More than 1.2 billion people in the world have little or no access to electricity and India is home to more than 300 million people who live in the dark and most of them are from rural areas. Electricity not just lights up homes but also brings many dreams with it and this is the reason why satisfying the minimum energy needs contributes the most to the Human Development Index (HDI).
What we did was very simple, but it has the potential to transform the lives of 60 people.
I, Hitesh Mahawar, will take you on the journey of electrifying a village called Chalak situated in Markha valley of Ladakh at 13,500 feet surrounded by the Himalayas.
It all started in November 2017 when I was scrolling through Facebook and saw an article on “The Logical Indian” page. The article’s title was “This Team Treks Hundreds Of Km In the Himalayas To Electrify Villages That Are Not Even On Google Maps”. The headline itself captured my imagination. The article was very well articulated and explained the work which Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE: a social enterprise) was doing for the past four years.
GHE is on a mission to electrify all remote villages in Ladakh. As the name suggests, it organizes expeditions and invites applicants from all across the globe to participate and install solar grids on their own. It collects funds from the participants for the initial cost of the solar grid and future maintenance. After reading the article, the first thing I did was to browse the GHE website and register myself for the next expedition. I was selected after two rounds of screening and an interview.
Then I saw some documentaries made by NDTV and Nat Geo on two different village electrification expeditions and got to know that most of the team members for those expeditions came from all parts of the world, belonged to a diverse age group and followed very different professions. Some were students, doctors, researchers, entrepreneurs and some employees of MNCs.
I was selected for the Chalak village electrification expedition on January 20, 2018, and the expedition was from March 17 to 26. I had to arrange around ₹1.4 lakh (expedition cost: ₹75,000 (with taxes), travel to and from Leh: ₹18,000 – 20,000, trekking gear: ₹20,000 – 25,000 and other accessories), and I had only one-and-a-half month to make it happen. I am a student and also not from a wealthy family, so I initially assumed that I would not able to make it, but then I got to know about crowdfunding.
Thanks to GHE who shared examples of how people successfully managed to raise money for their expedition, I took the plunge and started off with my online crowdfunding campaign.
I started sharing my posts on social media. I used every possible medium to share this funding campaign, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Google+, and what not. I approached friends who I hadn’t spoken to in the last four years, I contacted professors, NGOs, and published posters and blogs on online forums. It was time-consuming, but fun at the same time. I contacted the department and hostel representatives at my Institute and requested to send a bulk mail to all the students at IIT Bombay.
My campaign started getting traction and my friends started donating and sharing the campaign further. I started receiving donations from many anonymous people and friends. The amount ranged from ₹100 to ₹20,000. I was amazed when one day an unknown person called me and asked about the campaign. They assured me a donation and after a couple of days, I got a mail that my campaign had received an amount of ₹20,000.
It was unimaginable for me and moved me from within. In the whole fundraising process, people amazed me with their generosity and their belief in doing something good for society. This incidence reinstated my faith in humanity and encouraged me to continue my quest with double the vigour because now I had the responsibility to fulfil the aspirations of the donors as well. My department, CTARA IIT Bombay, helped me in a very big way financially and encouraged me to complete the expedition successfully.
The day before my journey to Leh, I was able to achieve 95% of my fundraising target. A thank you would not be enough for all the donors and supporters of this campaign and I salute all of them for the time and money they invested.
Booking tickets to Leh was a special experience since this was to be my first air travel. I reached on the morning of March 17 to a bright, sunny day and close to 0ºC.
As soon as I landed in Leh, I was advised by the team leader from GHE to not to exert too much, take full rest and drink a lot of water to acclimatize to the climate. I was now 11,000 feet above sea level and the per breath oxygen level was 40% less than normal. At the hotel, I met all my team members who came from various parts of the country and some from foreign countries. We were a team of 10, consisting of six participants and four supporting members (team leader, guide, cameraperson, and electrician) from GHE.
On the second day, before reaching our first destination village, we visited Pathar Sahib Gurudwara (a Sikh temple) run by the Indian Army. We prayed to Gurunanak Sahib Ji for successful electrification of the village, relished the Prasad and began the long but exciting journey. We reached a village called Tsogsty after a 2-hour road journey and had a Ladakhi lunch followed by some archery. We also visited the local copper artisans and stayed the night at the homestays in the village. Next day, in the morning I had my first experience with a dry toilet which was a challenge, especially in sub-zero temperature.
A breakfast of Khambhir (Ladakhi bread made of wheat) later, we then moved to reach our next destination – Skyu.
After a few hours’ drive from Tsogsty village, we reached the end of the road and crossed the Zanskar River by a cable trolley to start our trekking to the village Skyu, and reached in about three hours. While trekking, I was lost in the captivating and breath-taking views of nature and our rock-solid Himalayas.
