Magazine article UNESCO Courier

India's Self-Help Solar Villages

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

India's Self-Help Solar Villages

Article excerpt

India is full of contrast and contradictions. On the one hand there is "Bharat"(*) or traditional India with its 600,000 villages, where centuries-old social structures remain unchanged, and where 70 per cent of the country 's 940 million people live and die. And then there is "India", a young country struggling to overcome the usual problems of underdevelopment. "India", argues Bunker Roy, has often opted for large dams or electrification projects that sometimes fail to respond to the needs of the humbler inhabitants of "Bharat". Here he talks about two successful community-based projects which, with the use of solar enegy, have transformed the lives of poor farmers in depressed regions of Bihar and Orissa of people living in remote Himalayan villages.

It takes twenty-nine-year-old Tsewang Narbo two days to walk across the 6,000-metre-high Khardungla pass, the highest in the Ladakh area of India's northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. A further 60 kilometres by bus and army truck bring him to the district headquarters in Leh. Here he picks up distilled water, fuses and other equipment before beginning the long trek back home to his wife and five children.

But Tsewang Narbo does not mind the hardship or the strain. Since 1993, this barely literate man has become one of the most important persons in the remote Himalayan village of Diger where he is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of 59 solar photovoltaic units (SPVs) which provide lighting for his and surrounding villages and which have transformed life during the long-snow-bound winters when temperatures can reach - 30 [degrees] C.

Until 1989, the energy needs of these far-flung villages had been most inadequately met by Diesel Generating (DG) sets which are costly, centralized and unreliable, as well as using fossil fuel that pollutes the environment.

Since it takes twenty-five days to haul up as many litres of fuel to these villages located at a height of 5,000 metres, the inhabitants used it extremely sparingly to make it last the six months of winter. At night, entire families huddled around a single light no stronger than a candle flame. Solar lighting therefore seemed nothing short of a miracle.

When the idea of training semi-literate, unemployed rural youth to install, maintain and repair solar units was first put forward by an organization called the Social Work and Research Centre in Tilonia, Rajasthan, engineers and government officials felt it would never work. They were convinced the rural poor were too backward and illiterate to be given so much responsibility. There was also resistance from contractors and transporters who supplied DG sets, transmission wires, poles and diesel, and who stood to lose their business.

But the response from the villagers was so enthusiastic that it ground out all opposition. They were even willing to pay one dollar per unit per month for solar lighting; paying for such services, however heavily subsidized, is unheard-of in Ladakh. So far, nearly $3,000 have been collected from the 28-village community.

Tsewang Narbo,who was selected for the job by the village community in June 1993, is now capable of fabricating invertors--devices that convert direct current into alternating current--and other apparatus, repairing fuses, changing tube lights, filling batteries with distilled water, and installing solar units in villages which can only be reached on foot. …

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