Lighting Rural Homes: An Alternate Strategy

Monday, 30 March 2020



Lighting Rural Homes: An Alternate Strategy

BARUN BARPUJARI | July 27, 2019 16:25 hrs

We city folks get terribly upset when there is load shedding and are forced to make do with inverters to supply to a restricted load and rightly so. But do we ever pause to reflect that a large number of distant villages and remote areas do not have any access to electricity even today? The promise to light all homes by 2019 is with good intent and we hope it comes true. But, let us look at the practicality of this intent in the backdrop of our capability, true desire and the effort being made to turn this noble intent into reality, at least in Assam and the northeastern states of India.

Recently, I had the opportunity to share the dais with a minister at a conference in Guwahati. In response to a point made by a stakeholder that his business, located near Guwahati, was suffering due to erratic power supply, it was indicated that while Assam is in a position to import the shortfall in power availability, the supply and distribution network is the constraint – precisely what I wish to highlight here.

It is one thing to draw a power supply line to a remote location but another factor altogether to maintain and sustain the network consisting of lines, sub-stations and transformers. The harsh terrain of this region, coupled with natural calamities, do not make it easy to maintain these grids. Moreover, in view of the sparse population in the remote locations and hence low demand, grid based power supply is economically unsustainable. Thus, sustained power reaching the remote locations of Assam early enough appears to be a pipedream. While a serious and sincere effort to reach electricity to remote households must continue, a different strategy/approach would be more pragmatic to meet their power requirement in the interim period. 

People in remote areas use crude wicker lamps (bottles with wicks inserted through the stopper go as kerosene lamps) for meeting the lighting needs. Inhalation of smoke emanating from incomplete combustion of kerosene is highly detrimental to health. During the winter season, with doors and windows closed, the environment inside the house becomes highly polluted and this air is inhaled by the inhabitants with consequent adverse impact on their health. It is reported that in India, about 2.5 million people, including 3,50,000 children, meet with kerosene related accidents. 

Providing a clean, safer and better source of lighting would obviate the above problems while having the undernoted additional benefits:

(i)    Womenfolk may engage in income generating activities like weaving, making incense sticks, and food products like pithas, pickles, fruit juice etc after completing their daily household chores, thereby supplementing the family’s income; this income is essential as the family’s generally small agricultural land holding is not adequate to support a family to meet the obligations of higher education of children, medical requirement etc.

(ii)    Children may study after sunset under improved lighting. Improved education would provide these children with a more level playing field in a growing competitive environment.
Grid based power, on steady and sustained basis, may reach remote villages sometime in the distant future. In the interim period, these communities would be well served by small solar solutions such as solar lanterns, solar home-lighting systems and micro-mini solar grids. Such solar solutions have had wonderful success stories across the globe. They are likely to work here as well. And so, the government may consider the following strategy to electrify remote villages.

Identify clusters of villages, each cluster with household population of say 500 or more and create circles of off-grid solar power generation and distribution facilities. A micro-utility company may be awarded, through auction, an 11-year license to create the facilities and serve the opportunity on monopoly basis – one year to create the infrastructure/facilities and 10 years to service the opportunity. Price of power delivery may be determined by the micro-utility. In order to keep a check on the price, an individual in the village may have the option of putting up his own rooftop solar solution. Developing the ecosystem for smooth functioning and maintenance of the solar systems is also an important aspect that would need to be kept in mind. The success of such initiatives depends on developing a robust ecosystem. 

It is also important that the beneficiaries be brought out of the expectancy of receiving all conveniences for gratis. Nothing should be given free for people to realize the value the goods or services provided. 

Meanwhile, the corporate sector operating in Assam and NER may be encouraged to take up electrification of remote villages through solar solutions as part of their CSR initiative. 

Some time back, installation and commissioning of a 35 KW grid interactive solar PV power plant along with some other renewable energy facilities at Raj Bhawan made news. While AEDA need to be applauded for this effort, it would be more meaningful if the government directs its efforts towards systematic electrification of remote villages through solar solutions, as mentioned earlier in this article. Food for thought!

(The author is a former Executive Director from Indian Oil Corporation Ltd and is presently a consultant in the social sector)

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