close acquaintances had always liked the food my grandmother made. But I never realised that so many people would go crazy over it. We sold 500 kilos of pickles and started adding snacks such as thepla, dhokla, puran poli, halwa, sabudana khichdi, farali pattice and other such items to the food list,” Harsh says.

Store of Gujju Ben Na Nasta with Harsh Asher.

Urmila took charge of the kitchen and rolled out dishes, while Harsh’s mother and other friends helped in packaging and managing orders.

“My grandmother works 14 hours a day, and sometimes even six hours at a stretch. Her stamina and endurance are incredible. We cater to around 30-35 orders a day, each of them prepared and checked for quality by her,” he says.

“As business grew, I partnered with two other friends to invest Rs 10 lakh and opened a brick and mortar shop near the house in October,” Harsh says.

‘Everyone has their own style of cooking’

Harsh says that while the business is stabilising, they need more workforce and infrastructure. “We started small and are planning to scale up. There is a small kitchen space and limited people who can work at a time. There are inquiries for over 70 orders. But we cannot fulfil them,” he adds.

He explains that out of the Rs 3 lakh they earn, a majority goes into rents, salaries and commission to food delivery platforms. “What remains is Rs 90,000, which is spent on buying raw material and sustaining the family. There are no profits. Only increasing orders will boost it,” he says, adding that he aims to open outlets at airports across India for vegetarian travellers.

However, Gujjuben, as Urmila is fondly called these days, has no financial worries. “I have no idea how much the business earns. My job is to cook fresh and quality food for the customers. Cooking is my passion, and I do not feel tired even after spending more than 12 hours in the kitchen. I also love learning how to make delicacies from others, and it never ends. Sometimes, Harsh feels hungry at midnight, and I enter the kitchen and prepare something for him. But I do need my 4.30 pm tea to refresh myself in the afternoons,” she laughs.

Thepla

Urmila says there is no secret recipe for her dishes. “Everyone has their style of preparing food. I have mine as well. On many occasions, friends invite me to make pickles at their home. I ask them to buy the ingredients and prepare them at their house. My speciality is raw mango pickle and another without the skin, which makes it easier for the elderly to chew,” she adds. Urmila guarantees that her pickles can last for almost three years.

Naville Gotla, a working professional from Tardeo, is a regular customer, and says every item made by Gujjuben is his favourite. “I came across the shop during a visit in the area once, and later saw the listing on Zomato, so I decided to order some food. Since then, I have tried every single item offered on the menu. There are no doubts about their taste or quality,” he adds.

When inquired about the popularity of her food and how much customers love it, Urmila replies, “I want people to eat healthy food. In my generation, we ate food that was much healthier and less adulterated. Many youngsters these days opt for fast food or ordering online from restaurants. I understand that work is stressful and it becomes difficult to cook meals after a tiring day, but there cannot be a compromise on food and personal health,” she emphasises.

She also has another message. “I lost my children when they were young. There is no denying that I miss them every day. But I can’t keep crying. I moved on, and people should learn to do the same. That is why I wanted to help Harsh and give him the right strength when he needs it most. Supporting each other makes life easy,” Urmila says.

To order snacks from Gujju Ben Na Nasta, click here.

Edited by Divya Sethu

COVID-19: How ‘Oxygen-at-Home’ via Concentrators Can Be a Life Saver

On April 19, Nagpur-based Simran Nashine logged into her Twitter account to seek help for 41-year-old Girish Kesai, a COVID-19 patient. His oxygen saturation levels had dropped to 82%.

It had been well over 24 hours since his health had started deteriorating, and the wait for a hospital bed with an oxygen facility was only increasing. Fortunately, within the next few hours, Girish was able to receive admission. In those critical hours between his oxygen levels dropping and him finally being admitted to the hospital, his life depended on an oxygen concentrator.

This machine filters oxygen from the atmosphere and helps patients access it through a mask or cannula.

“The machine helped maintain his oxygen levels and prevent his health from deteriorating faster. It bought us time to scramble for an oxygen bed for further treatment. Without the concentrator, it would have been difficult to sustain for long,” Simran tells The Better India.

Like Girish, millions of COVID-19 patients across India are struggling to breathe during the initial stages of infection. Hospitals and the medical infrastructure are overwhelmed, resulting in a lack of oxygen beds and ventilators. If the administration of oxygen is delayed, a patient’s health can deteriorate so fast that the results can be fatal.

Buying time in crucial hours Oximeter used to check saturated oxygen levels in a person.

Aarti Nimkar, former president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), Pune, says an oxygen concentrator can be a life-saver during cases in which a patient needs mild oxygen.

“Ideally, oxygen levels in the body should be above 95. However, in COVID-19, the disease causes lung fibrosis and affects breathing among patients. A feeling of breathlessness, shortage of breath, chest pain and other respiratory issues are common symptoms. In such cases, the patients need oxygen therapy at the soonest, as the levels may start dropping. Such patients need assistance to compensate for inadequate breathing capabilities,” she says, adding, “The device can help boost oxygen levels if they drop to 80-85.”

She adds that the devices are available in 5-10 litres per minute flow capacities, cost between Rs 25,000 and Rs 60,000, and should be used under the supervision of doctors. “The machine can buy crucial time for patients. They may rely on the device before the ambulance arrives and they are hospitalised,” Aarti adds.

Aarti says the device can help boost a patient’s oxygen levels from 85 to up to 90 or 95, and even maintain these parameters to some extent. “Increased levels reduce the struggle for the patient and risks of health complications caused due to shortage of oxygen,” she adds.

Gujarat-based Ami Joshi, director of Ashmi Healthcare Private Limited says that over a hundred patients have benefited from oxygen concentrators since the surge in cases during the second wave.

“The device is simple to use, as it does not have a manual regulator like oxygen tanks. It prevents excess discharge and can be handled by the patient as needed. The maintenance cost is low as it does not require refills. Only the water dehumidifier needs replacement as per the use. In some cases, two devices of 5 litres/per minute flow can be used for a single patient if required,” she says.

Oxygen concentrator in the market.

“The oxygen concentrator has also helped patients showing oxygen levels as low as 70,” Ami says, adding that each machine is available on rent at Rs 400 or sometimes lent for free to people who cannot afford it.

Explaining the functioning of the device Pune-based Sundeep Salvi, director of Chest Research Foundation (CRF), says, “The atmospheric air consists of about 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, and then other gases. The oxygen concentrator works by absorbing air from the surroundings and filtering out nitrogen and other gases. The oxygen is stored in a cylinder to be inhaled by the user.”