On the third day, we were just one step away from our destination village, Chalak. By now, we’d listened to each other’s life stories and become like a small family. Avinash, Romi, Yash, Edward, Bella, Stanzin (GHE member and camera person), Gaganpreet (GHE member and team leader), Shakeer (GHE member and electrician). Each of them is unique in their own sense. We had an astronomer with a PhD, an entrepreneur, a consultant, a fashion designer, an engineer and a robot-enthusiast in our team.
I learned that one could be fit even at the age of 50 and trek for hours and beat the notion of getting old. I learned that your zeal to explore the world can bring you an opportunity to change the status quo and bring a positive change in the life of others. I learned that astronomy can be taught in a playful manner. I learned that having an open mind can take us to amazing places and change our way of thinking. I learned that a person from a small village can chase their dream and establish their own media company.
I learnt that a person from a weak financial background could become an engineer at Microsoft. Last but not least, I learned that a person without a formal degree can know more than an ‘educated’ person and age is not a barrier to learn anything and everything.
We started early and began our journey to reach Chalak on the fourth day. A six-hour trek finally brought us to our destination. The villagers welcomed us with a traditional ceremonial white Ladakhi silk scarf “Khatak (Khata)”. Located 13,500 feet above sea level, Chalak is surrounded by mountains, and a spring passing through the village is its only source of water.
The village has 11 households spread in three clusters. All houses are made up of soil, sand and local brick. Each household rears animals like sheep, cows, donkeys, and horses. The population of the village is around 60 and people work as guides or manual labour at Leh to earn money, with homestays helping them earn some more. Wheat and barley are the main crops which are cultivated once a year along with some vegetables.
We started our work with a household survey. Our team was divided into two and we visited every household to ask about the number of bulbs they would need and where they wanted to install them.
We were amazed to see that there were no children in the village. After some inquiry, we got to know that they had been sent to other villages that had electricity. I was sad to see that small kids had to live away from their home and family because of no access to electricity but I was also happy to know that they’d be coming home soon to find their village with electricity.
It was the fifth day of our expedition and this day was special for all of us. The team was briefed about the installation process of the standalone solar grid. We had to install a 40W solar panel connected to a charge controller, a battery for storage and four to five 3W LED bulb as per the household survey. We started the wire and bulb fitting and panel installation. GHE electrician Shakker Acchu did all the connection from the panel to charge controller and battery. The bulb holder fitting process was a little difficult as the roofs of these households were old and made of wood. Dust accumulated from decades fell our face when we hammered a nail, but it was a fun experience and made us appreciate the village even more.
Now, the time had come to light up the village. The whole team gathered inside the first house of the village to be electrified after sunset. The owners of the house were old and this was the first time they would see a bulb electrifying their house. We started with the Ladakhi prayer and chanted a Lord Ganesha mantra for successful and hassle-free electrification.
And then, the bulb was switched on and its light filled the whole room with joy and emotion. The woman owner of the house was in tears. Everybody present experienced a complex soup of emotions.
Sometimes, people like me, living in affluent regions of our country, take such things for granted and do not value the facilities provided to us. But when you interact with people who have been deprived of basic facilities and when you help facilitate them in expanding their ambition, you realise the potential of a single light bulb.
We electrified each household of the village one after another after which, the local residents organized a feast with some song and dance. We thanked them for their support and hospitality for the last couple of days. It had never felt like we were living in one of the harshest climatic conditions as we were always kept warm and given full care (more than required) by the residents whether it is providing good food or warm water in the chilly morning.
After all the celebration and dinner, we went back to our homestays. This was the most relaxing sleep I had during the expedition.
On the sixth day, we set out for the centuries-old Umlung Monastery, the highest point of our trek. It had been electrified a few years ago by the GHE. The final trek to reach the monastery was long and very steep, but after reaching the summit point, the view was enthralling and splendid. After spending some time at the monastery, we started our final journey home.
Now, when I look back and try to contemplate what I learned from this event in my life, I have many amazing answers. The most important learning for me was to challenge my assumptions and keep a strong willpower. It was my willpower that drove me to participate in this expedition and during the course of this whole episode, it broke many assumptions and notions which could have been a roadblock to my goal.
I learned that if you have a strong belief in what you are doing and it is for the greater good for the society, no matter what, you will achieve your goal and surprise yourself with the abilities you have inside yourself.
The village got electricity and I got unforgettable experiences and learnings for a lifetime!
Acknowledgement: Thanks to all GHE members, Mr Paras Loomba, Mr Gaganpreet Singh, Mr Stanzin Gurmet, Mr Shakeer Husain, Mr Thenlis for organizing this expedition. Thanks to Mr Mrigank Gupta, CTARA IIT Bombay for editing the story.
A version of this post was first published on Medium.