So, it’s finally here. Day 1. A battalion of catering bhaias, all trained to innovatively awaken even the most Kumbhakaran-esque sleepers, start to disburse bread-butter-jam.
By about 9 a.m. , the train pulls into the salubrious valleys of the Western Ghats, into the district of Dharwad. What shocks you most on first impact with life out of a metro like Mumbai is the sheer pace of everything.
A woman, with her child silently sitting on her lap, just people-watching. A goat-herder carefully navigating the ravines and reigning in the occasional adventurous kid. A young couple reclining against a banyan, probably singing couplets to each other. Scenes totally alien to someone who’s accustomed to elbowing their way to a seat in the Dadar Fast Local.
We trek to a small site atop a verdant hilltop where a huge tent is set up.
SELCO was set up by Harish Hande with a major focus on rural electrification. SELCO started out as a movement to do away with ‘energy poverty’ – the everyday issues of kids studying in schools in the darkness, fire accidents in homes where upto 5 kids have to share space meant for not more than 2 people and birth surgeries made in cellphone torchlight. When Kejriwal, and subsequently, the Twitterati, declare war against vehicular pollution, a statistic that is often overlooked is that there are far greater people dying of indoor air pollution, because they’re forced to use firewood to cook, on an ancient contraption called the chulha.
Pre-SELCO, village life used to literally grind to a screeching halt as soon as the sun set. SELCO ‘s objective of tapping into the sun to help with rural electrification goes way beyond the obvious needs of making nights brighter. A solar lamp post sunset means local residents are able to weave intricate baskets, making them less dependent on the meagre earnings from selling bidis.
As a CBSE kid, I distinctly remember ‘Night of the Scorpion’, from VIIIth Grade, where the sheer terror of the scorpion’s poison convulsing through the poet’s mother’s body convinced me to keep the lights on for several nights. Kids no longer have to hold their breath and pray when faced with the dark terror of being bitten by nocturnal snakes and scorpions, thanks to SELCO’s solar-powered night lamps. Then there’s ‘Light for Education‘, where SELCO has installed rechargeable batteries in schools that have helped majorly pull down dropout rates. And do you recall the chulhas we talked about? With solar cookers, the heart-wrenching images of elderly women losing their eyesight and choking on years of soot, might just become an image of the past.
So how does it work? SELCO sells sustainable energy equipment like solar lamps and cookers, while also staying back in the village to set up service centres and tie-up with micro-credit institutions to make these purchases financially sustainable for the end-users. 75% of the end-users are small and marginal agricultural labourers working in the informal sector, and SELCO helps negotiate the repayment of their loans either monthly, quarterly or annually, depending on when it’s easiest for them to pay.
SELCO is especially appealing for the bottom-up approcah it takes. Every employee knows that they aren’t there to only ‘serve the bottom of the pyramid market’, but rather customise technology and financing solutions to help end-users increase their savings or earn supplementary income, making them integral beneficiaries of a for-profit business.
What does SELCO have in the cards? Richa, who was kind enough to show us around, talked about ‘e-shala’, aimed at setting up solar-powered projectors at local village schools to help bring alive what is currently dry state-board prescribed books. And even though SELCO is for-profit, they’re not going to fall into the trap of running after scaling big and losing out on that personal touch. While they run small customised solutions now- head lamps and room-specific solutions, they plan to expand to full-home electrification. They’re also planning to start repairing defunct solar panels of other corporations. Krishi melas (a sort of agricultural and livestock festival) held on festive days and demosntration camps are also right on top of the priority list.
Photo Credits- Ishtaarth (http://ishtaarth.com/)
Saransh Arora (Facebook Profile)
If you’re feeling curious about how this works out as a for-profit business, check this out.
And they accept interns (Hallelujah!). Right this way.
Also, in a parallel universe, this. (The reality of the apathy we all show to our brothers and sisters back in the villages!)
Next up, where did we find these treasures? Stay tuned and these clues should help in the meanwhile!