How it works

The machine operates on electricity and requires uninterrupted power supply with power-back ups.
The machine starts releasing oxygen at the push of a button.
The device filters nitrogen and increases the concentration of oxygen for inhalation.
It is recommended to use the concentrator only if the SPO2 (oxygen saturation) level drops below 95.
It is mandatory to have a doctor’s approval to use the device.
Use an oxygen mask or nasal cannula as recommended by the medical expert for inhalation.
Ensure the filters are cleaned and do not block the air entry. It may affect the performance of the device.
Patients with asthma, COPD and respiratory ailments can also use it if prescribed by the doctors.

‘Best during the recovery stage’

Sundeep cautions that an oxygen concentrator cannot be a replacement for oxygen or a ventilator. “It can only act as a cushion before the severity of the disease increases. Patients with moderate and severe health conditions will need higher doses of oxygen, and the device cannot meet those heavy requirements,” he explains.

“On many occasions, the severity increases dramatically. The oxygen levels in the patient drop suddenly. In such cases, the patient should be moved immediately to oxygen or ventilator beds. The oxygen concentrator will prove futile,” he adds.

Oxygen tanks used for respiratory illness patients.

Sundeep believes that oxygen concentrators can be more beneficial post-treatment. “The device can work as a support system during the recovery stage of the COVID-19, as here, smaller doses of oxygen are required. This way, bed occupancy at the hospital reduces, and the patient can continue the treatment at home. The vacated bed becomes available for another patient who is in more urgent need of oxygen or a ventilator,” he adds.

Sudha Khisti from Nagpur is one such COVID-19 patient recovering from the disease. “I was diagnosed on March 25 and remained hospitalised for almost 20 days. As I suffer from asthma, the doctor was concerned about my health and suggested I buy an oxygen concentrator,” she says.

The 68-year-old adds that moving out of the hospital reduced the chances of getting reinfected and her family members contracting COVID-19. “The device has proven to be a game-changer. After using it for a week, my oxygen levels have increased, and my dependency on the device has reduced. Earlier, I used it for almost five hours a day. But now, I use it only for a couple of hours. It has made me confident about my health,” she says.

Aarti emphasises that oxygen concentrators do benefit patients, especially in difficult situations. “It would be appreciated if the government can waive taxes or reduce the prices of these devices. It will make it more affordable for common people and prove beneficial in times of the pandemic,” she adds.

To procure an oxygen concentrator, please click here, here and here.

Edited by Divya Sethu

IIT-Mandi’s Reusable Face Masks Filter COVID-19 Virus; Are 100% Self-Cleaning

With India desperately struggling in the face of a devastating second COVID-19 wave, face masks have become an indispensable piece of apparel, especially in public spaces.

Although they are largely designed to act as a physical barrier between the wearer and the external environment, they must also act as antimicrobial agents to inhibit or kill pathogens.

This is particularly important in the case of reusable masks, which are preferable to single-use masks that create littering and secondary infections. In light of these circumstances, researchers at IIT-Mandi have developed a “virus-filtering, self-cleaning and antibacterial material” that can be used to make face masks and other protective gear.

In a press release issued earlier this week, Dr Amit Jaiswal, an assistant professor at the School of Basic Sciences, IIT-Mandi, said, “Keeping the urgency of the pandemic and cost-effectiveness in mind, we have developed a strategy to repurpose existing [personal protective equipments] PPEs, especially face masks, by providing an antimicrobial coating to these protective clothing/textiles.” The materials used are reportedly 100,000 times smaller than the width of the human hair “to confer antimicrobial properties to polycotton fabric”.

But what are these materials, you ask? The team at IIT-Mandi incorporated nanometre-sized sheets of molybdenum disulphide or MoS2.

“For the past couple of years, we have been exploiting the property of 2D nanosheets, especially molybdenum disulphide or MoS2 nanosheets, for different biomedical applications. Recently, the MoS2 nanosheet has emerged as an excellent antibacterial agent. In our previous study, we reported that MoS2 nanosheets exerts its antibacterial activity through combined action of membrane depolarisation, metabolic inactivation and ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species) generation in bacteria. This understanding encouraged us to exploit the antibacterial potential of MoS2 nanosheet for the fabrication of PPEs like face masks which could be of great help to society in times of a pandemic,” says Dr Amit Jaiswal.

Antimicrobial coating on a standard face mask.

Assisting Dr Jaiswal in this endeavour are research scholars Shouank Ray, Praveen Kumar and Anita Sarkar.

Shounak says, “When we studied these MoS2 nanosheets under an electron microscope, we saw them as thin flakes having sharp edges and corners. These sharp edges/corners make nanosheets behave like nano-knives that penetrate and puncture the membranes of bacteria and viruses. We utilise these MoS2 nanosheets in our study and deposited them on the surface of a cotton fabric. When we studied these cotton fabric under a scanning electron microscope we observed that the nanosheets were quite uniformly deposited on the surface of the fabric and the normal architecture of the fabric was not at all hampered.”

He goes on to add that the ‘nanoknife-modified’ fabrics “demonstrated excellent antibacterial activity even after 60 cycles of washing”. Thus ensuring less biological waste generation.

In addition to puncturing the microbial membranes, these nanosheets enable the process of disinfection when exposed to light.

Praveen explains, “These fabrics have excellent antibacterial properties. Further, when these nanosheets are exposed to sunlight, they absorb the energy of sunlight and convert it into heat. This is known as the photothermal effect. Our modified fabrics have excellent photothermal properties. When it’s exposed to sunlight, the surface temperature of the fabric rises up to 77° Celsius within 5 minutes, which results in elimination of more than 99% bacteria within just 3 minutes.”

Dr. Amit Jaiswal (second to the right) alongside research scholars who have developed antimicrobial coating for face masks.

Writing in the prestigious journal of the American Chemical Society–Applied Materials & Interfaces–the authors write, “Within 5 minutes of solar irradiation, all the MoS2-modified fabrics showed 100% killing of both E. coli and S. aureus.”

In other words, hanging out your masks in bright sunlight helps clean them and ensures that you can wear them again.

It’s imperative to note that improperly disposed of PPEs are a serious secondary source of transmission, and having reusable antimicrobial masks can help circumvent this risk.

