Lead kindly light: with solar lamps, Saranda switches aspirations
It’s been a little over a month since Mahender Sao’s home has light in the evenings. Sao’s hut has no electricity connection, but a small solar lamp that he received under the Saranda Development Plan (SDP) keeps the darkness away.
“Andhere mein hi jeete thhe. Raat mein dibri, lalten se jitna dihkta tha, bus wahi,” says Sao, a resident of Chottanagra village in Saranda forest in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district. “We used to live in the dark. The only light in the evenings was from wick lamps, lanterns.”
It is not as if Sao had always lived in the dark. Villages deep within Saranda had got solar panels, rechargeable batteries and CFC lamps from Jharkhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (JREDA) in 2007. One of these panels had served Sao well until it broke a few years later. “Theek kahan karaein yeh toh nahin jaante thhe. Andazan do saal se tuta hua pada tha aur dibri aur lalten mein wapas aagaye thhe,” says Sao. “I didn’t know where to get it fixed. So, for the last two years we had been using wick lamps and lanterns.”
Nearly half an hour earlier, I had started from Kiriburu, a mining township in the fringe of Saranda, a little over 20 km from Chottanagra. Yellow light from tungsten bulbs in shops had just begun to cut through the gloomy grey of the monsoon dusk as I left the township. The road from Kiriburu to Manoharpur (another end of Saranda) runs through the forest. And I had never travelled on it after dark (I had been advised against venturing into the forest after sunset). By the time I stopped for tea at the small shop across the road from the CRPF camp at Chottanagra, the hills of sal, a few hundred metres, away were one tall, contiguous shillouette. A little light streamed from the camp and one could make out the shape of the large drums set up at the check-naka. So, when I saw the faint white gleam of the solar lamp in Sao’s hut by the road I knew I had to go talk to him.
“Abhi barish ka season hai na, saanp-bicchu bada milte hain sham ke baad. Kabhi kabhi toh ghar mein bhi ghus jaate hain. Batti rehne se yeh hum ghar mein, bahar dekh sakte hain ki kahin aas paas toh nahin hain,” he says. “There are a lot of snakes and scorpions around in the evenings because of the rains. Sometimes, they find their way into our huts. Now, with the lamps, we can check for them in our huts and when we go out.” I recall the news reports of snake bites that have flooded the dailies since the past few weeks. A pair of cousins, a boy and a girl in their teens, had died in the space of few days of snakebite in Kiriburu. Rocky and heavily forested Saranda is a prime snake country. Monsoons are fatal times – the roads from the villages deep inside turn into unmotorable stretches of slush and hospitals are far. It doesn’t help that the stock of anti-venom has dwindled to near-absence. Sao could be right. These lamps could save lives in Saranda.
“Batti rehne se thoda der aur jagte hain aaj kal,” laughs Sao. A friend of his chuckles as he sets a charpoy. “We stay up later than we used to because of the lamps.”
I ask if the children in his family use the lamp for “err… studying”. “Abhi toh batti mila hai. Thode dinon mein padhne ka bhi aadat lag jaayega inko… kyon re?” he asks his nephew who has been listening to our conversation. “We have just received the lamps. In a few days, they will start using them for their studies too… What do you say?” The boy goes inside with a shy grin.
The lamps are to be distributed among the 7,000 families in the six panchayats – Chottanagra, Chiria, Gangda, Lailor, Makranda and Digha – that benefit from SDP. But the villagers of Chottanagra, Chiria and Gangda had staged protests in May and June against the solar lamps and had demanded complete electrification of their villages. “Solar batti kabua, bijli batti abua,” had been their rallying cry (in Ho, a tribal language). A rough translation would be, “We want electric bulbs, not solar lamps.” (Read our report here)
I ask Sao if he participated in the demonstrations. “Abhi toh isse kaam chal raha hai, lekin solar jyaada din chalta nahin hai yahaan. Kharaab ho jaane par pareshani bhi hai. Filhaal toh yeh theek hai. Par humein bijli chahiye. Batti ke saath saath aur bhi chizein chalein toh accha hai na,” he says. “The lamp will do for now. But these solar panels do not last long. It is a headache if it breaks. It will do for now but we need grid electricity. It will be great if we can run other things apart from lamps.” “Pankha chahiye, TV chahiye,” Sao explains. “We will run fans, TVs.” The aspirations of the people, even deep within Saranda, are changing fast. “Aaj kal aas paas ke dukaan bhi khule rehte hein sham mein. Bahut der tak toh nahin, lekin pehle se lambe samay tak,” he says. “The shops in the area stay open longer than before in the evenings.”
I take his leave – there’s a little over 30 kilometres of the forest to travel through before I get to my guesthouse. Through the rest of the route, I spot the warm glow of the lamps in the isolated homesteads by the side of the road. The long, dark patches of the forest make me look harder for light wherever I can find it. Light – such a simple thing to be excited about! But I silently acknowledge the wisdom of distributing lamps in the villages. Chottanagra still has the good fortune of being by the Manoharpur-Sedal road. So do Binua, Timra, Jamkundiya and other villages. But the ones deep inside Saranda – Kudlibad, Thalkobad, Tirilposi and the other Digha villages – I begin to imagine the world of good these lamps would be doing there.
In the monsoons, an entire day’s sunlight will keep the lamp lit for three-four hours in the evening – enough to let a family cook and eat by its light, enough to let a school-going girl or boy complete a lesson or two, enough to let Satyanand Barla, a grocer at Chottanagra make a few rupees more from new hours of sales. More light means more to do! A few weeks ago I had seen a few of the lamps in an electronic-goods store in Manoharpur. They are not regular stock. I had asked around and found out that a few villagers had sold them to the shopkeeper for anything between Rs 300-500. Some homes will be missing the white glow of the lamps and all that comes with it, but it is no small grace that there are more like Sao who see the light.