First they took solar-based lighting to remote Himalayan villages, now The Batti Project members are taking donors on a cycling expedition to see the results for themselves

While most of us took the day off this Republic Day, 15 cyclists rolled out from Tezu, in Arunachal Pradesh, as part of the Mishmi Hills Challenge. Interestingly, when they finish on February 3, the winner will not be one of them; instead, it will be a community in the State’s remote Seppa Valley, where lives are set to change thanks to the 10-day ‘Ride To Light’ cycling expedition.

The 300-km ride in the Lohit, Dibang and Lower Dibang districts has been envisioned as a fund-raiser for The Batti Project, launched in 2012 by Rajiv Rathod and Merwyn Coutinho. Bitten by the adventure bug, the duo had in 2010 quit their jobs and hit the road with no clear plan other than being on the move.

In December that year, on a trek to Gandhigram in Changlang, Arunachal Pradesh, what struck them was the lack of basic lighting in those parts. The following December, they decided to spread some Christmas cheer and played Santa Claus by giving out 140-odd solar lamps to the residents, for which well-wishers had pitched in with funds. Their insatiable wanderlust had met a newfound cause, and before long they set up The Batti Project.

Bright smiles

“People from other villages approached us for help. It set the ball in motion for us,” Rathod said over telephone from Bengaluru, just before heading to Arunachal Pradesh for the riding challenge.

He took charge of the project’s administration, while Coutinho became the on-field scout; they bought a 1989 Land Cruiser some years ago which is now Coutinho’s home-on-wheels. “Merwyn has been on the road since 2010, finding our target villages. That car alone is enough to draw attention… locals recognise him now and approach him directly with their requests,” Rathod quipped.

Coutinho finds out the requirement in the selected village and the project’s seven-member core team arranges to supply it.

The solar home-lighting systems are sourced from Australia-based Barefoot Power. Each unit has a solar panel, a battery, a charge controller, and three LED bulbs, holders and switches. It can provide lighting for about seven to eight hours using the charge from four to five hours of sunlight.

After Gandhigram, the team picked the isolated hamlet of Dopuwa, in Lower Dibang Valley, for their pilot project and lit up seven homes in May 2012; a year later, they provided lighting to 13 villages in the Hunli-Desali belt.

Their favourite memory remains that of a 70-something tribal woman who had never seen artificial light and kept flipping the switch on and off, unable to tear her eyes from it.

“Her fellow villager told us a few years later that she refused to turn the light off even during the day, arguing that she had spent all her life in darkness and wanted to have the light on until the day she died,” Rathod said.

Fund of goodwill

Even as the team waits to tap formal sources for funding, it has kept going on the strength of the enthusiastic responses to its posts on social media.

“Even with minimal effort on social media, we’ve had people stepping forward time and again to help. On an average, we always manage to raise the money needed to light up at least one home each month,” said Siddharth Prakash, a member of the core team.

Additionally, since August last year, team members have been raising funds by recycling electronic waste collected from individuals. “We wanted to involve every strata of society — you don’t always need money to contribute towards a cause,” Rathod explained.

Soon, the team hit upon the idea of getting the donors actively involved in the project so that they could see for themselves the difference they were making to lives in some of the most remote hamlets of India. That, in turn, led to Ride To Light, which will culminate in lighting up 10 homes in Indili village, in Lower Dibang Valley.

“The cyclists get to ride in some of the most pristine surroundings — in the process they help us raise funds. We realised that we were simply providing a channel for people to do what they love. This project depends on people, and our aim is to build communities through them,” Rathod said. In order to make the cut, the cyclists not only had to prove their fitness, but also raise a minimum of ₹40,000 towards the cause.

The 15 cyclists who have signed up for the entire 300-km ride have been joined by various groups of local cyclists for shorter legs of the trip.

After a day of riding hard, the party settles down for the night in camps that have been set up in the idyllic jungles en route.

Ride to Light will help The Batti Project move one step closer to its target of powering 1,500 homes in the Seppa-Bama-Lada belt by the end of the year. “We want this to be a study on what is truly sustainable. Give us money and we will light up all of the North-east,” Rathod signed off.

Shail Desaiis a Mumbai-based writer