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For Forgotten Island, Solar Energy Brings Promise of Hope

Villagers cram together on the roof of a vehicle in order to travel between their island and the nearby city of Patna.

In a landscape of endless brown, trucks honk at passersby and cyclists. The pontoon bridge that leads stretches from Bihar’s capital city, Patna, is one that few attempt to take; yet for many in villages around this city in India, it is a stretch that symbolizes a promise of hope. This bridge, it is believed, is what links one to opportunity and a better life. For decades, Diyara Rasulpur has simply been called “The Island” — a forgotten cluster of villages that is cut off from civilization. This is not new. Saran District, where Diyara Rasulpur lies, has had no electricity for the past 17 years. Classified as one among India’s “most backward” regions, it has been in the public eye merely as an experiment, and a grim reminder of the state’s failures. However, it is this image that The Rockefeller Foundation, through its inclusive renewably energy initiative, Smart Power for Rural Development, has begun to change.

At the crossroads of a small village called Garib Patti, an OORJAgram (energy village) that has been set up by the Smart Power team with the help of its partners is an odd sight; mounds of sand surround a steep solar panel. Men and women who pass it, can’t help but stop and stare. It is few like Bhageerat Rai who understands that this is an opportunity can literally light up people’s lives. A landowner, he allowed AST (Applied Solar Technologies), an energy service company (ESCO) that has partnered with The Rockefeller Foundation, to rent the land to set up the energy village. “Our energy need is high and I know this will help my family and my village,” he says, “One day, Diyara will become a city like Patna. It will all change. This is a good answer to our light problems.” AST has begun to work on helping lay the foundation for this vision. With the help of NIDAN, a partner NGO, it intends to build a functional OORJAgram that will cater to at least 18 villages that surround Garib Patti.

Near the pontoon bridge connecting the island with Patna, sand miners carry headloads of sand from the Ganges into waiting boats for the building industry.
In the background, the pontoon bridge connecting Diyara Rasulpur with the city of Patna

The core focus of setting up a hub in Diyara Rasulpur was not just to help people gain access to energy but drive economic activity that would fuel revenue for them. Several small-scale entrepreneurs have also begun to take notice of the potential that this holds. The key for the ESCOs and other support partners is to identify the right channels to create links to opportunity.

“Energy needs, it seems, have brought the villages together to find a solution.”

Ram Babu Rai, a resident who is involved in agriculture, makes no effort to disguise his excitement about the OORJAgram. One of the main challenges he faces as a supplier of agro-goods is that there are no cold storage facilities available on the island. Storing produce and essentials such as potatoes, cauliflower, beans and milk often involves making a 9-km ride across the Ganges, back to Patna, all to avoid spoilage. “If this comes up, I can avail storage facilities here and I don’t have to spend on transport,” he says, “Also, my business will improve because I can give it to my customers directly.” NIDAN, which works closely with the ESCOs, is working toward helping entrepreneurs such as Rai acquire initial capital through micro-finance.

For AST and its partners working on Smart Power, however, there is more to tipping Diyara’s stagnant system; they don’t seek to simply empower the micro-entrepreneur alone to drive change. With the world largely beyond reach, they also focus on household penetration in every village cluster by equipping homes with the OORJA Mitra (energy friend), a solar kit which has two bulb points, a mobile-charging point and an embedded LED torch. Landowner Bhageerat Rai, is especially vocal about the benefits of this. “Our traditional lights have many issues. If there are strong winds, the candles will be blown out and if there is an accident, it can cause fire. It will be nice to have a light that we can carry inside and outside,” he says matter-of-factly. Energy needs, it seems, have brought the villages together in its desire to find a solution. NIDAN is also working towards bringing banking facilities to the island with the help of NABARD. AST has also offered to solarize ATMs as a sustainable solution to the lack of electricity. It is this insight into diverse links that makes Smart Power’s approach refreshing.

“It is apparent that the once-forgotten island is on the brink of change.”

After decades of falling off the map, the Smart Power program is a ray of hope for those living in Diyara Rasulpur. “It is the first time we have seen a program that is beneficial for all people in this area. People did not see the power in this area until now,” AST’s Circle Head Mr. Ravishankar admits, “Naturally, this is a great job.” The Smart Power team is widening its support network to sensitize communities towards the use of renewable energy and is hoping to gradually tip the system by creating the right links across sectors such as banking, health and information. Looking at workers energetically discussing the future, it is apparent that the once-forgotten island is on the brink of change.

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