Dharnai diaries

10 December, 2014

Born and brought up in a middle-class family in the city, life has been fortunately convenient for me. A classic city-slicker would worry about work or personal problems because much of the daily amenities like water and electricity are more like constant factors that comes easily and they don’t have to worry about it. Ask a city-dweller to imagine a day without electricity or water, and there will be much of chaos, daily life almost coming to a standstill. But living in cities, we don’t realize that there are hundreds and thousands of villages in India that do not receive electricity, not for a day or two but have never seen a bulb light up in their household. Dharnai is one such village in Bihar that hasn’t received electricity for the past 30 years! My first reaction was nothing short of a shock to imagine that an entire generation in this village (and several villages in India like Dharnai), have spent their lives without electricity. How ironical is it for a country to be shining in the space with its mission to Mars on one hand and on the other hand letting millions of people be in darkness.

Given the facts above, most of the people would think that the government must provide these villages electricity as soon as possible. But given the power crunch in the world and the growing deficiency of coal vis a vis the increasing demand for it on the other hand, can we really provide all these villages electricity? Well, of course we can! And that is the kind of magic that has been working in Dharnai. My visit to Dharnai was special because it brought back most of the basic school textbook facts that we learnt and then later unlearnt. Renewable sources of energy… learnt plenty about its benefits and sustainability, but seldom saw a practical model. In Dharnai, I saw that come alive. An entire village lit up by solar-power micro grid, that not just gives a feel good feeling but kindles hope for a much brighter future.

The Dharnai solar-power grid is divided into four clusters, depending on the geographical division of the village that mainly reside in these four clusters. Each cluster is endowed with its own solar power micro grid with capacities of 20KW in three clusters and 10 KW in the fourth. It was interesting to see how each and every household, commercial shop, clinics and even a distant hotel was connected to this solar power micro grid and availed the facility of electricity. The electricity provided was also utilized for irrigation in the farms with solar water pumps. For a village that did not see a bulb light up in 30 years, every 100 metre of the street was lit with a boulevard of LED lamps run on independent solar panels. I was given the opportunity to actually see the room where the entire miracle happened; the place where the batteries get charged and then transmit electricity to its respective cluster. I was amazed to see how simple the entire process was. The use of solar power is not only sustainable, cost-effective in future and eco-friendly but the entire process can be managed in simple easy steps. Given that the project is self-sustaining revenue generating business model, the cost of maintaining and cost of managing resources can easily be met. CEED managed to do in this little village what we have been chalking on papers for several decades now.

My motive to visit the village was obviously to visit the first fully solar powered village in India and find out the reactions of the community, but the sheer gratitude and pride each villager had, to see CEED members in their village gave a tell-tale story of their contentment. The extent of the change can be estimated from the fact that several houses in the village now had TataSky dish antennas. With the advent of electricity, shops that closed down at the time of the sunset now went on for a few more hours adding more business, the vendors that went home before dark now could sell goods for extra hours, generating more business and convenience for the people. Surely, Dharnai is still working out on some minor management glitches, but the basic aim of the project hasn’t dwindled. One of the best features about the project is that each consumer can take electricity package according to one’s requirement and thus these micro-grids can be designed to meet specific power needs of different population on different scales. For several years, we have been path dependent to work around the coal generated electricity, the Dharnai solar-power model is definitely a critical juncture that challenges this dependency and urges to look for more reliable solutions. As the ex-CM of Bihar rightly quoted “ki asli urja toh yahi hai”, there is a need to recognize that the true and reliable source of energy is the one that is sustainable.

As my visit ended and we were heading back home, I had gathered several anecdotes that I now have kept in my treasure. We can clearly see that the world is losing out on resources, the polar ice-caps are melting down, and there is a sense of panic and chaos about the end. Amidst all this hullaballoo, I see a hope kindling in the form of Dharnai. It seems almost surreal to think that the inventor of light bulb, Thomas Edison once said that “when you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.”

Surabhi Shikha was an intern with CEED.