Empowering rural people in northern India with Bijli

Reading time: 9 minutes
2 March 2016

Shilpi Samantray, Project Officer, The Climate Group, blogs about her visit to a village on the north of India, where she met people whose livelihoods could be positively impacted by improved access to renewable power through The Climate Group’s Bijli – Clean Energy for All project.

We visited the city of Bhagalpur in the Indian state of Bihar earlier this year, because we identified it as a region that could greatly benefit from improved access to clean energy. Based on its demographics, banking penetration, asset ownership, demand for power and grid expansion scenario, the area is ripe for connecting clean power such as solar.

There is a significant concentration of NGOs and government bodies working in the Patna-Samastipur region, so we chose the eastern part of Bihar where there is not much development work going on, or indeed much intervention from NGOs and government bodies. Our partner organization, which already has a dedicated team in Bhagalpur, has also built a strong relationship with the local government – another reason to investigate the potential of off-grid clean energy in Bhagalpur.                                                          

During the visit we met local political leaders including the Block Development Officers and village chiefs to get feedback on our initiative through group discussion and surveys.

All four village chiefs in particular we met with were enthusiastic about our idea and expressed their support to progress the work. Here is a breakdown of feedback we received from communities in the villages.

Sajour

People are also quite sceptical about the current government and feel now that the elections are over, the government will stop the power supply. A program such as The Climate Group’s Bijli – Clean Energy for All, would ensure these villagers reliable, continuous power.Sajour is a small village in Bhagalpur district of Bihar state. The panchayat (village-level government) was recently granted power supply for 18-22 hours a day due to the local election. But even though there is now electricity, power is so unreliable and weak that commercial systems – such as refrigeration units – still don’t work.

With today’s power supply, around 50% of houses in Sajour village are still un-electrified, which is largely due to a lack of transparency in the system. For example, unauthorised brokers act as mediators between consumers and the DISCOM (power distribution company), charging villagers too much money for power. Using the Bijli model would mean installing direct electricity connections to households, which can be monitored by local authorities – and bring fairer prices to all.

Another sector impacted by unreliable power in Sajour is agriculture. Farmers currently use diesel pumps for irrigation, which is an unavoidable and costly expense for them. Like the weavers, they all welcomed the idea of Bijli, especially access to more affordable solar water pumps.Muslim villagers in particular are facing worsening poverty due to unreliable power. Already surviving far below the poverty line, the community relies heavily on weaving for income for generations. But because of intermittent power supply, they are restricted to using handloom machines to weave silk clothes instead of power looms – which would increase their efficiency by four times. Manual labourers, currently earn a meagre 25 Indian Rupees a day (US$0.004) which is not even enough for one proper family meal. Access to electricity and power looms will make them skilled labourers and improve their living conditions. It will also help them scale up their business and produce silk clothes for a wider range of consumers who prefer power loom products.

Kishanpur Amkhoriya

The power looms in this region are no more functional than Sajour, with the business eventually closing down due to a lack of continuous power supply. Weavers are now going through an occupation shift for this reason. Weavers who learned the ancient art passed down through generations are now having to learn entirely new skills. But the reason this village lacks power is quite different to Sajour.

While the government has provided power in the past, the infrastructure is so poor it cannot actually take the load. The transmission wires are in such a bad condition that there is no guarantee of continued power supply for the village’s key local systems, including its power looms, flour and rice mills, irrigation and mobile tower.

Maintaining water purification for safe drinking water is also of critical importance in this village – and all villagers agreed the plant would be much more affordably run on solar rather than diesel as it is today. So keeping in mind the diverse set of industries existing in the village, energy access as provided by a project such as Bijli – Clean Energy for All, will not only benefit the weaver community but also preserve the ancient art by reducing their migration to other occupations.

Jagarlya

Of the 4,000 households in this region, only 50% are electrified. The rest manage on large-scale power theft, which is not sustainable. Like Kishanpur Amkhoriya, farmers here rely on expensive and polluting diesel pumps for irrigation. While some villagers have attempted to connect the local rice mill to the grid in the past, due to intermittent power supply they had to return to diesel generators. As well as reducing pollution and depletion of the over-exploited natural resource, switching from diesel to a clean, stable electricity connection will also put an end to power theft and reduce burden on other downstream local areas.

Kasba Kherai

The households in this area are facing a critical water crisis. Solar water pump for irrigation and solar water purification plants would be extremely useful for the community. Due to low voltage, the current rice mill and ice plants are not functional and only 30-40% households are electrified. The worsening living and working condition of the farming industry is a key concern of the central government in Delhi – which is the scenario here in Kasba Kherai. As was explained by local farmers, clean, affordable power initiatives like Bijli will ensure the overall development of the farming community.

Bijli for better lives

While the local governments have brought some power to villagers in the regions we visited, villagers are wary of how long this will last. They want reliable, affordable, less polluting power so they can increase productivity, save money and lead healthier lives. Local governments and villagers alike agree with The Climate Group’s idea of introducing Bijli to the villages in Bihar, and reaping the cheaper, cleaner, safer power options it will bring to all.

By Shilpi Samantray

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