Feature story

Sunny side shining

A sustainable solar energy project is transforming the lives of vulnerable tribal communities in one of the most impoverished districts of south Odisha

Auxiliary nurse and midwife Chanchala Majhi and her colleague Basanti Behera distinctly remember the day three months back when 30-year-old Jagyaseni Nayak was brought to the Kerpai primary health centre (PHC) in Odisha’s Kalahandi district, one of the poorest regions in the country. It was about 10 at night and Ms Nayak, writhing with labour pains, had been rushed from the neighbouring village of Kachalekha.

It was crisis hour at the remote health centre, located in a hilly region about 13km from the main road. This was the first time Ms Majhi and Ms Behera, 23 and 22 respectively, had faced such an emergency but they and their support staff managed to deliver the baby.

On Ms Nayak’s side, and to her advantage, was a bright new ally: the renewable energy system installed by the Tata Trusts as part of a larger programme to provide electricity to vulnerable tribal communities in Odisha. The solar rooftop system installed at the Kerpai PHC ensured that it can function perfectly well at night and provide additional medical services.

The residents of Kerpai, Kachalekha and their surrounding villages are benefitting in spades from the decentralised renewable energy solution that the solar systems deliver. Simply put, they are the cornerstone of the Trusts’ energy intervention in the region and they are benefitting a host of tribal folks.

The inmates of the Kasturba Gandhi Girls Hostel in Kiapadar, about 25km from the Kalahandi district headquarters of Bhawanipatna, are among these beneficiaries. Here, solar-powered lights have helped students study for longer hours and they have got some of the darkness out of their lives.

“Earlier we had to depend on torchlight or kerosene lamps to go to the toilet even,” says Namita Majhi, a class VIII student who lives in the hostel. Access to dependable electricity supply has been an enabler and a catalyst for socioeconomic development in the area, especially for those from tribal communities such as Ms Majhi.

Transformation tack

Launched in 2015, the programme is part of the Tata Trusts’ South Odisha Initiative, an omnibus programme that aims to transform the districts of Rayagada, Kalahandi and Kandhamal, low on almost every social development indicator.

The energy interventions are linked with healthcare, education and livelihoods and are focused on the Thuamal Rampur subdivision, chosen because it fares poorly in terms of human development indicators and also on infrastructure and economic development. The belief was that if the initiative could succeed in such a backward area, it could be replicated in other districts of southern Odisha.

The Trusts, along with their associate organisation Livolink Foundation, have collaborated with the SELCO Foundation, a nonprofit, to implement the project. “Our aim is to invent, create and implement solutions that push people permanently out of poverty by using sustainable energy,” says Roshan Mascarenhas, senior programme manager (operations) with SELCO Foundation.

The priority is to find cost-effective and optimal lighting solutions since grid connectivity is rare in Thuamal Rampur. The energy programme’s impact has grown beyond lighting, with solar power emerging as a lever for economic development. For instance, 28-year-old Kaibalya Rana, a traditional potter from Karlasuda, has been successfully using an electric-powered potter’s wheel supplied by the Foundation to augment his income and reduce the drudgery of his work.

The Tata Trusts energy intervention is not limited to providing renewable energy solutions, either, the aim being to ensure sustainability. “The reasons for the inaccessibility of energy could vary from technical and financial to social barriers,” says Mr Mascarenhas. “The interdependence of technical, social and financial aspects have to be understood to bridge the gap and ensure the financial feasibility, technical viability and social sustainability of the intervention.”

The solar-powered Lok Sewa Kendra in Benakhamar village in Kalahandi district

Lighting up all around

For denizens of urban India, the idea of spending close to 200 and the better part of a day to get a single document photocopied may seem like too much effort. Yet this is a stark reality in the back-of-beyond villages of southern Odisha.

Depending on how remote their village is, locals have to travel between 20 and 50km to find a basic service such as photocopying, essential for every government application.

As part of its energy intervention, the Trusts have facilitated the setting up of solar-powered Lok Sewa Kendras (LSKs), which offer services such as photocopying, printing and scanning.

At the LSK run by Supat Majhi, 27, and his elder brother, Haroo Majhi, 30, in Dumerpadar, customers can even get mobile song downloads and photo-framing services. The Majhis charge 10 for movies and 50 for transferring 1GB worth of song files.

It wasn’t easy for the siblings to set up their LSK, given the tough time they had in getting a bank loan. The SELCO Foundation, the Trusts’ implementation partner, had to deposit 45,000 as risk fund for the project. SELCO also provided beneficiaries like Haroo Majhi training to handle computers, operate a camera and also edit photographs. The help has added up and the Majhis say their income has increased sufficiently to enable them to pay off their loan instalments easily.

That is easier said than done. Finding financial assistance, for example, proved to be a herculean task for the villagers, with one bank after another turning down loan applications for solar products. While the institutions were ready to finance income-generation activities within specific timeframes, bankrolling renewable energy was a bridge too far (for reasons ranging from fear of defaults to lack of credit history and documentation requirements).

To overcome this, the Trusts and the Livolink Foundation formed joint liability groups (JLGs), consisting of five-to-eight households. This made it comfortable for banks to process and disburse loans while enabling easy repayments. SELCO Foundation also provided a risk fund to the banks, comprising 50% of the total loan amount sanctioned in addition to the primary security for the loan. Despite this, only one nationalised bank has come forward to offer loans.

Tribal and bankable

The tribal communities, many of whom were associating with formal banking systems for the first time, have vindicated the cautious trust reposed in them. Says Mr Mascarenhas: “Till March 2019, 472 loans have been sanctioned. About 91% are standard assets, which means the beneficiaries are repaying the loans regularly.”

The venture’s success has proved, yet again, that poor communities are bankable. “This project has dispelled the notion that sustainable technologies are unaffordable for such communities,” explains Siddharth Gahoi, area manager, Tata Trusts, who oversees the energy initiative.

Pujari Majhi from Sirimaska in Odisha’s Kalahandi district puts his solar-powered sewing machine to profitable use

The project has, additionally, shown the efficacy of developing ecosystems that ensure the long-term sustainability of solar energy solutions. Such solutions are not the preferred choice in remote areas, mainly due to quality issues and the lack of supply chains, spare parts and trained technicians. Under the project, village youth with a basic education have been trained in partnership with local nonprofits. These ‘solar saathis’ (or solar companions) are responsible for installing new lighting systems and maintaining old ones.

For the villagers of Thuamal Rampur, long forced to live without assured electricity supply, the advent of solar-powered solutions signals a new dawn. The sun, it appears, can well be a mother lode of sustainable energy solutions for rural India and its most needy communities.

For the Majhi family from Tikrapuda in Odisha’s Kalahandi district, solar power has helped reduce the dependence on kerosene lamps for lighting