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These 2 Young Men Are Soaking Up Some Sun To Light Up India’s Villages!

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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.

Off The Grid

new solar system
The new solar system.

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.” 

Sada with a solar panel
Sada with a solar panel.

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.

Beyond One Village

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!

solar panel on roof
The newly-installed solar roof panel.

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.

A New Perspective

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.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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