8.1 The Lighting Project

The Lighting Project was started to address just the lighting energy needs of the rural poor in a distributed manner so that they don't have to depend upon kerosene and other fuels for that purpose. When Thomas Edison invented the incandescent lamp, he famously said that "we will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles[4]." But, as of 2000, there were more non-electrified households than the total number of households during Edison's time.  

The underlying premise of the Lighting Project was very simple. If we take the number of people who do not have access to electricity worldwide (about 300 million households) and the estimated amount of kerosene that is used for lighting worldwide (about 20 billion liters per year), then a strong business case can be made that all these households can be supplied with two free solar LED lights at $10 per light using the carbon credits from the kerosene that they won't be burning. We calculated that it would be a flourishing, sustainable enterprise if carbon credits fetch at least $11 per metric ton. And, off we went.

I believe in trying things out and plunged in head first by identifying a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) in India, ordering 1000 solar LED lights from SunNight Solar[5] in Houston and having them shipped to India to begin a pilot effort. Our NGO partner is the venerable Foundation for Ecological Security[6] (FES), which is a non-profit organization dedicated to regenerating forests and as such, works in remote areas of India. FES originated from the campuses of the National Dairy Development Board in Anand, Gujarat, India, which further cemented the relationship between dairy production and deforestation in my mind and drove me to veganism. We identified two villages, Karech in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan and Hadagori in the Dhenkanal district of Orissa, for the pilot implementation. FES had been working for several years in these districts and had a good rapport with these villagers. The village in Rajasthan is near the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary[7], which is the main green patch that is preventing the Thar Desert, which actually originates in the Sahara in Africa, from sweeping into New Delhi. Karech gets relatively little rain throughout the year, while the village in Orissa experiences the South West monsoon season during summer. Therefore, we thought that if we can get the pilot project to be successful in these two villages, then we could probably get it to work almost anywhere in the world.

After shipping the solar lights to India, I flew there to be in the villages during the distribution. But, as luck would have it, the shipment got stuck at Delhi airport because FES's license to import goods, called the Import Export Code (IEC), had expired. And I was about to get a lesson in the sophistication of the corruption that rots the Indian Government's bureaucracy.
India has always had corruption in the bureaucracy, but when I was living there in the sixties and seventies, the practitioners were quite crude about it. At that time, you could get things done without having to pay bribes as most of the bureaucrats were afraid and even ashamed to be seen as corrupt. But nowadays, the corruption appears to have become truly endemic, as if there is a parallel, shadow taxing mechanism that funnels wealth directly to the bureaucracy and to the politicians. This is what Anna Hazare and the Miglets are agitating about in India today.

Fortunately, all the interactions with the bureaucracy occurred through FES, specifically a young employee of FES, who appeared to be a novice at wading through the bureaucratic thickets. He looked up the process for renewing the IEC, downloaded the necessary forms, filled them up and sent them in.

And nothing happened.

As the first direct application simply disappeared, he sent in a second application for the renewal, followed up on the phone, and got back a response that the application forms were printed off the internet and were therefore, invalid. It seemed that the real application forms had to be requested and mailed from the office in New Delhi after paying a nominal fee and only then will the application be considered valid. He did that and there was still no response. Then, a few weeks and many phone calls later, an official suggested that we hire a special agent in Delhi, who understands the application process intimately. That we shouldn't be trying to renew the IEC code without the help of such a "professional."

Meanwhile, for every day that the shipment was held up in Delhi airport, there was a hefty rental charge being added to the shipping bill.

Finally, FES hired a special agent in New Delhi as recommended and had the IEC code renewed roughly three months after the shipment of solar lights reached Delhi airport. The lights were distributed to the villagers by FES personnel in my absence.

When I first visited Karech and Hadagori in March of 2008, I went with the FES personnel, but empty-handed with just the idea of the project and no solar lights. We explained to the villagers what we were planning to do, but within the first half hour of my visit to Karech, the business model for the Lighting Project fell apart. It turned out that these villagers only bought their kerosene from the government ration shop, which was several miles away from the village and required a full day trip for the women. And quite often, they would make that trip only to discover that the ration shop was closed. But kerosene cost just Rs. 10/liter in the ration shop whereas the open market price was double that amount giving the ration shop operator an incentive to sell their unclaimed quota on the open market and make some extra money. Therefore, Kerosene was a precious commodity for the villagers.

And for the most part, they weren't using it for lighting at all.

They were procuring at most 3 liters of kerosene per household per month and most of it was really being used to start cooking fires. One villager asked me, "Why do you want to change the night? God gave us night so that we can go to sleep!" This was a very humbling question for me. But, since we were giving away the solar lights for free, the villagers were keen to try them out.

Meanwhile, we discovered how much wood they were burning in the village for cooking and it was shocking not only to me, but to the FES personnel who had accompanied me to the village. Since Karech was close to the sanctuary, the villagers were using as much as 20kg per household per day and even an extra 10kg at times to sell to neighboring villages that were further from the sanctuary. They said that once the government built roads into the village three years ago, it had become easy to transport the firewood and other forest products to the neighboring villages and that this has increased their income in the village.