“We redesigned the commonly available three-layered facemasks by introducing our MoS2 fabric as an additional layer of protective clothing. It was found out that the repurposed face mask was able to filter out 97% of aerosolised particles in the size range of 100 to 200 nanometres which is very important in preventing the transmission of SARS-COV2 which has a size of approximately 120 nanometres. Further, the breathability of the face mask was not affected. Also, the photothermal property of MoS2 nanosheet can be utilised for large scale disinfection of used masks before disposal by harnessing the energy of the sun,” says Dr Jaiswal.

He adds, “We also believe that the antimicrobial fabric developed in this study has the potential for the fabrication of screens, creation of isolation wards, quarantine cells and helps in isolating individuals who have come in contact with viruses or other pathogenic bacteria.”

The researchers claim to have also developed prototypes of a four-layered mask using their MoS2 modified fabric, which in addition to eliminating microbes and cleanable by sunlight, can also filter more than 96% of particles in the size range of the COVID-19 virus.

“We have demonstrated the applicability of our fabricated MoS2 modified fabric at the bench scale which needs a little more testing and optimisation before it can be taken to the commercial scale. Thus, presently we have not discussed with any of the face mask/ PPE manufacturers. We are open to discussing our material with industries/manufacturers. Presently, we have demonstrated the applicability of using a prototype. Having said that, the reported MoS2 modified fabric is very much scalable. This needs certain optimisation and a few industrial-scale equipments for their production,” says Dr Jaiswal.

The second wave of COVID-19 has created the need to develop better and well-equipped PPEs with in-built antimicrobial properties, better filtration efficiencies and reusability.

“In this regard, we developed a 2D nanomaterial (MoS2) modified poly-cotton fabric which is photothermally active and can be used to harness sunlight for disinfection of the material in addition to the bacterial membrane disruption ability of MoS2. Thus, this may provide a potential antibacterial PPE for medical and para-medical practitioners across the world who are working at the forefront of this battle against COVID-19. Further, the reusability of the MoS2-Fabric will also enable it to be integrated with homemade masks, thus providing some degree of protection from microbial pathogens,” adds Dr Jaiswal.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: contact@thebetterindia.com, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Has Your Kid Tested Positive For COVID? Here’s What You Need To Do

At the time of writing this article India reported a total of 2,95,041 new cases. In several households, multiple members from the family have tested positive. In this second wave of the novel Coronavirus  (COVID) pandemic, children as young as newborns are also testing positive for the virus.

There has been a 65 per cent increase in COVID-19 positive paediatric cases, in Mumbai alone, since the beginning of March.

The Better India caught up with Dr Krishan Chugh, Director and Head of Department, Paediatrics, Fortis Memorial Research Institute Gurugram, to help us understand what protocols to follow in case children test positive, and ways to keep them protected if an adult at home tests positive.

Dr Chugh begins by saying that there is no age group of children testing positive, babies as well as older children are equally vulnerable to infection. Dr Krishan Chugh

When it comes to identifying some of the danger signs in children, he says, “Fever touching 104°F—one shouldn’t worry at anything less than 101°F—breathing difficulties, the periphery of the body like hands and palms looking very pale or almost blue, and if you notice that the child is showing signs of complete lethargy then you should immediately rush the child to the nearest hospital.”

Some other markers could include persistent vomiting and a large number of large stools. “None of these symptoms need to be accompanied by another and can very well present themselves independent of each other. Each one of the symptoms is a danger sign by itself,” adds Dr Chugh.

What protocol to follow if a child tests positive? Representational image.

Dr Chugh admits that symptomatic treatment is the best bet when it comes to treating the SARS COV-2 in children. He says, “There is no medicine that works as a wonder drug for all the symptoms. If the fever persists, a paracetamol needs to be administered at regular intervals. Other symptoms need to be treated as per your physician’s direction. Do not panic and self-medicate in excess, you will do more harm than good.”

In cases where one or more parents test positive, Dr Chugh says that chances of already having exposed the others in the family is very high. In certain cases, if the exposure has not yet occurred, parents ought to take all precautions to ensure that it stays that way. “If your child is in the same area as you and is less than six feet from the infected parent, wearing a well-fitted mask will help,” he says. In cases where the child is not showing any symptoms, Dr Chugh urges parents to refrain from having another family member care for the child.

“This will lead to further exposure and that is exactly what we need to curtail at this point in time,” says Dr Chugh. It might be safer to have the parents care for the child, if they are not too sick to do so. This will also help curtail the virus within one’s home.

Should children wear masks? Representational image.

Dr Chugh says, “Children should be wearing a mask, as long as it is practical. If it is a small baby, then masks are not needed. However, for children who are over one year and are clinging to a parent who has tested positive, then wearing a mask is advised for both the child and the parent.” Adding to this, Dr Chugh also sheds light on ‘co-sleeping’ when either or both parents have tested positive. He says, “While wearing a mask and sleeping is not a solution, one could consider moving the child to a separate area once the child is in deep sleep.”

He also says that having open conversations with children about the virus, the do’s and don’ts and ways by which one can stay safe, is important. “Have age appropriate conversations and if you can find videos to get the point across to them, then even better,” he says. Do not unnecessarily expose them to news that could leave them scared and fearful.

Few things to keep in mind:
  • Monitor the child’s fever and oxygen levels twice a day. If there is any cause for concern, contact the paediatrician immediately.
  • Do not self-medicate the child. Always consult the paediatrician before administering any medicine.
  • There is no preventive medication available in the market. Do not fall for any such claims being made.
  • Keep the child well hydrated at all times.
  • Ensure that the room the child is in is well ventilated.
  • Given the surge in cases, it is advisable to stay indoors. Allow the number of cases to decrease before you venture out with children.

“Wearing a mask is the key to be able to fight this virus,” Dr Chugh signs off.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

How a Nun & Lots of Leftover Egg Yolks Led to Bebinca, the ‘Queen of Goan Desserts’

If one had to apply the viral social media trend #TheTellMeChallenge, to talk about Goa without mentioning ‘Goa’, it is no doubt that one would think to talk about Bebinca. This ghee-lathered sweetmeat encapsulates the state’s unique cultural and historical identity within its seven layers of glistening brilliance.

A flavourful vestige of the state’s colonial past, Bebinca is as unique to Goa as cartoonist Mario Miranda’s delightful illustrations portraying the lives of Goans.

And that is why it’s no surprise that the chief minister of the state, Pramod Sawant recently announced to push for a geographical indication (GI) tag for the dessert, in addition to the Mankurad mango, local brew coconut Feni, Taleigao brinjal, Saat Shireacho Bhendo (okra) and the Kunbi saree.

