It is not the first time that the people of West Champaran district, Bihar, have resiliently come together in the face of adversity. Hamlet after hamlet was off the power grid and in darkness till 2007. It was then that Husk Power Systems (HPS) hit upon the idea of providing biomass gasification to these remote villages.

Setting up mini power generation units using rice husk and training the locals to handle the equipment, the fledgling company began to deliver six to eight hours of electricity to every household in the villages it covered.

Suddenly, life in the villages transformed — children began to study after sun down, markets remained open till late, mobiles could be charged without walking miles towards towns, welding units sprang up, flour mills came closer home; and the demand for more hours of electricity grew.

As the years went by, HPS developed microgrid systems and a 24x7 hybrid system of power generation emerged. By 2015, the company provided solar lighting by day and rice husk power at night by synchronising solar and biomass gasification power plants. With a stable source of electricity, more businesses came into being, and entrepreneurship grew shoots. Mini factories, mills, welding units and varied shops and establishments became part and parcel of village life.

But the pandemic-induced lockdown in March threatened to reverse the trend. Businesses were on the verge of shutting down and the risk of having to lay off employees became real for many of the micro entrepreneurs. It is here that HPS stepped in.

As a company that serves over 7,000 consumers in 100 villages spanning nine districts of Bihar and three of Uttar Pradesh, it realised that this was the time to help the people who had helped it grow all these years. Mamta Devi from West Champaran’s Chanpatia village was one of many it reached out to. “I have my own maize kurkure factory in the village. I employ around 25 women. HPS gave us a 75 per cent discount on electricity, making it viable for us to continue our business and retain the staff,” she says.

Right now, Mamta is once again facing a setback due to a fire in the factory just a week ago, and HPS is helping to get the enterprise once again on its feet. “She is a woman full of confidence and will be back to making profit very soon,” says Rizul Choudhury who handles marketing at HPS and is helping entrepreneurs on the ground.

Helping hand

He recalls the story of one of their customers, Nagendra Singh from Salimgarh, on the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border. Singh has his own flour mill and supplies atta to several villages in the region. During the lockdown, he realised that people would be in extreme difficulty and food would be scarce. So, Singh kept the mill running in the face of all odds. HPS helped him not only with power supply, but also by getting him permission to obtain raw material, operate the mill and deliver to households when mobility was strictly restricted.

Guddu Sharma also recalls the help he got. “I have an engineering unit here and HPS’ 75 per cent discount and other helpful steps really counted,” he says.

The company has also been distributing food packets in the villages to see people through these difficult times.

These are just examples of three entrepreneurs. There were others who needed power but were suddenly unable to pay for it. “Covid-19 and the lockdown severely affected us, leaving us with no income,” say homeowners Hazra Khatoon and her husband, Salauddin Ansari, who have been Husk Power customers since 2017. “Husk Power has provided huge support, so at least we didn’t need to be in the dark.”

HPS has been experimenting for many years with using the waste product from power generation — rice husk char. It has been able to turn this into incense sticks, and in the process has been giving flexible employment to women in manufacturing units they have set up. “For this production process, we recruit and train over 50 local women in the villages that we electrify,” says Saugata Dutta, Country Head, Operations.

Spirit of Atmanirbhar Bharat

Apart from helping customers, HPS is keen to showcase its own resilience as well. As the CEO and founder, Manoj Sinha, puts it, “In the spirit of Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, we wanted to show that private microgrids can not only overcome disruption but be self-reliant and excel. Unlike the state-owned Discoms, we were able to respond quickly, and not only help our customers, but grow our bottom line as well. We continue to recruit and hire staff and have increased our customer base.

“At one point, we had 50 employees sitting at home for three consecutive months, but we didn’t let one person go, and the management took a 30 per cent pay cut to get through the tough period. And most importantly, we wanted to carry out all these activities by ensuring safety and security first for every single employee,” he adds.