A shining corner of India

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Now their children can study longer and more housework gets done in the evenings. A small hamlet near Mumbai recently got its first light bulb ever, thanks to a unique effort by two former IITians.

P.T. Jyothi Datta

A small door opens into the mud-hut where a metallic white light reveals freshly painted pink walls. The sparse possessions include a green-shelf stacked with steel vessels and a radio that drones into the still evening sky, as the day ebbs behind the Sahyadri ranges.

For Ganpat B. Jadhav and his three children, darkness was once a constant companion through the night. But today, at this hamlet of eight huts in Khadakwadi near Otur in Pune District, a little white glow in each house dispels the darkness, albeit for just a few hours every night. This little light has helped Leelabhai Jadhav, another resident, to not just cook on time, but also save some kerosene.

From complete dependence on kerosene lamps to switching on a light bulb in the evening is a first-time experience for Leelabhai and her neighbours.

Perched on a hilly terrain, residents of this hamlet walk long distances for water, to school or even a modest healthcare facility. And light at home was a distant thought, despite living just six hours by road from the dazzling lights of Mumbai, the country's financial hub.

But the irony of bright city-lights dissolves, as cooking smells waft through Leelabhai's home. The little kerosene salvaged due to the new lighting system comes handy for the kitchen fire, she says with a smile.

In her house, the goats stay on the first level while she, her husband, mother-in-law and three children live on the higher level now lit by the light bulb.

Low-cost light

The innovative lighting system was brought to this remote hamlet by Grameen Surya Bijlee Foundation (GSBF), a non-profit initiative spearheaded by two former IITians, Jasjeet Singh Chaddah and Kama Krishna.

At a cost of Rs 2,500 per installation, the lighting system involves a solar panel, two 33 LED (light emitting diode) bulbs, a battery and a controller box. A single-bulb installation is priced Rs 1,500. Chaddah, an entrepreneur, runs a plastic and cosmetics packaging business. As an electrical engineer, his interest in solar energy was ignited while working on another voluntary project at an eye hospital in Narayangaon, Maharashtra.

"After six o'clock children in the nearby tribal areas are not able to study and adults cannot do their chores because there is no light," he says.

The principle underlying the hospital (where cataract operations are offered free of cost) and the lighting project is "to give people dignity, to make them feel they are worth it", says Chaddah.

And here began his search for a low-cost energy source, which brought him to LEDs. Several discussions, legwork (including a trip to Nepal) and field trials later, Chaddah designed a system that "could give enough light for children to study and women to do their household chores". This was in late-September 2004. Subsequently he was joined by Krishna, a quintessential pony-tailed techie from Wall Street. Only, having lived through the exciting times "when people wrote business plans on napkins and got funding", Krishna gave it all up and returned to India to do something more meaningful, he says.

While GSBF hopes to light up more homes in rural India, he points out, "The macro aspect is, could India become a leader in renewable energy?"

Kerosene politics

Ganpat Jhadav says residents of the hamlet have been fighting with the authorities for electricity, without much luck. They depend on the ration supply of four litres kerosene at Rs 10 per litre. And when monthly supplies run out, they buy from the black market at higher prices. In some places, people even buy the ration entitlement at black market prices, says his neighbour.

Another problem with kerosene usage is the carbon-dioxide fumes that family members inhale when the lamps are lit indoors, besides the difficulty in working or studying in the poor light, observes Krishna.

Challenges ahead

Chaddah imports the LEDs and amorphous silicon solar panels from China. At present, he funds Khadakwadi's installations. But he hopes to bring prices down by April, banking on increased volumes.

GSBF is pitching the project to central and state governments, besides corporates who can adopt a village, and banks, which have a long reach in rural India. One way to make the project self-sustaining is to approach banks to tap self-help groups and micro-credit schemes, he says.

Free of cumbersome maintenance, the system has a life of about 10 years. "I would be happy with five years, because by then technology would have taken a leap and the purpose to get children to study and improve the lives of people, would have been achieved," he says.

There is concern over the global shortage of silicon and the resultant price rise, he says. Solar panels from China are priced 60 per cent the cost in India and amorphous silicon panels (that allow the system to work in cloudy conditions) are not available here, Chaddah adds.

Project Ujala

GSBF plans to brand its LED systems as Ujala (light), a suggestion from one of the organisations it collaborates with in Maharashtra. About 300-plus lighting systems are already in place or under installation across Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Assam, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh among other places.

And recently, the Rajasthan government asked GSBF to demonstrate the system at a village in Alwar district. "There are 176 people living there, about 49 homes, of which about 40 are below the poverty line," says Chaddah.

He expects the project to become operational mid-February.

Power equations

India's vision statement includes `power for all by 2012' and it plans to promote non-conventional energy sources.

Hafeez Rehman, Associate Director with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), points out the need for alternate energy systems in the country. The challenge lay in disseminating such technologies at viable cost.

LED-technologies consume less energy and keep costs under control, says Rakesh Jha, Research Associate with TERI.

He says TERI is working on LED-based technology and even filed for patents in India. But the organisation is willing to work with other agencies, he adds.

In fact, TERI has installed 25 GSBF systems at Bikaner.

"The product is being evaluated for three months, following which a decision will be taken on working together," he says.

Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT-Madras says it is early days yet and more work is needed to optimise the technology on the ground.

More in store

In fact, GSBF wants to bundle additional applications into the system, such as a night-lamp or a mosquito repellent. And, at a later stage, it would also attempt to use solar energy to help make potable water available in rural areas.

If costs can be kept under control, Krishna points out, the project can be scaled up depending on the people's needs.

Go light that bulb!

But for starters, 17-year-old Namdeo is happy with a little light in his house. It has helped him study better, he says with a disarming smile.

Namdeo and an entourage of children still in their school uniforms, follow Krishna and his local co-worker S.D. Belotte in the night, as they inspect the lighting systems at Khadakwadi.

There is much mirth as the group enters Vitthal Kedar's house. The light here reveals pictures of Hindu deities sharing wall space with film stars like Aishwarya Rai, the handiwork of Vitthal's daughter.

A daily-wage worker earning about Rs 50 a day, Vitthal hopes to get his children to study better under the light. So they can share the benefits that their counterparts in the city take for granted. All it takes, to start with, is for someone to go out there and light that bulb.

The `how' of it

  • Solar panel (amorphous silicon): 5 watts for a 2-lamp system; 3 watts for a one-lamp system
  • LED lamp: 33 LED lamp power consumption @ 2.30 watts; 21 LED lamp power consumption @ 1.50 watts
  • Sealed acid maintenance-free battery: 2-lamp system capacity 12 volts/7.6 Ah; one-lamp system capacity 12 volts/ 4.5 Ah
  • Controller box: Battery box with a controller circuit connecting the solar panel to the battery and supply to the lamps, along with switches.
  • Picture by Paul Noronha

    (This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 3, 2006)
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