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Barefoot solar engineers of India

Nov 09, 2009

Pulka and her friends after receiving training under a DFID programme in solar power technology came back to bring light and power in their villages. Known as India’s female barefoot solar engineers, today these tribal women are engaged in spreading solar power far and wide, writes journalist Alex Renton.

Tinginaput is an ordinary village in remote rural India: two rows of neat mud houses, a couple of water pumps, a mango tree where people gather to talk. But there is something very modern perched on the tiles of each roof: a solar panel the size of a couple of A4 books.

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From these, wires lead into the houses, bringing light and power. Five tall street lamps have their own solar system as well – giving light through the night. That, say the villagers, is the best thing of all about the arrival of green power: they no longer fear attacks from bhalu – bears – from the surrounding hills after dark.

Three years ago four women from this little hamlet made an extraordinary journey. Not only were they leaving their remote highland homes for the first time in their lives, they were also travelling into modernity, way beyond the strict boundaries that govern a woman’s life among the tribes of India’s Eastern Ghats.

“Before 2005, I’d never even seen an outsider,” says grandmother Pulka Wadeka. She does not know her age because, like most women in the hills of the state of Orissa, she cannot read or write. But she can wire up and run a solar-powered 12-volt electricity system. Which – as we tell her – is more than we know how to do.

Frightening journey

Pulka and her friends’ journey to the southern city of Hyderabad for five months training in solar power technology came after patient work from the Orissa Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme (OTELP), a programme funded by DFID and run with the state government of Orissa.

First, programme staff had to convince Pulka and the others to travel to the big city, where no one could speak their language.

“It was difficult,” says OTELP programme director Deepak Mohanty. “At the beginning the ladies were so embarrassed they would not even sit in our presence.”

“It was strange, and frightening,” remembers Pulka. “The train to the city was very scary. We missed home. But as head of the village self-help group I had to go, for my community. My husband said it was OK, but warned me not to talk to anyone.”

Now she can laugh at the memory. Training was hard – they even had to learn the English alphabet and numbers to work out the circuit diagrams. But now Pulka wields pliers and multimeter like a practised electrician.

Perhaps only if you’ve lived without electricity can you appreciate how Tinginaput has been transformed in the last few years. The solar panels have made a difference to many aspects of life here – not all of them obvious.

First, villagers save on kerosene – an expensive item and one that carries a fire risk – for their oil lamps.

Also, the bright, portable lights they now use allow handicraft work, such as making brooms, to be done at all hours, not just during daylight.

Children can do school work into the evenings. And, crucially for families constantly on the edge of hunger, there is more time for working the fields. Incomes are increasing.

People power

In the hills around Tinginaput there are vast pylons bringing hydro-electric power to India’s cities but, ironically, these do not bring power to the village itself. Although the Indian government has pledged to electrify all rural areas, the process is slow and expensive. Once, Tinginaput did have power but, 19 years ago, its wires were stolen.

Nowadays villagers have power they can maintain. Though people have no knowledge of the term ‘climate change’, they realise the ecosystem of their hills is badly damaged. Nearly every large tree – apart from the valuable mangoes – has been cut for firewood and commercial timber.

Success at Tinginaput means solar power could spread across the district. There are 127 other villages without electricity in the administrative “block” and conventional electricity is not likely within five years. Solar power is now becoming an important part of Orissa's search for greener energy generation, with several large-scale projects approved this year.

Beyond energy

The women of Tinginaput already have a contract to build 3,000 solar-powered lanterns for schools and institutions. A training centre has been set up, to teach other people from the hill tribes how to erect street lighting and house power systems. On the centre’s wall is a banner proudly announcing the women’s new cooperative - the Orissa Tribal Women Barefoot Solar Engineers Association.

We watch trainer Meenakshi Dewan demonstrate the complex wiring of a solar lantern to Joyanti, a 16-year-old girl who has never been to school. Meanwhile Pulka is showing a 20-year-old boy how to use a soldering iron. The cooperative will earn 50 rupees (60 pence) for each lamp, more than double most peoples’ daily subsistence.

The 200 rupees for a child’s school books and uniform is beyond the budget of many families. Each lamp will earn the association 150 rupees to re-invest in the workshop.

Krishnachandra Wadeka leaves his soldering lesson to chat with us. Skills he’s learning here may lead to his own business. “I want to manufacture these," he says. "There’s a big demand for the solar electricity – everyone can see how it will save money and make life easier.”

What about having women in charge of things? “It’s a good thing,” he says, “the women used to be very scared; now they are more confident. I can see that it is good to learn from them.” Pulka’s eyes twinkle. “When I see what we’ve done here,” she says later, “it gives me hope for my granddaughter’s life.”

Read more about solar engineer and trainer Meenakshi and about the experiences of trainee engineer Rohim Miniaka.

Standing together

“DFID has a range of projects in rural Orissa, working with the government to address livelihoods, poverty and rainfall shortage,” says Peter Reid, DFID’s chief technical adviser to another DFID-funded livelihood project.

“What’s very satisfying about them is the increased strength of communities, especially among women. That may be the most important thing, because social cohesion enables people to withstand shocks. It gives them better access to finance, to information and skills – enabling them to adapt to the challenges of climate change.”

DFID’s five-year funding of OTELP is due to end next year, says Supriya Pattanayak, DFID’s representative in Orissa.

“But when we step away it will all keep going, because it’s now a flagship programme for the state government. That’s how it should be. It shows our partnership has been effective, and that the changes we’ve helped bring about will be permanent.”

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