Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods

Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods
These women 'solar barefoot engineers' have brought light into their lives and their communities

On the edge of Rajasthan where shifting sand dunes mark the border with Pakistan, four villages have had their dark nights lit up by incandescent bulbs.

Highlights

  • Women trained to become solar engineers thereby helping light up houses in their communities
  • The residential training programme has made it possible for women to overcome social barriers and secure steady employment

Lighting up Women’s FutureIn a small corner of the western Indian state of Rajasthan women trained as solar engineers are helping light up houses in their communities and overcome social barriers to secure steady employment. The UNDP supported project also helps demonstrate the power of renewable energy in a country where millions of households remain to be electrified.

On the edge of Rajasthan where shifting sand dunes mark the border with Pakistan, four villages have had their dark nights lit up by incandescent bulbs. The villages, which are a series of homesteads scattered across an undulating dessert landscape, have never been connected to the power grid. The lights they now have are part of the Government of India and United Nations Development Programme project ‘Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods’. Apart from Rajasthan, this project, which ended in June 2008, was also implemented in Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Sikkim.

At night, the bright white light from a single bulb lighting up a courtyard is also a small beacon in the pitch-dark landscape, the only guide to homesteads in a terrain without roads or demarcated pathways. What is remarkable is that four young women – one from each village – have assembled these lights from scratch and are paid to maintain and repair them.

It took a leap of faith and a great deal of persuasion for the families to allow the four women to be trained as “barefoot solar engineers” serving their own communities. The Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), the Tilonia-based NGO, which implemented the programme in Barmer, runs a residential training programme for barefoot solar engineers at its campus in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan. This is about nine to ten hours by road from the Barmer villages.

It was unthinkable for the four families to have their daughters leave home let alone live among strangers. The four women have attended school only up to class five or eight. None of the four had ever lived away from their families or travelled much further than a neighbouring village, and never without a male escort. Three of these barefoot solar engineers, Sajani, Saleemati and Chano are married. Like all married women in their communities they are veiled. The fourth, Bhagwati, is engaged to be married and will soon retreat behind a veil.

Bhagwati said, “no one in the village has ever done anything like this, people said that boys should get the training, then we were told that the project would only train girls. It took people a long time to accept this”. According to SWRC “In the evening we would leave the village with an agreement that the girl could go; in the morning we would return to find that they had changed their mind.”

In the end Bhagwati, Sajani, Saleemati and Chano spent two months at SWRC’s campus in Tilonia and a month of field training. Following this they assembled each of the lights and lanterns installed in their villages and oversaw their installation. Now, they undertake regular checks in the village, respond to complaints, repair faulty lights and maintain the batteries that power them.

SWRC has also set up a workshop at its centre in Dhanau in the same bloc. Repairs that cannot be done in the village are brought to workshop. The four women travel on the irregular buses that connect their villages to Dhanau when their work demands. They spend a day, or if the work necessitates, a few days at the centre each time.

In the villages there are many still bemused that young women who until a few months ago were like any other – cleaning the yard, fetching water, helping with the cooking – are now called “engineers”. But, they would rather have lights irrespective of who is maintaining them. Each family with a light contributes to a village fund from which their woman barefoot engineer is paid a salary ranging from Rs 1000 to Rs 1350 a month. And the villages are full of little girls, who trail their barefoot engineer and watch in awe as she fiddles with wires and fuses, hoping too will someday be engineers.

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