It is pitch dark as we near Nagwa village, 150 km from Varanasi. No lights emanate from any of the hamlets that we cross. Then, we see a bunch of barefoot boys and girls emerge from their dwellings carrying solar lamps in their hands. These are school-going children who have recently been given solar lamps under the 70 Lakh Solar Study Lamps Scheme. Nagwa is still waiting for its turn to get conventional electricity. Until recently, students had to either limit their study hours to the duration of natural light availability or strain their eyes in the dim light of kerosene lamps.
This is the case not only in unelectrified villages like Nagwa, but also in places that receive a few hours of erratic power supply. Professor Chetan Singh Solanki of The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay says that in such a scenario, the need was to find a low-cost alternative that could be made available as fast as possible. Therefore, while designing these solar lamps, the focus was on affordability, reparability and availability, he says.
The initial programme of 1 million solar lamps was initiated in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan for the period 2014-16. It was scaled up last year in terms of both size and quality. The states of Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh were selected under the 70 Lakh Solar Study Lamps programme launched last year in blocks with more than 50 per cent unelectrified households dependent on kerosene as their main source of lighting. The other criteria was blocks that had a significant percentage of Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste population. School students (Classes 1 to 12) in the identified blocks are entitled to these solar photovoltaic (PV) technology-based lamps at a discounted price of Rs 100 apiece.
The scheme, funded by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), is being jointly implemented by Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) and IIT Bombay. While IIT Bombay is the central agency for the design, research and development, overall execution, coordination and monitoring, EESL is responsible for the procurement and distribution of lamps kits and spare parts. Under the scheme, zonal partnerships have been formed with the State Rural Livelihood Missions (SRLM). The women cluster federation too has been roped into the scheme.
While the key objective of the scheme is to support education by ensuring that students get quality light to study, it also helps in reducing the dependence on kerosene and raising awareness about solar technology. Another important element of this programme is the creation of livelihood opportunities, especially for women.
The solar study lamp consists of a PV module, which is designed to provide four to five hours of light every day. The actual cost of the lamp is about Rs 450, though the beneficiaries are charged Rs 100 apiece. The lamps have a battery warranty of five to seven years.
Against a target of 7 million lamps, a little over 1.1 million have been distributed to students so far. Unless the pace of distribution is speeded up, it will be difficult to achieve this target within the stipulated period. The scheme has set targets for each of the selected states for the distribution of the solar study lamps to students.
IIT Bombay has several teams looking after various areas of implementation, including online monitoring, overseeing distribution and supply, and conducting quality checks. Nearly 50 of its men are working on the ground, helping in the skill development of local women in assembling and distribution, and 40 are involved in online monitoring, designing, and making plans and strategies for distribution. Local women in rural cluster federations are trained in assembling lamps as well as in distribution-related activities. These works are done at assembling and distribution (A&D) centres in the selected blocks. In all, nearly 60 A&D centres have been set up for the purpose so far.
The women responsible for the distribution of solar study lamps carry out surveys on demand, and hold demonstration sessions for the targeted clientele in the block assigned to them. They also visit schools in different villages. The cost of running and managing these A&D centres is covered from the sale of the solar study lamps. The costs include the payments made to the women for assembling and distribution. Around 1,300 women are working at these centres apart from the staff required to man these centres.
Solanki says the aim is to create a “by local for local” solar ecosystem, which is crucial for the sustainability of the programme and creation of livelihood opportunities. By skilling these women at the local level, they would be able to provide repairing services even after the project is completed. The intent is to make these women solar entrepreneurs so that they are able earn their livelihood through the skills they have acquired in assembling and repairing.
The biggest challenge, especially in a state like Uttar Pradesh, is the sheer size of the programme. Nearly half (3.4 million) of the total 7 million solar lamps are to be distributed in the state by December this year. As it is, the implementation of the scheme was delayed in Uttar Pradesh because of the change of government following elections. According to Shailendra Diwedi of IIT Bombay, the scheme could take off only in the last few months of 2017, but since then, a little over 200,000 lamps have been given to students, as per the latest available data. Although there are several logistical challenges, the major delaying factor is the slow supply of spare parts from manufacturers. Stakeholders believe that there is a need for some big players to take up manufacturing of spare parts to accelerate the pace of production and improve the quality of components. There have also been cases where “easy-to-reach villages” were preferred over unelectrified remote hamlets in order to meet the targets.
Jharkhand has already crossed the halfway mark and is all set to reach the target within the set timeline. There were both challenges and opportunities in the state according to Deepak Upadhyay of the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society. Women cluster federations were already in place and mobilising them for this scheme did not take much time. He believes that support from political leaders in the form of motivation and social sanction also helped. However, the fact that they had to start from the Zero fund meant that they could break even only after six months. Bikram Kundu, state coordinator from IIT Bombay, adds that the supply of the consignment was very slow in the initial stages, due to which it took a lot of time to bring the operation on track. However, both are confident that the target for lamp distribution will be met.
In Bihar, while the number of lamps distributed is the highest so far, the state is still far behind its target of over 1.7 million. The person looking after the project on behalf of IIT Bombay says the delay in getting the consignment is the only delaying factor as everything is fine at the ground level. Delays in setting up A&D centres and getting supply of spare parts are responsible for the slow progress. However, Pallab Goswami of Assam SRLM believes that the project will pick up pace after 18 more A&D centres are commissioned. In Odisha, the project is yet to take off but the process and formalities required to start the project are under way.
Saurabh Kumar, managing director, EESL is hopeful that 2 million solar study lamps will be distributed by May 2018. According to him, the procurement of 2.4 million lamps for the second phase has already been completed. “While the scheme is on track, the MNRE will review the outcome by June 2018,” says Kumar. He is hopeful that this initiative will be extended to more blocks not just in the selected five states, but in other states as well.
While students in unelectrified villages are benefiting from the scheme as they can study for more hours and improve their performance, their families too are making use of these lamps for doing their household chores or for moving out in the dark. These lamps serve as torchlights in the absence of solar street lights. Meanwhile, the women working at the A&D centres have gained not only a source of livelihood, but also confidence in their skills. Many of them are hoping to utilise these skills even after the project is over.
More importantly, if the Right to Education Act is to be implemented in letter and spirit, the right to light is a must. The solar study lamps scheme is an important step in this direction though there is a long way to go.