The National UJALA Dashboard of the Government of India recently reached a milestone of disseminating over 270 million LED bulbs, thereby saving 35,008 mn kWh of electrical energy and affecting CO2 reductions of 28,356,232 tons per year (Source: National DELP Dashboard http://www.delp.in/ as of October 16, 2017). We’ve all read about how “energy saved is energy created”, and this programme has demonstrated itself as one of the best examples of this principle. But while the launch of this programme has brought the use of efficient lighting to the forefront mostly in urban areas, LED technology has been demonstrating its utility for poor, off-grid communities across India for several years, particularly, in regions where grid access has been absent. In such areas, solar LED lanterns have been disseminated as part of various clean energy access initiatives.
Shyam Kumari of Pakra village in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur Dehat, Ranjana Hira of Chengaigaon village in the Sonitpur district of Assam, or Trinath Paika from the remote Chindrijodi village in Odisha’s Koraput district, all belong to villages that were officially classified as ‘un-electrified’ in 2014. Compared to several similar energy poor villages in their district, they consider themselves lucky to have gained access to an affordable and reliable lighting source. A solar charging station (SCS) was set up in each village, supporting 50 to 60 LED lanterns, which are rented out on a daily basis at a nominal fee. Shyam Kumari, an enterprising woman, took up the management and operation of the solar charging station in her village and rents out lanterns to fellow villagers every day. With the LED lantern, she could venture out after sunset with her self-help group members to conduct and participate in group meetings, maintain meticulous accounts and share the benefits she experiences with clean energy. Trinath has ensured a monthly supply of clean lighting for his family by paying a month’s rent in a lump sum to use the lantern every night. This has not only enabled his children to study after dark but also allowed him and his wife to weave baskets for extra hours in the evening to earn some additional income and build a better quality of life for his family. Ranjana manages the solar charging station that was set up in her village and could contribute a share to her family’s income and lives a life of dignity, self-respect and confidence.
Access to clean lighting through LED lanterns was made possible in these villages under the Lighting a Billion Lives programme, launched by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in February 2008. Before that TERI committed at the Clinton Global Initiative annual assembly in New York on September 28, 2007, to facilitate sustainable development of communities and enable a million people in rural areas of India to access light from solar technologies. This year we thus celebrate the start of LaBL’s 10 years of journey, which not only brought clean, affordable and a safe source of lighting for Shyam, Trinath and Ranjana and their fellow villagers, but also new hopes and means to develop better qualities of life, improved livelihood conditions and a chance to escape from extreme poverty, which remains an inherent concern in several remote and energy impoverished villages in India. Since its inception 10 years ago, LaBL has reached nearly 1,139,570 households across 24 Indian states and has impacted more than 5.2 million people., thereby surpassing the commitment made at the CGI assembly by leaps and bounds.
The LaBL programme has enabled energy poor communities to transition from traditional and inefficient energy sources to better, clean and affordable lighting through the dissemination of high-efficiency solar LED lanterns, recharged at solar charging stations, and through fixed LED bulbs that are powered through centrally located solar micro-grids. Operating through an entrepreneurial model of energy service delivery, the programme was innovated and scaled up by TERI and focussing on the ‘base of pyramid’ population.
In 2008, when implementations under the programme began, solar LED lanterns were not yet readily available. To counter this, the technical team of the programme worked with several Indian solar lantern companies to design and manufacture LED lanterns that were customized to the needs of rural communities. However, in addition to availability, there was also the challenge of providing affordable and good quality lanterns at a national level, for which the team developed product specifications as well as performance and quality standards that manufacturers conformed to. Continuous improvements in products and procedures were carried out to ensure enhanced service delivery, low costs of installation and high efficiency of the product. The technical team also made a conscious effort to continually improve the quality of Illumination that these lanterns provide, through integrated system optimizations based on the accurate selection of low power consuming LEDs and more efficient luminaire designs.
Over the years, the programme has successfully demonstrated the transformational impact of solar LED lanterns and other decentralized solar applications on the community; be it for lighting or for livelihood generation at the household level. But the impact is not limited to the provision of lighting purely in a physical sense and is actually evident as an instrument through which lives can be transformed and hopes and aspirations generated on a plane that clearly enhances human welfare substantially. The programme has been beneficial to those using solar light for livelihood activities such as weaving, sewing, vending, running tuition centres, and by providing other village level services. Direct livelihood opportunity in the form of ‘green jobs’ created for operators of solar charging stations and micro-grids are added benefits.
To provide some example, TERI’s project with the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society (BRLPS) has brought clean lighting and cooking options to more than 30,000 underprivileged households during the last 4 years in five districts in Bihar where electricity infrastructure was completely absent or was extremely poor. The collaborative effort has facilitated provisioning of the clean energy solutions to the women self-help group members of JEEViKA, a livelihood programme of BRLPS in the districts of Purnia, Khagaria, Madhubani, Bettiah and Gaya, using a innovative financial model of CSR grant (40%) and collateral free, joint liability debt (60%) from the revolving fund administered by the women SHGs of the JEEViKA programme. JEEViKA also provided some flexibility in loan repayment by the beneficiary thus allowing the poor households to make the payment based on their earnings and harvesting season. Some customization of the product configuration also helped in the reasonable pricing of the systems within the ability of the consumers to pay.
The results are enormous. At the household level, the programme has been instrumental in encouraging children—particularly, the girl child, who is usually busy with household chores after school hours — in opting for study hours in the evening. Apart from inducing a smoke-free indoor environment for women and children, there is a marked improvement in the level of mobility and safety after dusk for both women and the elderly in the programme villages. The average monthly expenditure on kerosene was found to decrease from INR 163 to INR 54. Many houses also reported an increase in monthly income due to either increased number of working hours post-sunset or starting of indoor income generation activities such as sewing. As part of the same collaborative effort, LaBL programme has also been working extensively to strengthen the value chain involving different stakeholders who can fulfil the energy access gaps in remote rural areas of Bihar with the objective of enhancing the social and economic empowerment of the rural poor.
Yet another project, supported by a corporate CSR initiative, has engulfed our goal of lighting as well as updated our original concepts by addressing the local energy needs. Not only have LaBL programme providing access to basic clean lighting solutions, but have also helped in powering handlooms units for the betterment of local livelihood and saving our heritage and tradition that lies in the art of handloom sari making. These solar powered handlooms allow for increased income for the workers due to the extended working hours as well as reduced drudgery.
Lighting a Billion Lives has proved to be an economically viable programme and has become a unique and measurable sustainability initiative demonstrating how the 5P (pro-poor public-private-partnership) model can bring in the desired change and support rural schemes complimenting the government’s efforts in the social developmental sector, particularly the 3Es (Education, Environment and Empowerment of women).