By Merril Diniz:
In 2015, a young engineer named Somil Daga developed a decentralised solar system, during his 13-month SBI Youth for India fellowship. His ingenious system enabled the residents of Gangapur village to transform their lives through lighting in their homes, the ability to power cell phones and more, for the sum of INR 2 a day. His work inspired two other young professionals, Sada Gopan Sekar and Rahul Menon K. P., who quit their jobs to take up solar electrification projects through their own SBI Youth For India fellowship journeys.
What is it that prompts young people like Rahul and Sada to quit lucrative corporate jobs and spend 13 months in the hinterland of our country? The reasons are myriad.
Sada wanted to find more meaning in his daily grind. “We live in an age where we prioritise products over people and consumption over connection. So, I consider this as my journey to gather newer perspectives by getting out of my comfort zone, while providing whatever little assistance I could to those in need,” shares the mechanical engineer and MBA, who worked for a while in an auto components company, before taking the plunge.
Rahul, also a mechanical engineer, was an Assistant Project Manager with a solar energy company in Cochin. Here, he worked on several residential and institutional projects. “However, I increasingly felt that while energy is a basic requirement, there is a great disparity of power supply across classes, throughout the country.”
Both Rahul and Sada are now dedicated to playing a hands-on role in reducing this disparity by establishing self-reliant energy enterprises run by local entrepreneurs, to help meet the energy needs of villages even in remote locations.
According to Sada, only 20-40% of households have registered and billed connectivity, around 60% are connected by unlawful means, and load shedding is a frequent occurrence. “During these periods people use kerosene lanterns, which are highly risky, causing accidents like fires and possible consumption by kids. This is also a leading cause for indoor air pollution (IAP), which especially affects their primary users – women and children,” he observes. Yet, a household spends on an average of INR 130 a month on kerosene.
Borrowing from Somil’s concept, Sada has now developed a system that enables people from underserved communities to also reap the benefits of solar power, despite the initial high costs. “This system has a 3W solar panel powering a single 2W LED, which gets charged in three hours, with the availability of good sunlight and provides light for five to six hours,” he shares. It is portable and comes with a plug that enables mobile phone charging. “In this model, a household can add a few more lights, as demand increases, and can charge it through the same panel, one after the other.”
The model is now being installed at a household (part of three households), located far from the village and with no grid connection. “There are four school-going children and this facility offers them clean, bright light to study, and respite to the women for cooking. Its portability helps with mobility during the night,” he shares.
Rahul first arrived at Kojawara in Udaipur district with the intent to light up a village. But he soon realised that there was a great need to go beyond this scope. “Now, I am looking forward to ensuring that even the remotest villages in Udaipur – ones with no access to roads or power connections – are all illuminated,” he shares. He also discovered that while various government programmes have been established to ensure electrification, a village is considered electrified even if 10% of households are electrified!
“If people are provided with the option of installing turnkey solar home lighting systems, and then can avail the subsidies from the Govt, the outreach and efficiency of this project can be improved, with efficient monitoring. Once this is scaled up, this would reduce our dependence on conventional sources,” he shares.
Rahul’s working platform is a solar home lighting system designed and installed at 75 houses in a hamlet named Kaakan in Sagwara village. The design, training and installations were facilitated by Bruce Daviau, a volunteer at Seva Mandir, the NGO partner. “Since this was made possible through a grant, finance options, attractive models and other refinements are needed, to replicate this model in other villages,” shares Rahul, who has observed that once people get used to using solar devices, they start seeking systems with higher capacities and better options!
To make such models sustainable, both Rahul and Sada are creating an ecosystem for success. This includes raising awareness amongst people, especially women and children, and equipping youth to hone their technical skills and business skills, to help manage the enterprise. “Since ours is a for-profit model, we are working towards convincing entrepreneurs (our service providers) to invest on capital and the people (our customers) to invest their hard-earned money, in a newer system,” shares Sada.
Living in a village has been an eye-opener for both in different ways. Being a South Indian, Sada was highly influenced by the usual stereotypical view about Biharis (and most North Indians). But in the village, he was astonished by being the recipient of their good-natured hospitality. “My home owner may be a Bihari-Muslim gentleman, but he’s much more than that! He’s a father, a son and a husband. He has black hair, brown eyes and a greying beard. He has political opinions and controversial beliefs about the beginning of the world. And so on, ad infinitum,” shares Sada.
“I have seen content lifestyles where people don’t even have access to water. They smile despite eating two meals a day of just plain rotis, while working for their own community expecting no monetary benefits. Compare this to the outside world, where living without Wi-Fi leads to so much frustration,” sums up Rahul, who advocates the efficient usage of natural resources through a famous quote, “Money is yours but resources belong to society.”