By Anwesha Dhar:
While pursuing his degree from Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), Somil spent most of his days volunteering for various social causes. He could not see himself working at a multinational, being one of those people who want to pursue a career that makes an impact on the lives of others. He then decided to give up his job offers after college and instead, chose to head towards rural India. Soon, he found himself in Gangapur, a village that was yet to see electricity at that time, and to help provide lighting solutions there. The returns? To quote Somil – “The smiles on the faces of people in whose lives you are bringing some change”.
He decided to put his engineering studies to good use by working towards providing lighting and charging provisions in Gangapur village of Pusa block, Samastipur district, Bihar. The project mainly seeks to address the energy needs of the Musahar community; a scheduled caste community belonging to the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Rat-catchers by tradition, this community in Gangapur consists of about 35 households who have been historically neglected. Thus, it was no surprise when the community was ignored when electricity was provided in the nearby villages.
Somil, along with a co-fellow Ajay, took charge. They decided to work on a two-fold project that would alleviate the condition of the community. Compared to the initiative by Greenpeace in Dharnai village, Somil says his work is ‘something much less complex’.
One part of the project deals with providing an easier, cost-effective solution to the villagers to charge their mobile phones. Earlier, the villagers had to pay rupees 5 per session to charge their phones. Additionally, they had to travel some distance to get it charged. This took a toll on their time and energy; some of their mobile phones were also damaged due to heavy rain. Thus, Somil designed a solar panel where as many as twenty mobiles can be charged at the same time. In order to floor this project, Somil took the help of a local entrepreneur Ajith, who agreed to invest a sum of rupees one thousand initially to get it installed at his home. He now charges rupees three per session, whereby two rupees make up his income and the other one rupee goes to a fund kept aside to cover maintenance. Needless to say, this comes as a huge respite to the villagers who spend rupees 50/each month to charge their phones now. It also saves time and labour, which has made their lives much easier.
The second and the more crucial part involved providing at least one LED per household, so that the villagers could do their work and let their children study for a longer time. Ingeniously, Somil installed a solar system which utilises Direct Current (DC) to provide electricity. Since it is a decentralised system, it is much easier to maintain. The villagers pay a meagre rupees two per day to avail the service. However, since the upfront cost of this setup is relatively high, a crowd funding was initiated that ended on 30th April. The setup will be completed tentatively by May 15th.
When asked about the difficulties he had to face, he says, “It was gaining the trust of the people. Frequent visits to the village, spending time with them and being very patient are the only way you can win their trust. So be it my project where I’m trying to develop entrepreneurs to promote solar lanterns, or be it the decentralized solar lighting project, the main challenge is the same- convincing people about the benefits of the intervention.”
When asked about his future plans, he said, “I plan to pursue my post graduation in energy and energy/environment policy. However, before that, I have plans to continue working on a similar project at a higher scale with a set of like-minded people who are willing to do this. But we still have to work out the details, so let’s see how it goes!”
He added, “I’m positive that this is a scalable model, and can be replicated elsewhere in areas where there is acute shortage of electricity supply. Even in areas where supply is sufficient, this is a very good alternative which can be used whenever there is a power cut.”
Gangapur now has the hopes of a brighter future, thanks to the aspirations of a guy who dared to dream for change.