But underneath the luscious multi-layered slice of warm bliss, often served with vanilla ice cream, lies interesting stories of Goa’s culinary adventures.

A history lesson on sustainable baking Source (L-R): Shaughna Marie D’Silva; the_tasty_traveller

Also known as ‘bibik’, this Portuguese-influenced dessert is undisputedly the most popular sweet delicacy in the state. It makes special appearances at every occasion, be it a wedding, Christmas or any other feast. This indeed has earned Bebinca the sobriquet of ‘Queen of Goan Desserts’.

However, its origin is still shrouded in mystery. Some legends claim that much like other confectionaries of the convent (doces conventuais in Portuguese) Bebinca was also invented by Portuguese nuns in the 17th century. But what stands out is their zero-waste baking approach.

Contrary to most baked foods that use egg whites, here the yolks take the limelight. Using egg whites to starch clothes was a common practice of the colonizers which is still prevalent in parts of Old Goa. As a result of this, most people, much like the Portuguese nuns of Santa Monica Convent in Old Goa, would end up with an excess of leftover egg yolks. Legend has it that Bebinca came to be a solution to leftover yolks.

These stories and a prominent historian Fatima da Silva Gracias’ book, Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food, states that one of these nuns from Santa Monica Convent was called Bebiana. She invented a seven-layered pudding using leftover yolks to symbolise the seven hills of the old city of Goa and Lisbon. This pudding was then sent to the priests, possibly those living in the Convent of St Augustine—the Order to which Santa Monica belonged—who although impressed, pointed out that seven layers weren’t enough for them. They advised Bebiana to increase the dessert’s size to accommodate at least a dozen layers. Today, this pudding is known as Bebinca in her honour and boasts from 7 to as many as 16 layers.

Patience — a critical ingredient

There’s nothing quite like cutting through the layers of Bebinca to reveal the wonders of complex flavours created with rather simple ingredients.

The warmth locked inside each layer, melting the vanilla ice-cream as you take a bite, is quite spectacular and is a result of four primary ingredients — eggs, all-purpose flour (maida), coconut milk and sugar. To enhance the flavours and create the cascading layers, lots of ghee and a hint of nutmeg is added.

But the one critical ingredient when baking Bebinca is patience. A true labour of love, one needs to keep it aside for 4 to 12 hours in order to religiously follow the recipe. Make the two separate batters (one dark and light), pour a thin layer of either batter, lather melted ghee on top, bake and then repeat, alternating between the dark and light layers. In other words, in the case of a 16-layer Bebinca, you would need to painstakingly layer, lather and bake each layer of batter 16 times!

(L-R)  Tizal, a local earthenware for making bebinca/Goa Chitra Museum; An oven-baked bebinca/Suneeta Mishra (@cookingupastormoninsta)

Food experts say that the best results can be achieved only by following the traditional method of baking, which involves using a special earthenware oven called tizals. Unlike other baked desserts, Bebinca made in these pots is not baked over a fire but by placing a few burning coconut husks over the lid. A hack for those cooking it in a conventional oven is to select the heat source setting that allows the heat to be released from the top and not from under the Bebinca dish. This method allows the heat to spread evenly and helps the sugar to slowly caramelize and create a more rounded taste with smoky undertones.

Goa’s crown jewel, Bebinca, is not only sensational in India but across the world. According to experts, the Portuguese had taken it across their colonies, from Goa to Sri Lanka, East Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines to even Hawaii and the Pacific. With every trip, it influenced a variation—be it the layer-less bibingka in the Philippines or the bibikkan in Sri Lanka—only to be immortalised as one of the many Indian gastronomic wonders.

Featured image source: notoutofthebox/Instagram

Edited by Yoshita Rao

WFH? Low-Cost Innovation by 4 Students Could Correct Your Posture & Help With Back Ache

This April, many students and working professionals across India complete around a year of working from home (WFH). Body aches, and strain on the neck, back and hip, have taken a toll on several people — all thanks to long working hours and incorrect sitting postures. 

Having experienced these problems firsthand, four students from Gurugram’s Shiv Nadar School — Sparsh Jha, Gayatri Brijesh, Vihaan and Varnika Motwani — have developed a multi-purpose, wearable and cost-effective device called Postura. The device, which comes inside a pillow, helps correct the posture and also gives massages to the stressed areas of the back. 

The Class X students came up with the battery-operated device as part of their school project during the lockdown, after working for months. They spent a little over Rs 2,000 to make Postura, and currently, it is at the prototype stage. The students, along with two school teachers, are working to bring Postura to the manufacturing stage and bring down the cost to Rs 1,000.

“Every year, the school conducts the Capstone Project, under which students are expected to identify a problem and develop a tech-based solution that is both easily available and low-cost. We collectively decided to address back problems, given that we would be able to test it on ourselves and that the prices of massage chairs are high. Only one of us visited the school to make the prototype in our laboratory, and the rest gave inputs on design, structure, etc via video calls. Fortunately, we assembled everything in our first try,” Vihaan tells The Better India

To understand the problems that came with WFH, the students conducted an online survey where a majority of homebound people have been using improper DIY setups. Taking into consideration the feedback, the group not only made a provision that alerts an individual when their posture is incorrect, but also gives massages to relieve stress. 

The students also involved a physiotherapist to get an informal medical clearance for the prototype. Meanwhile, testing was restricted to people in the house due to the spread of coronavirus. 

More than a pillow 

Postura has a unique sensory mechanism that alerts individuals when they slouch and trains them to correct their posture over a period of time. Designed using electronics and robotics, the product measures the number of times the body tilts and the period it was in an incorrect posture. This data is then synced with the device’s mobile app to provide users with intelligence on their posture and overall improvement journey.

Using animation software, the students printed a 3D model and ordered material including foam, battery, mortar, circuit and sensors online. The gyro sensors determine the improper posture and send vibrations accordingly. The massager is app-controlled and can be switched on by connecting Bluetooth. 

  All one has to do is place the pillow under the glutes and strap it to the chair, unlike other devices which need to be fixed onto the body, often making it uncomfortable. 

“The device vibrates to alert you about your irregular posture. After the constant vibration alerts, your natural posture will be so erect that you won’t need regular alerts. The pillow has four buttons located on different sides, which alert you as soon as you deviate from the correct posture. The massager needs to be charged with an Android charger for an hour which can be used for five hours, ” says Gayatri. 

