For the nomadic Handi Jogi community in Gubbi Taluk of Tumkur, Karnataka, life was all about rearing pigs and begging on streets. In their colony of makeshift tents, days ended with sunset, much unlike the rest of the sprawling town around. The community of 50 families had no means to afford electricity and struggled to save the expense on candles and kerosene lamps. The children never saw a book. An eerie darkness engulfed their colony the moment the sun went down. But, about a year ago, around 20 families decided to befriend the sun. With the help of SELCO Foundation, they installed solar panels atop their quaint homes. If you visit them now, you will find light gleaming from their tattered tents all day and night. They are charging their phones; their children are studying under the bright solar lamps. The young adults are even opting for different urban jobs.
SELCO Foundation is a pioneer name in India in the domain of sustainable energy. Their unique innovations with solar power have already reaped benefits galore in the underdeveloped districts of Odisha, Jharkhand and North-East India as well as Philippines and Tanzania. Their work in southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala is relatively recent, but the positive impact is evident from the transformed lives of the beneficiaries. The striking feature about this non-profit organisation is their focus on effecting a widespread change through raising community awareness, more than popularising their own products and inventions.
How solar power brightened lives for the Handi Jogi community
Ramakka, a middle-aged Handi Jogi woman who spearheaded the change, answered all the hows and whys to Efforts For Good. Thanking SELCO Foundation, again and again, she said, “Electricity is of little use to us, thanks to the costly bills and endless power cuts. Many politicians would visit us before elections and make promises of affordable electricity, but nothing happened ever. We were stuck with candles and lamps which cost us Rs 20 per day, while we barely earn Rs 200-300 a week. The lamps were risky too.”
The danger that a small candle can pose inside these crammed plastic shacks is evident from the severe scar on 12-year-old Raju’s chest. When he was a toddler, his home caught fire from a candle; he sustained multiple burns. Today, he is more relieved than happy with a solar light in his home.
“The solar panels are a lifetime investment. We can pay off the loans in two years, but the lights will stay with us for life,” Ramakka adds with a smile. Ramakka’s joy is resonated in the unpolished dialect of Vinoda, a mother of two. “My kids study beside me while I cook comfortably in the evenings. I am happy now,” she exalts.
“It’s like the curse of darkness has been lifted from our lives,” 45-year-old Shanti Bai chimes in. Roshan Mascarenhas, the senior program manager from SELCO Foundation, explains, “Convincing an uninitiated community is a challenge. We did not scare them by directly saying that a solar panel costs around Rs 9000. We broke it down to them in terms of daily payments over the next two years, which is barely Rs 15 per day. Whoever agreed is now enjoying the benefits, and they are spreading the word among their neighbours as well.”
“Right now, these are just basic panels for lights and chargers. We have plans to install an upgraded version in future which will even let them enjoy TV,” informs Sachin LS from SELCO.
Women are now earning with the sun
A little ahead of Gubbi, lies the small township of Kalluru, where quite a few astonishing surprises await the Efforts For Good team. Here SELCO Foundation is successfully operating solar-powered sewing machines and power hammers.
Around 150 local housewives are now earning for themselves by installing the solar sewing machines. Nagaraja, a local tailor, proudly reveals how installing the solar sewing machine has been a boon for him. “Earlier, there was minimum 2.5 hours of power cut every day. My work was interrupted, and orders got delayed. I was stuck between thin profits and dissatisfied customers,” he recalls. He points towards the brand new solar-powered sewing machine and adds, “This is so helpful. I can work all day. I deliver orders much faster, and customers keep pouring in in my small shop. It only costs me Rs 150/week.”
A solar power-hammer saved a blacksmith’s business
At Shamanna’s house, an enormous solar power-hammer and blower machine fill up the blacksmith workshop. He settles down with a smile to operate the machine for demonstrating the Efforts For Good team. A shiny black coconut scraper is ready in two minutes. A month ago, it would have taken more than 30 minutes and at least four to five labourers to build this simple tool. But, finding skilled labourers was a huge challenge.
“Even then, the finish, sharpness and shine would not have been so perfect,” shares Shamanna, who was on the verge of losing customers due to deteriorating product quality and shoddy deliveries. The solar power-hammer is a pilot project by SELCO Foundation which has helped Shamanna revive his failing business, so much so that he now worships the machine. Interestingly, like many of his neighbours, Shamanna’s home entirely runs on solar power.
Aside from such modern-day inventions, SELCO Foundation has also helped sprout awareness about solar energy in these obscure rural zones.
Solar milking machines that don’t hurt the cows
With the mid-day sun blazing overhead, the Efforts For Good team reaches a cowshed in Mara Shettihalli, which run on solar power. Cows and their calves stand lazily inside chewing cud. An interesting-looking machine stands beside them. Owner Dayanand informs that it is a solar-powered milking machine.
The general idea many of us have is that machine-milking hurts the cows more, but this machine proved us wrong. Even as Dayanand and his workers attached the machine with a cow, she stayed still calmly till the milking was done. She showed no signs of even the slightest resistance that comes when milking by hand. “Our milk production has increased six times,” Dayanand reveals with joy.
A solar xerox machine is a boon for an entire village
Alongside the main road of Chelluru, one can spot a little tea-stall with a few oddities. Firstly, the solar panel sparkling on top of the thatched roof, and secondly, the word ‘XEROX’ written in bold fonts in front of the shop. Jayaranga, the owner rushes out to greet his new visitors, who curiously try to figure out the connection between ‘chai’ and photocopy. Roshan from SELCO Foundation clears the confusion as he points out the solar-powered photocopy machine in one corner.
Jayaranga strategically built his shop just outside the local panchayat office, so the employees and visitors stopped for tea at his shop daily. With SELCO’s intervention, he has now installed a solar-powered xerox machine, which has multiplied his income manifold. At present, his shop is a popular hotspot for students, workers and local residents; anyone who needs an urgent photocopy.
B.K. Venkatarangan, the deputy Tehsildar at the panchayat office agrees that the presence of an adjacent xerox shop has fast-paced the office work. He adds, “Solar power is the best. Look at my computer, the lights, fans, everything here runs on solar energy. So many villagers are happy after installing solar power units in their homes. We are free from the power cut menace now.”
Fighting starvation with sunlight
Roshan Mascarenhas narrates how a simple photocopy costs as high as 500 rupees in the malnourished Kalahandi district of Odisha. “But, the people there desperately need photocopies of their government IDs to avail the food rations. SELCO has installed multiple units of solar-powered xerox machines in Kalahandi, thereby indirectly helping to bring down starvation rates. Now we are implementing this in Karnataka.”
Away from the limelight, SELCO Foundation is doing incredible work in decentralising the sustainable energy sector. Besides the inventions mentioned here, they have also installed solar-powered rice hullers, flower-cutters, skylights and even an entire agricultural laboratory, in different states of India. Hundreds of lives have seen a new light of life, by harnessing the power of sunlight.