Kismet Jehan’s evenings changed when, for the first time in her life, she got electricity. To a packed audience at the Women in the World summit in Delhi, she tried to explain what life without power is like. “Close your eyes. That is how dark our village was till last April. I have spent most of my life in a night like this,” said Jehan, who lives in a village in Uttar Pradesh, an impoverished state in India. She is also a community organizer and a solar power proponent in her village, which previously was plunged into darkness every day after sundown. Her village got a solar plant earlier this year thanks to a project run by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Her life changed not just because her children could study late into the night or because she could step out of her house after 8 pm, or because the doctor would stay at his clinic even after sundown, or because she now had a business of her own — it also changed because she could charge her mobile. “My husband spends eight to ten months outside the state on work. But now I could talk to him,” said Jehan with disarming honesty. The audience responded with giggles.
There are 300 million people living without electricity in India. The question of what power can bring to the poorest regions of the country is a facile one. It is quite obvious that it is not just about a lightbulb. “Every human being has the right to a decent life,” said Ashok Khosla, chairman of Development Alternatives, a Delhi-based organization that focuses on sustainable development. Electricity “is a human right and you don’t need economic or social justifications for it. It is obvious that it is a huge multiplier in terms of education or business opportunities. Second one, which I hear about in villages, is safety. It isn’t about just creepy crawlies or snakes but about electricity that powers the water pump, which means you don’t have to walk miles for water. One woman told me about her village seeing fewer robberies because they didn’t have to go to get water,” he said.
Khosla’s organization works on providing decentralized, affordable power via micro grids to villages that are still off the grid. “You have to make it commercially viable otherwise it won’t work. We have to make it cheap enough. People are now used to paying for services,” said Khosla. But to get to cheap power, someone has to subsidise it somewhere. Khosla said that this would demand imaginative solutions. Jehan pays about $2 for power (for light and a mobile charging point) for a month. Khosla explained that this is possible because someone, whether a telecom tower or a flour mill, is paying a much higher rate.
The imagination that Khosla talks about is not limited to providing the solution to the power problem, but can also be used to envision a fresh, new India, like Sanchaita Gajapati Raju did. Her organization, SANA (Social Awareness, Newer Alternatives), uses solar power to run plants that provide clean water for drinking and for flushing bio-toilets in areas that don’t have sanitation. But SANA’s projects do much more than that — they are trying to dissolve caste barriers in Indian villages. Caste is used in India to draw divides, to discriminate, which has severe economic and social repercussions.
In a bid to correct this kind of discrimination, Raju started putting up her water plants in the Dalit (lower caste) areas in a village. Villages often are constructed in a divisive manner, with the upper and lower castes on different sides. “When you talk about breaking a barrier, the first thing you need to do is start a conversation. Villages are not big happy families. We believed that upper caste would find affordable clean water a big enough incentive to walk over to these areas and at least have an opportunity to possibly remove these cobwebs of discrimination. It won’t happen overnight but over time,” said Raju.
Jehan’s story illustrates the many layers of empowerment that electricity can bring. Thanks to the solar plant, she now has a business — creating small, packaged snacks. Deepali Khanna, senior associate director, Rockefeller Foundation, remembered how Jehan, after she got power, went door to door telling everyone about how it transformed her life.
Jehan, who had already charmed the summit audience, then spoke with a quiet confidence, holding the microphone close to her chest. She grabbed a bright red packet of her snack, which she sells in local markets, and raised it to show the audience: “This is it! It is called Dhamaka Namkeen (Big Bang Snack). Please buy it!”