Edited by Divya Sethu

Remdesivir for COVID: This Freedom Fighter & His Son Built Cipla Into What It Is Today

In a significant development earlier this week, Indian pharmaceutical giant Cipla Ltd lowered the price of its generic version of Remdesivir—an antiviral drug originally made by US biopharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences Inc—called Cipremi to Rs 3,000 from Rs 4,000.

(Image above of Yusuf Hamied receiving Padma Bhushan from President Abdul Kalam courtesy Cipla Archives.)

This is part of a move by seven drug manufacturers in India to engage in a ‘voluntary’ price reduction at the behest of the Indian government. Intravenously administered, the Remdesivir, which comes in vials of 100 mg, is considered a key antiviral drug in the fight against COVID-19, especially in adult patients with severe complications.

This is what Cipla, a company founded in 1935 by Khwaja Abdul (KA) Hamied following Mahatma Gandhi’s call to make affordable drugs available to India’s poorest citizens, has been doing for years.

The company has been manufacturing generic drugs and supplying them at affordable prices amid different public health crises, including HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s.

KA Hamied set up Cipla to make India “self-reliant in healthcare”, pioneered in API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient) manufacturing and played a pivotal role in the enactment of the New Patent Law, which allowed Indian pharmaceuticals to manufacture patented products as long as the process of manufacturing them was changed.

“This enabled Indian companies for the first time to manufacture any medicines and make them available and affordable for all Indians,” says Cipla on their website.

However, it was his son, Yusuf K Hamied, who turned around a company with an annual turnover of Rs 16 million at the time of KA Hamied’s death in 1972 to a market cap of Rs 680 billion today. Additionally, the company has over the years challenged the monopoly of Western pharmaceutical giants (Big Pharma) which have used patent laws to price critical medicines out of the hands of the most vulnerable.

Secular Upbringing

Born on 15 July 1936 to KA Hamied, an Indian Muslim freedom fighter and scientist from Aligarh, and Luba Derczanska, a Jewish communist from the erstwhile Russian Poland, in Vilinius, Lithuania, Yusuf grew up in a deeply secular household. A month after Yusuf was born, he was taken to Bombay (Mumbai) by his parents. It was the last visit they made to Luba’s hometown before the Nazi Holocaust killed her elderly parents in 1941.

Hamied had met Luba in Berlin on a lake cruise in 1925, while studying there. The couple soon fell in love and got married three years later. Before leaving for Germany, Hamied worked closely with leaders of the freedom struggle like MK Gandhi and Zakir Hussain and taught at Jamia Millia Islamia. Following his return to India, he founded a successful business venture called the Chemical, Industrial and Pharmaceutical Laboratories (Cipla) in 1935.

“It [Cipla] carried on as a small enterprise until 1939 when, with a new war looming, imports from Europe, particularly medicines, were suddenly curtailed. At this point, on 4 July 1939, Gandhi came to Bombay to ask Hamied to fill the gap. It was thus that his firm came to produce affordable medicines for the war effort, which after the war expanded to include the ‘third world’ as well,” notes Gerdien Jonker on KA Hamied’s early years in Berlin.

KA Hamied (Image courtesy Cipla Archives and Indo Islamic Culture/Twitter)

Growing up through the early years of Independence, Yusuf saw his father taking on entities like the Muslim League for propagating the two-nation theory and fighting for Hindu-Muslim unity despite the carnage surrounding Partition. Meanwhile, he studied in some of Bombay’s best schools and went on to earn a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University before returning to India in the early 1960s to work in his father’s company.

Speaking to journalist Shrabonti Bagchi of the Mint earlier this year, Yusuf recalled not being treated as a ‘leader-in-waiting’, but as a common employee by the company.

“In the beginning, I remember cleaning the floors in the tablet department. It took two years for me to even get employment in Cipla, because I was related to a director. The board of directors was very strict. So for one-and-a-half years, I worked almost as a trainee with no salary, with a PhD degree, cleaning the floors. So what I decided was, I would learn the pharma industry backwards. Nobody will know more about the industry than I do, and that’s exactly what I did. I learnt how to make tablets, I learnt how to make injections…I did just about everything,” Yusuf said.

When Hamied passed away in 1972 after a brief illness, Yusuf took over the reins.

Boss of Generic Drugs

Years before Yusuf took on the mantle of challenging Big Pharma, KA Hamied wrote about it for The Times of India on 11 December 1964. Hamied argued that “patent law should enforce ‘compulsory licensing’ to other manufacturers to prevent monopolistic predatory pricing”, according to a 2016 Quartz India article.

To the uninitiated, “compulsory licenses are authorisations given to a third-party by the Controller General to make, use or sell a particular product or use a particular process which has been patented, without the need of the permission of the patent owner”, notes this explainer on Mondaq.

“Later, Yusuf picked up this same battle in the case of the astronomical pricing of AIDS medications by patent holders. By retro-engineering the first medication and antiretroviral cocktail effective against HIV and AIDS and selling them at a fraction of the price, he helped save millions of lives,” the Quartz India article goes on to add.

In the early noughties, Cipla made its name on the global stage by pioneering cheap access to antiretrovirals (ARVs) at less than a ‘Dollar a Day’ or $ 300 per HIV/AIDS patient per year from $ 12,000 per patient per year.

Before this announcement, Yusuf had warned the European Commission on AIDS in September 2000 that his company would break Big Pharma’s monopoly on life-saving drugs needed to treat this fatal disease and ensure they were accessible to those who needed them the most.

Writing a profile of Yusuf in 2003 for The Guardian, journalist Sarah Boseley called him the “generic drugs boss”. “The assumption that AIDS drugs were not for the poor—that they could not afford them and therefore that there was no point even thinking about ways to get people treated—was blown out of the water,” wrote Sarah at the time.

Yusuf Hamied (Image courtesy Cipla Archives/Twitter)

“Now, in the post-Hamied era, the genie will not go back in the bottle. The big drug companies have been forced to drop their prices for these new and powerful drugs and offer them to a market they had no interest in developing—the impoverished African states where a whole generation of parents, teachers and workers are dying,” she added.

Hans Lofgren, in his book ‘The Politics of the Pharmaceutical Industry and Access to Medicine’, talks about how Yusuf played an influential role in the pioneering development of multidrug combination pills (also known as fixed-dose combinations, or FDCs), for other ailments like tuberculosis (TB), asthma and others that largely affect low-income countries. The book goes on to talk about his role in the “development of paediatric formulations of drugs, especially those benefiting children in poor settings”.

