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India's women solar engineers light up rural life

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 22 Jun 2011 13:07 GMT
Author: Nilanjana Bhowmick
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TILONIA, India (AlertNet) - Mira Bai frowns in concentration at the complicated zigzag of wires on the panel in front of her. Unfathomable to most, they speak loud and clear to the 60-year-old grandmother.

Despite being illiterate, she now knows exactly which wires to connect to create the magical connection between the sun and the panel so it absorbs and transfers rays to the battery that will later light up her house.

Bai is one of 15,000 solar engineers who have attended a six-month training course at a rural college in India’s northwest state of Rajasthan, enabling them to bring renewable power to their villages.

Bai’s classmates are similar to her in many ways. They are over 35 years of age, illiterate or semi-literate, and have never left their villages.

The Barefoot College teaches women like Bai from the most remote corners of the country to become solar engineers. The focus is not on obtaining a paper qualification, but on utilising women’s instincts and practical knowledge of their communities.

The women are chosen by their villages, and once they go home, they are responsible for fabrication, installation, usage, repair and maintenance of the solar lighting units they have learned about. 

Bai travelled to attend the residential college all the way from a far-flung village in Madhya Pradesh. She took buses for over two days to reach the nearest town, where she boarded a train that arrived in Tilonia after 14 hours.

In her village, there is no electric light. In India, as of August 2010, 89,808 villages were still un-electrified. Over 40 percent of the country’s population has no access to energy.

DIRTY KEROSENE

Living in Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s most impoverished states, Bai was a contract farmer and daily wage labourer. For six months a year she worked on other people’s wheat fields, and for the rest of the year, she would go to Raigada, the nearest city, to earn money as a construction labourer with her two sons.

“We cannot afford to sit at home. So, when there is no work in the village, we go and work in the city,” she says.

Bai’s family lives in a mud house lit with kerosene lamps. “The soot from the kerosene dirties our houses a lot,” Bai says, unaware of the other harmful effects of burning kerosene, which emits carbon dioxide and thereby contributes to global warming.

But Bai has noticed the weather pattern changing in her village. “This year there was no rain and so although I was very unwell with fever and body aches I had to go to the city to work,” she says.

The budding engineer has never heard of climate change, but is among those likely to be hit hardest by its impacts. Launching a flagship report in 2007, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, said those most affected by climate change will be “the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies”.

SIMPLE LIVING

The Barefoot College launched its solar power course for women in 2005. Since then, the women solar engineers it has trained have provided electricity to over 600 villages in 33 countries, preventing 1.5 million litres of kerosene from polluting the environment. 

The college was found in the early 1970s by social activist Bunker Roy, an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi, the non-violent leader of the Indian nationalist movement against British rule. It exemplifies Gandhi’s philosophy of simple living and high thinking.

The school also trains illiterate men and women from rural communities to work as other types of “Barefoot” professional, including teachers, doctors, midwives, accountants and carpenters.

Life at the college follows a humble pattern. Students and staff serve themselves a basic but balanced meal of chapatti, vegetables and lentils three times a day, which they eat sitting on the ground, and wash up their dishes afterwards.  

The campus is lush green and runs entirely on solar energy, including its photocopiers and computers.

“All modules and electrical connections have been installed and are being maintained by Barefoot solar engineers, who have never been through more than 10 years of rural school,” says a visibly proud Bhagwat Nandan, coordinator of the solar energy division.

Nandan, dressed in simple, hand-spun traditional clothing, is in his late fifties. A former school-teacher, he is India’s first Barefoot solar engineer and has been working with the college since it opened.

In 2008, India’s foreign affairs ministry officially recognised the college as a training centre for Women Barefoot Solar Engineers (WBSEs) from least-developed countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The first batch of WBSEs from Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, Malawi, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Bhutan completed their six-month residential training in 2008-2009, and returned to their home countries to install solar power in their villages.

USING LOCAL RESOURCES

“All the expertise is there in the villages. So why do we need to bring people from outside, people who have no knowledge of how a village works?” says Roy. “The beauty of the Barefoot approach is that it decreases dependency on outside resources and encourages maximum utilisation of the resources that are already there in the villages.”

With around 300 clear sunny days per year, India's experimentation with solar power aims to tap into one of its most abundant natural resources, while benefiting the poorest of the poor.

Under its ambitious National Solar Mission, launched last year, India plans to install 20 million solar lights and 20 million square metres of solar thermal panels to generate 20,000 megawatts of power by 2022. This is expected to save around 1 billion litres of kerosene each year.

At the strategy’s launch, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described solar energy as the “next scientific and industrial frontier in India”.

Some 20 km away from the college campus, the nomad settlement of Banjaron-ki-Dhani is enjoying the benefits of the solar electricity it has been equipped with under the Barefoot programme.

Today, all the huts have speakers mounted on their thatched roofs, blaring out Bollywood music. “Previously we had to be satisfied with listening to music on our mobile phones. We had to walk 5 km to the market to get our phones charged, paying 5 rupees per hour,” says 22-year-old Suraj.

Suraj’s 15-year-old sister can also sew in the evenings now, making clothes for the community and earning a decent living.

It is Bai’s hope to improve life in similar ways that motivates her to toil away at the Tilonia campus. After all, an entire village back home is waiting for her “to bring them light” as part of the sustainable rural revolution ignited by the Barefoot College.

Freelance journalist Nilanjana Bhowmick writes for a range of international news outlets, and is editor of Shetizenjournalist.com, a citizen journalism website for women. 

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