I made some quick mental calculations, determined that a similar carbon credit mechanism would be easily workable for solar cook stoves, and asked the villagers if they would be willing to use them if we could make them available free of charge. They said, "Show us how to make Jowar rotis and we'll use them." Jowar rotis are thick flatbreads made from a type of sorghum and they require a lot of energy to cook. Along with Corn rotis, they form the staple diet in these village communities. I promised the villagers that we would ensure that the solar cook stoves can make these rotis and left.

We got very similar reactions during my visit to Hadagori, Orissa as well. Once again, lighting was not viewed as a major requirement by the villagers, but they appreciated the fact that I had come all the way from America to help them with their energy needs. One woman actually berated the menfolk that they ought to be ashamed of themselves for drinking so much alcohol when this stranger had come all the way to help. It seemed that alcoholism was rampant in the village among the men, but the women were all teetotalers. This is a source of considerable friction between the genders as the men waste the meager resources of the household on their addiction.

We discussed the cooking needs of the villagers and they asked us to show them how to cook rice and lentils on the solar cook stoves if they were to use them.

Six months passed by before I returned to the villages. The solar lights had been distributed in the villages three months prior to my September 2008 visit and the monsoon season had just ended. My first stop was in Karech, Rajasthan and I was almost mobbed by the same village women who had been so shy and reticent during my first visit. Apparently, within three months of the distribution, the solar lights had become the most important possession of every household in the village, especially among the women.

There were a couple of reasons for the popularity of the lights. Since the lights were distributed, thefts had become non-existent in the village. In fact, the villagers chased away a thief who tried to steal a buffalo, as everyone ran out with their lights upon hearing the commotion and the whole village lit up like a city, frightening the would-be thief. Secondly, and more importantly, the previous three months was snake-bite season in the village. The women go out into the forest to do their ablutions early in the morning before the men wake up and would get bitten by snakes, especially during those months. Every year, 20-30 women used to get bitten by snakes and 2-3 women used to die from snake bites. And that year, in 2008, they had ZERO snake bites in the village because the women used the solar lights when they went into the forest and could see the snakes before they stepped on them.

The main complaint they had about the lights was that the switches were flimsy and we replaced 21 of the 480 lights in Karech for that reason. We left Karech loaded with gifts of delicious, crunchy giant cucumbers, and we ate one on the return trip during our lunch break.
My trip to Hadagori, Orissa, fell two days after the Mahanadi River had breached the bridge between Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack and cut off the road in what was the worst flooding in Orissa since 1982[8]. The monsoon rains had stopped but the water was everywhere. Fortunately, the Mahanadi River receded on the day of my arrival allowing us to travel to Hadagori from Bhubaneshwar. We managed to visit two of the hamlets in Hadagori, while the other two hamlets could not be reached due to the depth of the mud covering the roadway. In both these hamlets, the men complained that the women were not letting them use the solar lights to play cards at night, but the women said that they allowed the men to use the lights after the children went to sleep around 10pm, but that the men were too drunk by then to do much with the lights. The women used one light for cooking and the other for the kids to study, and the men's gambling activities were of lesser priority to them.

I heard the snake bite story in Hadagori as well. It was shocking to me that if this was happening in both Rajasthan and Orissa, then tens of millions of women throughout India are literally risking their lives every day while doing their most basic biological functions! In Hadagori, the villagers were also using the lights to chase away elephant herds that wander into their crop lands. And they had found a way to charge the lights even during the monsoon season by wrapping them in transparent plastic covers and leaving them out in the diffused light. They rationed the use of the lights when it is cloudy outside and made them last for at least 4 days before the batteries ran out. The solar lights had become so popular that neighboring villagers were very envious of them and were offering princely sums, as much as Rs. 2000 for the lights, but the villagers had not sold a single light as they wanted us to continue our project with them. Our FES partners said that they are becoming known as the "Torch people" among the villagers whereas previously, they had been known as the "Forest people."

Though the original business model of the Lighting Project was not workable, the solar light intervention taught us many lessons. The lights helped the villagers expand their daytime and improve their productivity. On the flip side, the forest was already overexploited, especially in Rajasthan, and the use of the lights further accelerated the exploitation of the forest. We heard reports that the women were making plates out of leaves at night and some trees were completely stripped of their leaves in the process. The income of the villagers increased by about 15% due to the intervention, but at the expense of the forest.

The intervention was done collectively, with the entire village participating in the project. This seemed to enhance the community experience as the lights were used during festivals and weddings to light up the night for dancing in the village commons, with every household contributing one light to the occasion.

FES, our NGO partner, was key to the success of the intervention as they were present on the ground to replace defective lights and to ensure the satisfaction of the villagers. Also, it was FES's rapport with the villagers that gained us an audience in the first place.

Best of all, using the solar lights did not require any change in the daily routines of the villagers as they charge the lights on their rooftops or porches unattended during the day, and use the lights at night once they return from their field work. And we were about to find out how important this is to the success of any intervention.