Providing Light to the Rural Poor of India
Draped in a red sari, covering her head, Seema Devi slouches over as she stitches a handkerchief. The room she sits in is bare, softly lit by a lantern charged by a solar-powered battery device on the shelf. She concentrates on the eye of the needle to insert another piece of thread.
Deep in the heartland of Singhilpur, one of Bihar’s many villages that receive no electricity, light is not just a commodity; it is a reminder of life’s harsh realities. Like most countries in the developing world, India’s quest to brighten its vast landscape has been challenging. Roughly half of the country’s population still does not have access to electricity and access remains a distant dream for more than 290 million people across India.
“Light is not just a commodity; it is a reminder of life’s harsh realities.”
Villages in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India are among the most underserved areas when it comes to electricity. Villagers still rely heavily on diesel and kerosene for fuel, a costly investment for many who earn less than $2 per day.
Through The Rockefeller Foundation’s Smart Power for Rural Development initiative, things are beginning to change. Working with multiple partners in India—from local non-profits to private energy companies—Smart Power provides affordable and sustainable energy access to the rural poor. By providing power to areas that are not electrified, Smart Power aims to encourage the growth of businesses and entrepreneurs, improve healthcare and education, and transform their quality of life.
“Light is very important,” Seema admits, “especially for cooking and home chores. I also want to stitch and read inside my home in the evening.” With electricity, she can also worry less about security and wild animals coming into her house at night. “During the floods, we once had two snakes slither over us while sleeping. We couldn’t see in the dark and were very scared,” she recounts.
Sulochana Devi, another resident of Singhilpur, perspires as she lights a kerosene lamp at home. “I don’t like using these because there can be accidents, and it scares me,” she confesses, narrating an incident where a neighbor’s house burnt to the ground. “I also worry that my children will be affected by these fumes, which aren’t safe.”
This is set to change with the construction of the first solar power plant supported by SPEED and built by Applied Solar Technologies (AST). Constructed nearby Singhilpur, the solar power plant will benefit 18 villages in the area.
For families who have registered for electricity, these devices will provide communities in isolated settlements—for the first time—safe, reliable and affordable light. Over time, the SPEED program plans to extend mini-grids from the power plant to the villages and is in discussion with AST to scale-up.
NIDAN, a local NGO partner that also works on the ground, is helping to create more awareness about the benefits of switching to clean energy and encouraging communities to sign up for OORJA Mitra, solar-powered devices. Their ability to facilitate power purchase agreements with households and local businesses have helped to increase the private sectors’ confidence, like AST, to invest more in rural electrification.
“It is difficult for our children to study with candles or kerosene lamps, as the quality of light is not good,” Sulochana laments. She can already see that the OORJA Mitra will prove efficient at fulfilling her electricity needs at home.
“Families in isolated communities are gaining access to safe, reliable and affordable light.”
Community self-help groups, which work under the guidance of NIDAN, are keen to discuss how they can work together to improve things further. Ratnish Verma, NIDAN’s State Program Manager in Bihar, shares that these villages are uniting—using discussions around energy access as a springboard—to talk about their priorities, such as financial security and education for their children.
“We are installing the first ATM to provide banking services. There is also an aspiration to open a computer center,” he explains. “Parents have more ambition and want their children to develop skills. For children, including girls, they want to learn how to use the computer.”
Mahendra Paswan, one of the community mobilizers, speaks enthusiastically when asked why he is keen on educating families about the OORJA Mitra. “I think it’s beneficial for the villages as I know the problems of kerosene very well,” he admits.
“I think this device will bring about a great change.” The women, who sit on a bench, listening to Mahendra, nod in agreement. For many of them, their lives finally hold promise of a better future.[ssba]