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Multiple uses of solar lamp transform an Indian village

13 November 2009

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In a remote village, without electricity and telephone, in south-west India, a modified solar lamp is helping to dispel darkness and facilitating communication. A tiny plug point to the lamp's base allows charging of mobile batteries and watching television.

Wagharwadi is a village swaddled in shadow. Without electricity, the 17 houses in this
Thane's Shahapur talukahave learnt to make the most of the sun. A plastic plate – an improvised skylight – channels light into the kitchen for the woman of the house to distinguish the salt from the cereal.

Image credits: Times of India/ A socket built into the solar lamp has opened up communication lines

After seven in the evening, two candles and a kerosene lamp are laid out. If householders hear the rustle of snakes inside the hut, they make torches of sticks of wood and start a search. In the last year, however, the solar lamp has replaced burning twigs.

Almost every household here has one - and it's just a minor modification that has ignited demand for the solar lamp. Electronics entrepreneur Kumaar Thakkar added a tiny plug point to the lamp's base, and suddenly villagers, who had earlier said the lamp – costing Rs 1,600 – was too expensive, wanted one.

"After Kumaarsahab rigged the lamps to power mobile phones, they're in great demand," says Pandhari Nuruti Basme, a 21-year-old who sells solar lamps in the village.

The modified lamp has sparked a revolution of sorts: It has allowed communication in a place without telephones. Shivram Bhagat, a 23-year-old who ferries people from Kasara to Goti, has three ‘mobiles’.

"We never had phones in the village," he says, fingering his handset. "If we wanted to talk to family or friends, we had to walk to the surrounding villages - sometimes more than an hour one way," he says.

It was the men with city jobs who first brought cellphones to the villages over a year ago. But without electricity, few wanted to buy it. "The few villagers who had mobiles would charge them in Kasara or Igatpuri. It cost them Rs 5 for a full charge," says Pandhari.

Once the 'mobile-charging batti' was advertised, not only did lamp sales climb, but cellphones too. "Eight of the 17 houses in Wagharwadi have mobiles," Bhagat says. "We have pre-paid connections and monthly top up for Rs 50."

Solar power arrived in the village a few years ago when Kumaar assembled portable solar lamps that worked on 30 LEDs (light emitting diodes) and a sixvolt battery to dispel darkness in the village. He donated five lamps to the local ashramshala, and offered to sell more to the villagers.

The better-off villagers who worked at construction sites or with the railways at Shahapur, Igatpuri and Kasara bought the lamps but grumbled about how much they had to shell out.

Dharma Goma Bhagat, who walks three hours to work in Kasara and back everyday, says, "I had to buy the lamp even though it is expensive. There's no electricity, so what choice did I have."

Those who couldn't afford to pay the amount outright were offered the lamp on instalments of Rs 100 a month.

"The battery lasts up to 12 hours in summer and four hours during the monsoon," says Pandhari, who has converted 10 of the 17 houses in Wagharwadi to solar power. He has, to date, sold 60 lamps.

Clean energy is exorcising the evils of accidental fires, respiratory problems and failing vision. With the ‘battery’, the villagers sleep later and accomplish more indoors than they did before.

"All they have to do is leave the solar panel on their roof through the day," says Pandhari, who has learnt to fix minor problems like a broken switch. Solar lamps save villagers the Rs 100 they used to spend every month on candles and kerosene. Instead of spending Rs 1,200 a year on fuel, they now get 10 years of light for Rs 1,600.

Though the promise of light was seductive, the price was too steep - until the socket was added. And now, the villagers of Wagharwadi have just discovered, through their own tinkering, another advantage of the solar lamp. Plug a tiny six-volt television into the solar socket, and you've got compressed cricket. Pandhari may consider marketing mini TVs now.

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