In the Spotlight: Birendra Singh

On Thursday 14 December 2023, Birendra Singh successfully defended his PhD thesis: 'In Search of Grassroots Frugality - Everyday Learning and Experiential Knowledge to Navigate Water Uncertainties in the Budelkhand Region, India’. 

In days leading up to his defence, the ICFI communications team sat down with Birendra whose research explores the intriguing intersection of frugality and innovation. Stepping away from a Western lens, Birendra challenges the link between frugality and frugal innovation, shedding light on its diverse roots in various religious traditions, particularly Buddhism. Our conversation takes a deep dive into his on-the-ground research in Bundelkhand, India, where he spent six months capturing the practical details of frugal mindsets and innovative behaviors. Join us for an engaging discussion as we uncover the twists and turns of Birendra's academic journey, marked by interdisciplinary approaches and a genuine curiosity about how frugality can spark transformative innovations. 

Cover thesis Birendra SinghAccording to Birendra frugality as a virtue –though often attributed to the Christian tradition in the Western/Global North- is replete within different religious texts and traditions but can be traced back to the origins of Buddhism. ‘Frugal innovation has the potential to connect with the everyday realities of people in informal and grassroots settings. At the same time, in my research I do not take the relationship between frugality and frugal innovation as being linear, because not all innovations are inclusive. Frugality as a virtue comes from religious texts, from the Western perspective it comes from Christianity, I would argue that it first appears in Buddhism with the emphasis on mindfulness and living a simple life, and where wasting even a single drop of water is not allowed. But the interesting thing is that almost all religions focus on frugality but as a virtue. Then we have other discussions within academic circles where it was talked about as a practice, and now it is seen as an innovation.”

This understanding of frugality as multifaceted, perennial, and dynamic drew him towards academic research with an emphasis on elucidating “the organic kinds of innovation that are happening at the grassroots because a lot of the inequalities we see in the world are also created by innovations and technologies. So that is why I was careful to separate frugality and frugal innovation and focus on the conditions and factors that enable frugality to transform into innovations. How do these inequalities enable some and disable other innovators?” 

It also underpinned Birendra’s approach to research once he was out in the ‘field’, and his decision on where to carry out his research. “Bundelkhand is a very distinctive region within India, historically, ecologically, and culturally. At the policy level, it is also regarded as one of the most backward parts of the country. It has a strong traditional local knowledge system on water management, but fast forward hundreds of years and it is now one of the most food and water scarce regions in the country, so I wanted to understand how this contradiction happened.” In trying to unravel the complex historical and social fabric of the region, this project adopted a participatory and interdisciplinary approach that aligns well with Birendra’s background as a genetic engineer come social scientist. “Complex issues need to be addressed using a mindful combination of different literature and understandings. Interdisciplinarity is key, it takes passion and good guidance for researchers, and this is where my supervisors come into the picture. To explore different aspects of frugality I used literature from psychology, sociology, and other social sciences, like structure-agency discussions, theory from innovation studies on combining different kinds of knowledge and the classical work on social and observational learning by Albert Bandura.”

Photo fieldwork Birendra“I did not go into the field looking for success stories of innovation, I used more participatory and transformative methodologies. I spent 6 months living in the community to be able to capture the micro-dynamics of a frugal mindset and innovative behaviour.” Against -or perhaps -in harmony with this rich historical and cultural background, he was able to deviate from understandings on frugal innovation and frugality that are rooted in Western traditions and thought. At the same time, there were significant challenges that stemmed from this environment, as he explains. “Previous attempts to look into the local innovation landscape had concluded that there was none, so it was challenging in terms of methods, approach, and adapting my mindset to be able to design questions and surveys that could capture what is really going on. Another thing was the emotional toll and of the complexities of everyday life in an environment where food and water are scarce.” 

Speaking to his future plans and the impact that his PhD journey has had on his own thought process he says “Now I don’t see anything in binaries, there is no good or bad, things are always somewhere in between – like frugality is. If we need a more mindful and concrete explanation we have to go to the nuances and micropolitics of how things are being shaped as well as the sociohistorical processes. In continuing as part of academia I want to continue to work for the people that I value –the people that are living in poor conditions- I will try to amplify the marginal voices in discussions about frugality.”

       Let the husband die but the earthen pot of water should not be broken.

Bhundelkhandi saying which may best illustrate the grim situation of water. 

in the spotlightBirendra is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Knowledge Technology and Innovation group at Wageningen University and Research on frugality and inclusion in food provisioning. It unravels the multiple dimensions of the major societal challenge of ensuring access to nutritious, healthy, and affordable food for low-income groups in contexts plagued by scarcity and inequality. This research is part of the NWO-funded project titled “SMEs as driving force of inclusion and sustainability in global food provisioning”. The project contributes to the game changer ‘SMEs as accelerators of inclusion and sustainability in global food provisioning’ in the route ‘Sustainable production of safe and healthy food’ of the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA). The project aims to generate, and feed gained insights into forward-looking dialogues co-organized with partners in the Dutch and international policy landscape.

Photo credits: Birendra Singh, Dewendra Kushwah and KK Mishra