Yusuf’s challenge to Big Pharma, however, didn’t go unanswered. In 2005, Parliament passed the Indian Patents (Amendment) Act, which came following the government’s decision to sign the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This piece of legislation set up real barriers for Indian pharma companies from producing generic drugs through reverse engineering.

Despite setbacks in 2005, Cipla went on the path of “incremental innovation”.

“The pharma industry is growing by leaps and bounds, and we also have to go that route, but what India also requires is what I call ‘appropriate technology’, technology that is suited to our country and our needs, and which is summed up in two words: incremental innovation,” he told Mint.

He adds: “How do you repurpose drugs? How do you reposition them? I will give you an example — there is a drug called ivermectin, which was used to treat parasite infections, and now it is being used for treating COVID-19. That’s called repurposing and repositioning, and this is the area in which India could take the lead. I am not saying we halt innovation, but we are better off today with incremental innovation rather than concept innovation.”

For his yeoman service to the developing world, the Indian government awarded him the Padma Bhushan in 2005. Eight years later in February 2013, Yusuf announced his retirement from Cipla after serving decades as the company’s managing director.

Since his retirement in 2011, however, Cipla has gone through its share of controversies, particularly related to drug overpricing with cases listed in the Supreme Court.

For example, earlier this year, the national drug pricing watchdog, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, created a list of companies accused of overcharging customers. “According to the list, Mumbai-based Cipla has to pay the maximum penalty, over Rs 3,000 crore (including interest but minus the sum recovered),” notes this report in The Print.

Earlier this month, the Chhattisgarh government was considering legal action against the company for not meeting its supply requirements for Remdesivir.

But despite the controversies, the legacy Yusuf leaves behind is largely positive. Today, his niece Samina Hamied serves as Executive Vice Chairman while Umang Vohra is the company’s Managing Director and Global CEO. Yusuf is the company’s chairman, and given his age (84), he is not involved in the day-to-day running of the company.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: contact@thebetterindia.com, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

‘We Ended the Dancing Bear Practice & Rescued 3,000 Families From Abject Poverty’

In 1995, Geeta Seshamani witnessed a sloth bear bobbing up and down in the middle of the Delhi-Agra highway. “The poor bear was being dragged along by a coarse rope that was threaded through his bleeding and infected muzzle while his ‘owner’ begged money off the tourists,” she says, with anguish in her voice.

The horrific practice of the Dancing Bear—as it was referred to since the bear jumped up and down in pain when their handlers (from the Kalandar community) tugged at the rope—struck a nerve with Geeta. It involved piercing a hot iron rod into the soft muzzle of the bear cub, after which a rope is threaded through it, which is then used to make the bear ‘dance’.

A dancing sloth bear with a pierced and tied up muzzle.

The dancing bear act began around 400 years ago when a nomadic community entered India from Persia and performed tricks to entertain Mughal emperors. Over the centuries, the emperors and kingdoms disappeared, but the ‘dancing’ bear trade remained. This transitioned to cheap street entertainment for tourists. While the practice was made illegal in India in 1972, underground trafficking of the bears still took place.

“I realised this was not just entertainment for tourists but torture and abuse of an endangered wild animal that was being exploited for human greed,” says the co-author of ‘Dancing Bears of India’ and ‘Trade in Bears and Their Parts in India: Threats to Conservation of Bears’.

Since then, Geeta, her old friend Kartick Satyanarayan, and their team at Wildlife SOS have rescued 628 bears. They have rehabilitated the bears and helped provide alternative livelihood options to the Kalandar community — who traditionally captured the bears.

Life At The End of A Rope A Kalandar man with his dancing bear entertains a crowd.

The child of a military father, Geeta travelled to many places while growing up. She completed her education at Delhi University and said that she has always been compassionate about animals.

“What I recall as a ‘life-changing incident’ was when I was 20 and saw a dog in pain, after having met with a road accident. The accident had happened right in front of my eyes, and the human responsible had not bothered to glance back. I immediately leapt out of the car, picked the dog up, and took it to the side of the road. Unfortunately, the injuries were fatal, and the dog passed away on my lap,” the 70-year-old laments.

This incident compelled her to become a voice for the voiceless and create an institution that would help such animals in distress. “In 1979, I met a group of school children who were part of a ‘kindness club’ led by Anuradha Modi. Friendicoes SECA (Society for the Eradication of Cruelty to Animals) is one of the oldest animal shelters in Delhi-NCR,” says Geeta who is now the Vice President of the organisation.

Later, in 1995, she and Kartick established Wildlife SOS that runs several projects to support wildlife conservation in India.

In an earlier interview with The Better India, Kartick also admitted to finding his calling early on when he saw large-scale poaching of wildlife and habitat destruction was doing irreversible damage to ecosystems.

After witnessing the bear in 1995, Geeta went with a filmmaker to a village of the Kalandar community, just 30 km outside Delhi, to find a horrifying reality.

“The bears were tied to sticks and Tikar ka ped. They were lying in dirty conditions with swarms of flies around them. And that night that I stayed with them was a life-changing experience. I saw the poverty of the people. The children were pot-bellied. Every household had only five or six vessels and two sets of clothes – if they were lucky. They had bears, owls and monkeys, who were in such bad shape. I was taken aback that so close to Delhi, where we are steeped in privilege, lies this village in abject poverty,” she says.

Kalandars bringing the last dancing bears into BBRC.

Geeta and Kartick eventually investigated the illegal practice of dancing sloth bears from 1995 to 1997. They stayed in over 60 villages across five states — Bihar, Odisha, Karnataka, Haryana and Rajasthan.

“We realised right at the very beginning that if we wanted to help implement India’s wildlife laws to eradicate the illegal and brutal practice of dancing bears, we had to work with the nomadic community that depended on the bears for a livelihood,” says Delhi-based Geeta.

Geeta adds, “Kartick and I travelled for months to remote parts of India, stayed in tents and on railway platforms to gather intelligence. The dancing bear practice was being handed down from generation to generation, thereby preventing youngsters from accessing education. We wanted to ensure a bright future for younger generations while ensuring sustainable protection of the bears.”

The duo’s report was published in 1997 and submitted to the government of India, which got them their support and cooperation. It also helped them establish the world’s largest rehabilitation centre for sloth bears in Agra in 2002.

“The first of the bears started coming in on Christmas Eve in 2002. That was a beautiful blessing. Interestingly enough, our last bear also came in on Christmas Eve in 2009,” Geeta says.

