Saturday, February 16, 2013

Story of Gandhi’s 1920 Charkha challenge: A critical look

Vinoba Bhave carried an experiment for a year in 1916 in Nalwadi, Wardha to check the earning productivity of charkha spinning1. He concluded that the maximum earning per day of a person cannot be more than two annas. Gandhi realized that this had to be significantly more. Hence, he announced an open challenge to design an improved charkha in 1920. How was the response to this challenge? What kind of ideas came? What was the outcome? To study this, I spent some time going through the Young India issues of 1920 at the archive section of Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad last July. In this article I will summarize the story first and then review the process of managing the challenge based on the 4 parameters Prof. Karl Ulrich of Wharton School has articulated in the book “Innovation tournament”.

Here is what Maganlal Gandhi, the technology lab in charge at the Ashram, has written in Young India issue of Feb 25, 1920:

To the inventors of improved spinning wheel – We may state in reply to queries that several competitors are in correspondence with Mr. Gandhi in connection with the progress they have made in their attempt to manufacture a good machine doing ten times the work of the common rentia or charkha. The time for sending the machine expires on the 31st March next. Mr. Gandhi will be the judge and he will be helped by experts. The amount of the prize is Rs. 5,000.

On April 7 issue of Young India, a week after the deadline, Maganlal summarized the situation. By then the criteria for getting reward was changed to ‘doing five times the work of common charkha’. They received six ideas. Out of these, one from Baroda and the other from Sialkot held promise. None met the stated quality criteria. It was decided to give these two candidates more time and invite more ideas. The deadline was extended to 30th Sept.

After the deadline, on 13th Oct 1920 the situation was summarized in the Young India issue. The total number of ideas they received remained six - two old plus four new. Again none met the required quality criteria. One came from Prof. Malik of Hindu University, Calcutta. One of the prototypes by Mr. Kale of Dharwar was considered the most promising entry. This is how Maganlal concluded the article:

So, of all the rentias that were before us, none could fulfill the conditions laid down for competition. As regards the prize of Rs. 5000, it is decided to hold the competition once more on March 31st, 1921. We invite all intelligent inventors to present their inventions the Satyagrhashram on or before this date.
Three things struck me immediately. Considering that Gandhi wasn’t yet a popular figure in 1920, getting entries from as far as Sialkot (now in Pakistan), Calcutta and Dharwar was quite impressive. Second, I wondered whether Maganlal and Gandhi were too finicky about their quality criteria in not giving any reward. Third, I wondered if these candidates were lone inventors trying to do their bit or they had any community support back home. I strongly suspect the former.  Having said that let’s review the process of managing the challenge through the 4 criteria laid out by Prof. Karl Ulrich:

1.     Challenge not too narrow, not too broad: 5x productivity improvement is something any charkha maker and user would understand easily. So I felt that the challenge was defined concretely. Could it have been 3x instead of 5x? May be but considering that this was the first open challenge of its nature, there was no prior experience of how much innovation competency existed in the country.

2.     Get many and diverse ideas: The challenge received totally 10 ideas. I felt that the number was too low. It is not clear if Magnlal and team made any efforts in generating more ideas. Holding a conference was not a novel idea that time. Indian Science Congress was already 5 years old and an annual conference was held each year. A conference on this topic could have been quite productive.

3.     Stack the deck with proven high performers: It is not clear if there was any information available about who could be proven high performers. There were no weaving schools or at least not in the established universities in Madras and Bombay.

4.     Filters – generous early and ruthless later: As mentioned above, I felt that a stringent filter was applied early on. In all likelihood, the candidates needed mentoring to take their ideas forward, perhaps combine their ideas with others’ ideas. It is not clear if coaching was provided and collaboration was encouraged.

1.     Realization of the Khadi mission”, Newsletter from Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Rural Industrialisation (MGIRI), June-July 2010, vol 2, issue 6,7.
2.       C. Shambu Prasad, “Gandhi and Maganlal: Khadi science and the Gandhian scientist”, presented at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, April 13-15, 1999. Thanks to Prof. Shambu Prasad, this paper helped me in accessing the exact issues of Young India newsletter at Sabarmati Ashram.
3.       Image source: 


  1. This piece of information comes to me as a surprise. Mahatma Gandhi and Product Innovation; I believe it will take some time to sink in. Thanks for sharing this information; also your review through criteria laid out by Prof. Karl Ulrich is crisp and interesting.

  2. this is fantastic information! thank you for sharing

  3. Who won the contest and how did the book charkha come to be? Internet gives different dates/ years