Sunday, December 20, 2015






While the country is reeling under a severe power crisis, with the state unable to provide uninterrupted electricity supply even to the national capital, a small village in Bihar has tapped solar power to light up

Thirty-year-old Suresh Manjhi of Mahadalit tola in Dharnai will not have to walk five kilometres to and from the nearest Makhdumpur town every day to charge his mobile phone anymore. His world will not be engulfed in darkness once the sun goes down and neither will he have to depend on kerosene-fuelled earthen lamps as the only source of light once the darkness settles in.
Today, he can light up his home, charge his phone and have a bright street light glowing outside. Why? Because after 30 years of darkness, the lights are on in Dharnai! Located on National Highway 83, Dharnai revenue village, in Makhdumpur block of Jehanabad district in Bihar, declared itself energy-independent on July 20, this year, with the launch of Greenpeace India’s solar-powered smart micro-grid. The electrification project has made the lanes of this non-descript village the hub of community interaction after the sun goes down. Today, this village is the talk of the State. It is the first village in India where all aspects of life are powered by solar energy.
It is unbelievable that even 67 years after independence, a village so close to the State capital, Patna, and a world pilgrimage city, Gaya, was left in complete darkness — until, Dharnai broke free of the cliché and declared itself energy-independent by switching on the sun!
For over 30 years, high-tension electric wires have passed by this village without lighting up a single home. This incredible reality of Dharnai had impacted the dreams and hopes of Dharnai’s youth, who grew up in an era of darkness, often leading to despair. “While India was growing leaps and bounds, we were stuck here for the last 30 years, trying everything in the book to get electricity. We were forced to struggle with kerosene lamps and expensive diesel generators”, said 40-year-old entrepreneur Kamal Kishore who is a resident of the village.
But, today, the dark days are gone. Built within three months and on a test-run since March, the 100 kilowatt micro-grid, launched by Greenpeace with the help of NGOs, BASIX and Centre for Environment and Energy Development, is powering 60 street lights and serving the energy requirements of 450 homes which have 2,400 residents, 50 commercial establishments, two schools, a training centre and a healthcare facility. The system works even after dark and on cloudy days because of the battery bank that stores energy. “It does not feel like we are living in darkness. Today, children are studying well and women are able to cook late in the evening. Villagers are getting many benefits from this venture, including the commercial establishments”, 65-year-old farmer Ashok Kumar Singh, another resident, said.
As I walked through the muddy lanes deep into the village, I saw more happy faces with stories waiting to be shared. There were faces of optimism, of renewed hopes, and of empowerment. Gupendra Das shared his optimism as we waited at the Barabar Halt railway station. “Today, for the first time in ages we are seeing power supply. Now our children can study after dark. I hope with the light, the sun god will bring enlightenment to our homes too.”
Dharnai is a unique example of a community-driven electricity project. For the first time in India, an entire village has been electrified through 100 per cent renewable means, along with the involvement of the village community. The micro-grid has been set up with permissions from the gram sabha, the panchayat and the people of the village. The community has been part of the awareness drive as well as discussions about tariff and the working of the micro-grid. “The tariffs were, in fact, decided by the community itself after mutual understanding and discussions. The community is also part of the village electrification committees that will handle the day-to-day running of the micro-grid”, said Greenpeace coordinator Nagesh Anand.
For just Rs.75 a month, villagers like Suresh Manjhi and Gupendra Das can now light up their homes, charge their phones and have street light glowing outside. These, at such a price, were a distant dream for them even three months back when they either had to depend on kerosene lamps or diesel generators that were burning holes in their pockets and lungs.
The story of the micro-grid project is inspiring. Dharnai’s experience illustrates how, in a country like India, energy access can be achieved without compromising the environment with coal pollution. “The micro-grid intends to be the answer to the intense policy and vision paralysis that India’s energy sector faces today. The towns and villages of Bihar have been deprived of energy for decades now and we feel this is where the micro-grid can be bridge to empowerment. We urge the Bihar Government to follow and replicate this model”, said Naveen Mishra of CEED
Thirty years ago, due to various reasons, Dharnai lost its electricity infrastructure. Since then, the villagers have suffered due to lack of electricity and have been waiting to get electricity back to the village. Kolesar Ravidas of Jhitkoria tola lamented the poor condition of the village and continued political apathy in spite of changes in Government. “The political parties come to our village before the polls and promise empty rhetoric, raising our hopes. But once the elections are over, forget the power supply; the faces of our representatives disappear.” His anger is towards the current Chief Minister, Mr Jitan Ram Manjhi, who hails from Makhdumpur block too. “He is one of our own. When he visited Dharnai after becoming the Chief Minister we pleaded with him to at least light up the streets. But it seems all our cries fell on deaf ear”.
Sunil Kumar, the chairman of the village cooperative society, shared that successive State Governments turned a blind eye towards Dharnai. “We have paid the security deposit and completed the paper-work for reinstalling electricity 10 years back. But, since then we’re running from pillar to post to catch hold of the authorities.”
Bihar has been struggling with energy access for decades. The State faces chronic electricity supply shortages, resulting from inadequate investments in generation and distribution capacity. Acute poverty, paired with villages’ geographic concentration in remote, rural areas, have left much of the population in Bihar without access to electricity. In a nutshell, 82 per cent of the State lacks electricity. That has now changed in Dharnai. “The best part is there are no power-cuts in Dharnai”, said Santan Kumar, a local, who works as an electrician in this project. “Even in Patna, you are never sure if the lights will be on when you are studying or cooking at night. But our electric supply system is dependable, reliable and it is managed by us”, exclaimed Santan with pride.
Lighting up homes in a village like Dharnai means giving women and girls in rural India a chance at education; a chance to live their lives with dignity and respect; and a chance for better health and livelihood. Ranti Devi, a local resident, sounded confident when she said: “We had a lot of problems in the past, but since the lights have been installed in our homes it has been easier for us to cook and for our children to study. We can walk around in the streets at night without any fear”.
Samit Aich, executive director of Greenpeace India, said at the launch of the project: “The coal-fired and nuclear-fired power plants of the country will not be able to reach the Dharnais of the country. Nor will they be able to address global climate concerns and India's commitments towards those concerns. India needs to seriously reconsider its energy strategy and prioritise renewable energy for social and climate justice.”
There is a story here that goes well beyond India. For decades, Dharnai was subjected to apathy. But, today it is self-reliant. People of Dharnai don’t depend on the conventional grid to empower their lives anymore. In a power-deficit country, where thousands of villages are still living in darkness, where the state is unable to provide uninterrupted electricity even to the metros, Dharnai has set a benchmark on how decentralised renewable energy is a workable solution.
When, in the name of development and power generation, ancient forests are being cleared, communities displaced, wildlife disturbed, Dharnai provides a roadmap for sustainable development. The village has shattered all the myths that cynics have been propagating about the supposed non-feasibility of renewable energy. Its solar-powered micro-grid could be a game-changer, a model for bringing clean and reliable energy to millions across the world.

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