Geeta Seshamani feeding a rescued elephant.

In 2009, the final curtain was drawn on the centuries-old practice in the country, and Wildlife SOS successfully rescued and rehabilitated 628 sloth bears from this cruel industry.

However, a lot of the bears were already infected with tuberculosis. “The Kalandars had tuberculosis, and hepatitis was endemic in the community, and the bears would live with them in their huts. About 50% of the bears were lost due to these diseases. But today, all of the bears in our enclosures are almost 20 years old, with a few turning 30 and 32,” says Geeta, who continues her work to resolve man-animal conflicts.

Helping The Kalandars

To protect the indigenous sloth bear population, efforts had to be made at different tiers. An alternate means of livelihood confirmed uprooting the practice effectively.

At first, the Kalandar community felt threatened by the Wildlife SOS team, who they thought were attempting to take away their only means of survival.

Rose (L) & Elvis (R) play in the sanctuary.

“In the beginning, they couldn’t understand why we wanted to help them, and it took us many years to earn their trust. Whatever little Kartick and my salaries permitted, we used to take small things like helping them with rice or atta. If a village needed water or a tubewell, we’d help them with that. We even helped them make ad hoc temporary toilets, which were essential for the women. Over time they realised that we wanted to help provide a more sustainable solution for their families,” she says, adding that funding from donors and international organisations came only after 2002.

Slowly, the community began to adopt alternate methods of livelihood.

“There was a very old man who took the funds to buy himself a Genset which he would lease out at weddings or events. Highway stalls of boiled eggs and omelette stations and other food items, juice stalls, fruit and vegetable carts were set up. The women were empowered with many skills, seed funds for their small businesses like sewing, block printing. They always did better than the men in accepting this change and turning their investments into profits,” says Geeta, who also helped set up a driving school for the youngsters who learnt how to drive auto-rickshaws.

Along with providing alternative livelihoods for the community, Wildlife SOS has designed and carried out several initiatives to empower the women of the community in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Geeta adds, “We wanted to wean them off child marriage practices. We asked them how much they spent on marriages, and it was maybe Rs 6,000 to 8,000 at the time. We then assured them that we would pay for the girl’s lehenga and kitchen vessels only if they waited till their daughters were 18 before marrying them off. They agreed.”

Even today, the organisation has to approve 100-200 seed funds and marriage funds every year.

Geeta with a rescued donkey at Friendicoes.

Banks were another foreign concept for the community, which had a low ratio of students completing their education. “In many villages, if the child has cleared his class 8, they can avail of loans from the block officer. So we put them in touch with the authorities, which made them more willing to study. We even pay for everything from the satchel to the sweater to their pens, books and fees on the condition that they educate the girl child too,” says Geeta.

Over 3,000 families have benefited from the initiatives by Wildlife SOS, and over 7,600 children access education which helped change the future for the community.

The Return of Elvis

Wildlife SOS rehabilitated all 628 sloth bears in four large natural sanctuaries across India. Wildlife SOS operates these centres in collaboration with the State Forest Department. They were also able to stop the poaching of the bear cubs from the forests successfully.

But even today, there is a community across the border in Nepal that still indulges in the dancing bear practice. During some festivals, they cross the border and come into some states.

In 2015, the Wildlife SOS anti-poaching unit, ‘Forest Watch’, gathered intelligence about a gang of poachers who had a bear cub in a remote village on the Indo-Nepal border area.

Elvis at the Agra Bear Rescue Center shortly after his rescue.

“We liaised with the Forest Department and local police to launch a joint operation to rescue the cub, who was later named Elvis,” says Geeta, who adds that the King of Rock and Roll was her ‘heartthrob’ growing up.

Elvis was poached from the wild as a cub of barely 6-8 weeks old and was in the process of being smuggled across the international border. His delicate muzzle was already pierced with a red hot iron poker.

“Unfortunately, the poachers had already received word of the raid and had fled the scene before the Forest Department and our team could intercept them. We found Elvis chained to a tree, whimpering softly and scared of being left alone in a half-starved condition,” she says, adding, “Elvis has been hand-reared by our staff and caregivers since then. We can’t release him back into the wild. As he was snatched away from his mother at such a young age, he never had the chance to learn the basic skills of surviving in the wild.”

“Today, it fills my heart with joy to see Elvis, who is almost five years old, living a healthy and safe life in the company of other bears at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility,” says Geeta.

Elvis all grown up.

The septuagenarian describes her journey as a ‘roller coaster ride’ and is still not ready to throw in the towel when it comes to conservation. “I am aware that there is still plenty more to come, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced so much, connected with so many lives and been able to make a difference, no matter how small it may seem,” she signs off.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

IIT Madras Invites Applications for Fellowship in AI with a Salary of Rs 18 Lakh

Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras in collaboration with the Narayanan Family Foundation is inviting applications for fellowships in artificial intelligence for social good at the Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (RBCDSAI).

The objective of this fellowship is to attract early career AI researchers with exceptional promise to RBCDSAI, IIT Madras. Highlighting the uniqueness of this fellowship, Prof B Ravindran, Head, RBCDSAI-IIT Madras said, “This fellowship is designed to enable outstanding candidates to establish their independent research profile and to contribute in a significant way to socially relevant AI research.”

RBCDSAI was founded in August 2017 with a vision to expand and further the research, education and outreach activities in the areas of data science and AI.

Things to know about this IIT Madras Fellowship:
  • This fellowship is open to researchers in the field of AI.
  • Those who are interested to apply their expertise for social good are encouraged to apply.
  • Recent PhD graduates or early career researchers in computer science, computational and data sciences, biomedical sciences, management, finance and other engineering branches with exceptional academic qualifications from The Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science and AI (RBCDSAI) can apply.
  • This fellowship in AI for Social Good will pay a salary of between Rs 15 to Rs 18 lakhs per year for three years.
  • Selected candidates will get the chance to draw a one-time research grant of upto Rs 30 lakhs.
How to apply? Representational image.
  • If you wish to apply for the fellowship, click here to access the google form.
  • Candidates are required to fill out their personal details, which includes email address, name and address.
  • Candidates will also have to upload their photograph and fill out their educational qualification details.
  • Proposed research statement in the field of artificial intelligence for social good in PDF format also needs to be uploaded.

Interested candidates seeking additional information can write to – nf3@rbcdsai.org.

