Beyond lighting -- Solar technology furthering the UN MDGs

160 years after the invention of electricity, billions of people across the world still await access to electricity. Over 1.4 billion people in the world lack access to electricity and about 25% of these are in India alone. Life comes to a complete standstill for these people after dusk. Inadequate lighting not only poses major multifaceted developmental challenges for these communities, but also has a direct negative impact on the health, environment, and safety of these people who are forced to light their homes with kerosene lamps, dung cakes, firewood, and crop residue after sunset.

In India, about 76 million rural households have no access to electricity. Of these, an estimated 65 million households depend on kerosene for domestic lighting. In essence, each household consumes about 3 liters of kerosene for lighting, bringing the annual consumption of kerosene to 2.4 billion liters, releasing 5.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To alleviate the situation, efforts are on to replace kerosene and paraffin lanterns with solar lighting devices to provide affordable, reliable, and improved lighting to rural and suburban households. Among these, solar lanterns (portable CFL or LED devices) have gained more popularity because of their rechargeable batteries - in line with the socio-economic and environmental benefits resulting from the use of solar lanterns, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has so far distributed about 5.85 lakh solar lanterns in India.

Rural populations in villages which are un-electrified or erratically electrified take to the lanterns easily because of their simple, reliable and safe operations and bright light.

What kind of benefits does one perceive when one talks about providing electricity to remote rural areas? We think of children studying or women doing household chores under improved conditions. However, lighting through solar lanterns under TERI's flagship Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL) initiative positively impacts several aspects of development particularly in the areas of health, education, environment, women's empowerment as well as rural development.and goes beyond the conventional benefits to catalyse all-round socio-economic development. LaBL has covered 659 villages, across 16 Indian states and impacted 180,000 lives through 37,000 solar lanterns in the field, creating hundreds of green- jobs and has seen offshoots like innovative financing and strategic partnerships develop to support it.

Dandapadia and Talapadia, two villages in Odisha where The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has set up solar charging stations under the LaBL campaign, stand testimony to the above. The solar lanterns have become an inextricable part of the lives of inhabitants here. The two villages are situated in the Tangi Chowdhwar block of Cuttack district. Recognizing the need for a cleaner and more reliable lighting facility, TERI, with the help of a local NGO partner, 'SAMBANDH', set up charging stations in these villages. This case study outlines some of the unconventional benefits that characterize the revolution that lighting has brought in people's lives.

Livelihood enhancement
Access to clean and better quality lighting directly contributes to an increase in income, simply by adding more productive hours to the day. The villagers can now dedicate more hours to pursuing vocations like mat leaf plate, bamboo mat and basket and plate making from Sal leaves, tailoring, and can also work much better and faster. These are additional sources of income for them, since farming is both seasonal and dependent on the monsoon. The establishment of LaBL's charging station in the villages now enables them to put in three extra hours. This has resulted in their incomes doubling. In most cases we surveyed, the extra income is being spent on the education of the villagers' children. It is heartening to note the cascading effect of the changes across different spheres.

Change in gender dynamics
In order to achieve all-inclusive growth, TERI encourages more and more women to come forward as entrepreneurs and run the solar charging stations. Fortunately in response, women have come forward to play the role of change-makers in their villages in large numbers. This has ensured that the focus remains on lighting related needs of women. Light has enabled these women, to voice their concerns and needs and aids their mobility after dark since their security is no longer a concern.

A new found pride
Parbati is an enterprising lady operator of the LaBL solar lantern charging station in Dandapadia. She also supports her husband in running his grocery store. Parbati agrees that her status within the village has changed for the better, and adds that she feels more confident in voicing her opinions during the village meetings. Indeed, she has become a household name now. She proudly echoes her sense of achievement when the almost the entire village comes to her doorstep to drop their lanterns off for recharging every morning. She feels that she is doing her bit for the village folk.

Enhancing health facilities
A number of remote villages do not have an easy access to health care facilities. Most people have to travel a sizeable distance in order to avail any medical help. Emergencies and critical situations at night are a nightmare, since it entails travelling through areas infested with wild animals, snakes, and other insects. There are innumerable incidents of snake and insect bites while commuting from one place to another, more so after sunset. In such cases, the lantern, being a mobile source of lighting, has made their lives somewhat easier. Villagers do not have to think twice or wait until dawn to take patients to the nearest possible health facility. For villages like Dandapadia and Talapadia, SAMBANDH has set up a health centre at Kochila Nuagaon. It serves the medical needs of villages within 10 km radius. The villagers visit the health centre, whenever they need, even during the evening hours with solar lanterns in their hands. In case of a serious illnesses or emergencies such as a snakebite when patients cannot walk, it is a usual practice to carry them in baskets to the health centres. Along with carrying the patient, the carriers have to also watch out for snakes and poisonous insects. The job is now made easier with solar lanterns guiding the way.

Crop protection and avoidance of man-animal conflict
Attempts at wildlife conservation, especially in the areas of human habitation, are largely viewed as wrongly placed priorities. Particularly, in the protected areas, natural conservation and community welfare are not expected to go hand-in-hand. This myth of conflicting objectives of conservation and social welfare has been broken by TERI's solar lighting campaign. It has now largely met the dual challenge of providing clean lighting to the communities, in the forest areas, along with conserving the wildlife. Addressing both the issues together has an added benefit of winning the communities over for conservation, apart from overall development of the area.

Several villages in and around the forest areas are marred with human-wildlife conflict stories, as the wild animals pose a serious threat to the safety and security of the communities. They also destroy the crops at times, which are the primary source of livelihood for the communities. The vulnerability of the people increases all the more in the dark. In self defence, the villagers often resort to ways that hamper conservation activities and, thus, pose a threat to wildlife. Solar lighting has not only benefited the conservation measures but also come as a relief to the villagers.

Wild elephants destroy crops and homes as they move through villages. As a remedial measure in the Talapadia village, the farmers have constructed a watch-tower over a tree. It helps to guard their fields from elephants at night. Every night the villagers take turns to sit at the watch-tower and guard their crop fields. Since the villagers can barely see in the dark, they basically watch out for sounds or any kind of movement.However, now the villagers carry the lanterns to the platform. These not only enhance their visibility, but also keep the animals at bay. The incidents of crop damages due to elephant trouble have come down from five or six per year to just one in a year, after the solar powered intervention.

To conclude
The benefits of the solar lanterns have surpassed the expectations, with several intangible impacts clearly visible in the villages. These lanterns not only satisfy their needs, but are also part of the villagers' cultural life. In the two tribal villages, these lanterns are a part of all celebrations and festivities. Instead of lighting a fire during their traditional group dance, the village folks now choose to dance around their lanterns with unparalleled exhilaration.

Along with lighting, the LaBL campaign aims to address similar other significant issues, which act as impediment to development, recognizing that the need is not only to light people's homes; it is to light their lives as well. It aims at promoting self-reliance and local entrepreneurship in rural areas. It is exhilarating to see how a simple intervention can completely change people's lives. It is amazing to notice the magnitude of positive change that lanterns have brought about in the lives of some of the most marginalized and remote communities of the country. One feels optimistic about all initiatives and programmes that address key challenges at the grassroots level. Thus, any technology that promises to go beyond serving its direct goals and has a multi-faceted effect on development is certainly the need of the hour.

Tags: Solar lantern, rural electrification, Millennium Development Goals, Lighting a Billion Lives, energy access