Bringing light to the mountains

It is extremely sad that we lost Jagdish da last year. His enthusiasm and drive remains with all of us. Lets hope we have many more Jagdish in the mountains

Everyone at one point of their life, face a difficult choice, to leave homeland for better money or stay behind and help make it a better place. Not many people have courage like Jagdish from Avani who take the high road.

AVANI is a voluntary organization working in the Tripuradevi (Pittoragarh District), Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. It works in fields of textiles, energy technologies, health and education. It started working in field of solar energy as a branch of Social Work and Research Center(SWRC) , Ajmer, Rajashtan. Rajnish Jain, co-founder of Avani saw the work there and realised that they can make an independent centre for solar energy services in the hills. They then began the work at Sarla Ashram. They got funding from the Foundation for Rural Recovery and Development (FORRAD) for about 60 systems.

Jagdish was born in a small village Silinia. He studied up to graduation at Berinag but left studies after first year of post-graduation. On asking about his big dreams of going to the plains as a youth, he shares his experience of going to Haryana to work at a textile export company, the environment did not suit him, his heart was still in the mountains. In deep introspection, he realised that youth go to plains to earn money and then when they become old they come back and become a burden on the mountains. This results in the population having a huge concentration of non-working men (very young/retired), which is the largest reason for underdevelopment of this region.

Jagdish returned home. Soon he heard about a solar project and went to buy solar equipment for himself at Avani’s old centre where he was great influenced by the founders Rajnish Jain and Rashmi Bharti. Jagdish then went for a 1 month Solar Maintenance and Social Welfare training at SWRC. He goes on to describe it as the most exhilarating and exhausting experience of his life. He was woken up in the morning at 6am and had to go for physical training. Later they were taught how to assemble PCBs and setup solar panels and batteries and repair. In the evening there cultural workshops were held where they would be trained in dramatics and puppet shows.

He wanted to open his own shop as a solar technician but he also liked interacting with people so he got satisfied with work at Avani and with the fact that he was helping more families than he could with his own shop.

He tells us Avani had made a commitment that by the time they will have completely used the grant given by FORRAD they would have a sustainable system on their own. That essentially meant it was not just about giving away free solar lamps.
Bringing solar lighting to villages was not at all an easy ride. People here were accustomed to the lifestyle of staying in darkness since forever; they did not need many electrical appliances. But what he found out with his personal experience that kerosene lamps which were the only existing lighting solution was actually more expensive than solar energy. He needed about 15 Litres of kerosene every month at a rate of about 7Rs per Litre. Amounting to 105Rs a month, 90Rs a month for Solar Home-Lighting made more sense. Convincing villagers the same was an uphill task but he was pretty good at it and had the confidence in himself that he was doing the right thing. It is his clarity of thoughts which amazes me. He went to every village and formed an association (samity) when at least 10 people were ready. Accounts were made in local banks in name of Solar Energy Association of the village. One guy from every village was trained in Solar Product maintenance.

Even after being subsidised the solar home lighting systems cost Rs 7500 which was a huge amount for villagers. So it was decided that they give a down payment of Rs 2000 and then pay Rs. 90 per month. This money was deposited in the account of the association formed. If there was a failure of the parts the money deposited in the association’s account would be used for repair. At first it seemed pointless to them but after a while they understood the system which was designed to be sustainable. The importance of the bank account of the association was that because the battery alone cost about 50% of the price of the product and in case of its failing no-one would provide another battery, so the money villagers were depositing in bank account would be used by them to buy new ones or pay for repairs. People would often question, “What is your advantage in this?” He would usually answer saying, “We are here to bring light to the hills and we don’t want someone else from the plains doing it, who would probably sell his products and be unreachable for any further assistance or repairs.” There was a long term vision in mind. In 2003 the project was completed successfully. By that time Avani’s solar energy department had become self-sustaining.

He loves the fact that this project first of all saved natural resources of earth by saving kerosene, secondly the whole system is assembled by local people trained by Avani as its employees. He puts a special emphasis on the training of solar technicians about assembling PCBs.

Four-five years ago, especially after the separation of the state of Uttarakhand from Uttar Pradesh, interest shifted to this region and power-grid(main electricity lines) have reached most villages. This did result in a decrease in demand of the home-lighting systems but people still need solar systems. With the landscape being fragile there is often a breakdown of electricity which sometimes lasts as long as 2-3 weeks. Thus people are ready to buy emergency solar lanterns made by Avani which have both long lasting LEDs and solar panels which are warranted for 15 years.

His salary began from Rs 660/month in 1998 earns a meagre Rs.5000/month. He says, “Life was very simple those days, we were young adventurous and ready to travel anywhere to be trained. We had no expenditure.” He is married and his family lives in Silinia, and his kids Sahil and Jaya are studying 7th and class 6th, instead of chasing degrees he wants his kids to have practical training because it makes more sense to him.
Listening to the echoes of Kumaoni songs, we continue to trek to Basti a village near Dharamgarh, to promote a microfinance scheme for people who cannot afford solar lanterns at once. Through a scheme of a small downpayment of Rs.500 and Rs.150 per month for 11 months, we can reach a wider income group. On the way we managed to sell one lantern to a grandfather. It is so delightful to hear him tell his grandson, “now no escaping studies at night.” A bright future ahead indeed.

You can visit Avani's website here: http://www.avani-kumaon.org/