IIT-Bombay Incubated Firm’s Device Detects Deadly Explosives in Less Than 10 Secs

NanoSniffer, the world’s first microsensor-based explosive trace detector (ETD), developed by NanoSniff Technologies, an IIT-Bombay incubated startup, can detect dangerous explosives like Nitroglycerine, Ammonium Nitrate and RDX in less than 10 seconds.

Costing just one-third of the price of imported ETDs, the 100 per cent indigenously-made NanoSniffer can also identify and classify explosives into different classes of military, conventional and homemade explosives.

Once it provides trace detection of explosives weighing in nanograms (one nanogram is equal to one-millionth of a milligram), the NanoSniffer alerts security personnel with a sunlight-readable colour display attached to the device giving out visible and audible alerts.

Given the nature of threats that high-security installations like airports, railway stations, metro stations, hotels, shopping complexes, malls or places of worship face, it’s imperative that they are equipped with quality explosive detection capabilities. Launched earlier this month, the NanoSniff is looking to address its security requirements.

“The primary motivation behind the creation of the NanoSniffer was to indigenise our technology since no one has made it in India. Prior to the creation of the NanoSniffer, our startup was building miniaturised sensors for various sensing applications. Our idea was also to see how we could build a low-cost affordable device relevant to the Indian market. The MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) sensor we developed could detect explosives at an affordable cost,” Kapil Bardeja, co-founder of Vehant Technologies and director, NanoSniff Technologies, tells The Better India.

The NanoSniffer

How Does The Tech Work?

In a document shared with The Better India, NanoSniff Technologies explains how it works.

“The user will swipe the surface of persons, vehicles, and bags; and therefore, will collect explosives particles on a ‘Swipe’. This Swipe will be inserted into the instrument, where the collected sample will be transferred to the microheater sensor via evaporation from the swipe. Using the principle of differential calorimetry the microheater detects whether the sample collected on the Swipe was an explosive or not,” it states.

“When security personnel swipes a bag, they try to obtain traces of the particles which they want to detect and insert it into the analyser. Using a micro-heater, our device delivers a rapid temperature shock to the particles with everything burning at 300 degrees Celsius. If they are explosives, they exhibit different behaviour than non-explosives. So, we deliver a rapid temperature push to the traces at a nanoscale. But how do you differentiate between something burning and exploding at that scale? We look at the thermal signature, carry out this rapid deflagration event and discern the signature of an explosive. We then use a pattern recognition technique to distinguish between an explosive and non-explosive signature. Going further, the device assesses the explosive and classifies them into different categories like Nitramines (RDX, HMX), Nitroaromatics (TNT), etc.,” says Kapil.

As the NanoSniff Technologies document states, “The detection decision is backed by High-speed Electronics and Sophisticated Signal Processing algorithms. It can detect even less than 10 nanograms of explosives. The sensitivity capability was validated by the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (HEMRL) under DRDO in Pune. Our approach has been to detect ‘classes’ of explosives; we have been successful in that. Since the approach is Physics-based, it applies to other materials of the same class.”

So far, the startup has tested the NanoSniffer on 17 different kinds of explosives.

“NanoSniff was started with the idea that we’ll be sniffing explosives. The sensor initially thought of was based on micro-cantilevers. Unfortunately, about a year and a half into our work, we realised that the selectivity of the sensors was very poor and making them in scale would be very difficult. We then shifted our strategy from a chemistry-based to a physics-based approach and used what is known as micro-heated sensors. We developed a scalable process for that,” says Dr. Nitin Kale, co-founder.

And yet, no mechanical sniffer has been reliably shown to match the performance of sniffer dogs under field conditions. Kapil admits that sniffer dogs are the best in detecting explosives.

“There is nothing more sensitive and selective than a sniffer dog. However, there are practical concerns with employing sniffer dogs. These dogs work on the principle of their outstanding olfactory senses. Their ability to sniff extends to about two to three hours, following which they need at least a three-hour break to rejuvenate their senses. If you have to conduct round the clock checks, you need to have two or three sniffer dogs working in rotation. Also, every dog needs a handler and thus additional operators. It’s an impractical and expensive way of detecting explosives throughout the day in places like airports or hotels. Devices like the NanoSniffer are meant to be used in conjunction with sniffer dogs,” claims Kapil.

Collaboration and Years of Work

Working alongside NanoSniff Technologies on this device was Vehant Technologies, an IIT-Delhi incubated venture with expertise in security screening systems like X-ray baggage scanners.

Since Vehant Technologies has worked with major establishments like airports, metro stations, hotels and malls, they helped Nanosniff Technologies spell out and define the technical requirements and specifications for the device.

“They offered further productisation support in terms of box casing and making it temperature-proof. Those inputs came from Vehant. But the primary technology of sensors, electronics and pattern recognition was built by us,” says Kapil.

Developing the core technology of this explosives trace detector (ETD) has taken about 13 years with efforts led by Professor Soumyo Mukherji, Professors V Ramgopal Rao and Dr Nitin Kale of IIT-Bombay, who are all co-founders of the startup. However, the technology was taken to the next level when they established the startup in 2011.

At Nanosniff, it took about three years to develop the sensors, two years to build the device, another two years to test and validate and launch three prototypes before the NanoSniffer came into being.

In its decade-long existence, the startup has been funded by founders, angel investors (Priyas Investments), grants (GCC, BIRAC, GITA etc), and crowd-sourcing (1Crowd). Since its inception, the startup has raised funding to the tune of about Rs 12 crore. But how do they expect business to move going forward?

“Our customers are airports, train stations, metro stations, high-security government installations, private companies, hotels, places of worship or commercial complexes. These are places with a large asset base of humans or capital, and places where a terror attack can create havoc. We can’t disclose the exact price of this device, but it’s one-third the price of existing imported ETDs. Our device is 100 per cent Made in India, including sensors that are built in the semiconductor labs of IISc Bangalore. The core technology of NanoSniffer is protected by patents in the US and Europe. While the core technology, sensor, assembling and software development for the Nanonsiffer is being done in-house at IIT-Bombay, third party vendors help us source other smaller components,” says Kapil.

At this juncture, the startup claims to have started demonstrations of their technology to potential customers and put in our bid for a couple of tenders.

“Suffice it to say, the NanoSniffer is a step towards achieving the government’s dream of ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’. With the development of this product, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi along with their offshoot companies are making a sincere effort to boost the nation’s security with highly reliable and affordable indigenous products,” says Professor Ramgopal.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: contact@thebetterindia.com, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.