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Sunday, February 1, 2009

And there was light

Rural electrification is moving at snail’s pace in the state of Jharkhand, with nearly 50% of villages continuing to live in the ‘Dark Ages’. But communities that never knew a light bulb 60 years after India’s Independence, are today generating power themselves and lighting up their homes and villages. And guess from what? Wild putus (Lantana camera) bushes, forest waste and seeds of the karaunj (Pongamia pinnata) tree that is found in abundance in the region. Other unconventional techniques too are being employed to generate power, in collaboration with NGOs and people’s participation at the local level.

It’s the wild scraggly vegetation that is helping light up the remote tribal village of Kachchudag, in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh district. Dominated by the Bedia community of snake-charmers, Kachchudag’s 46 households have pioneered their own way instead of waiting endlessly for the government to provide electricity.

Another village -- Gardih, in Nawadih block, Bokaro district -- has electrified all 100 homes, besides installing 20 streetlights. This is being done using a 5 KVA generator that runs on oil from the karaunj seed!

Then there are 25 tribal households in the remote forested village of Kekoria Tand in Keradari block, Hazaribagh district, that have progressed beyond lanterns thanks to the efforts of a local NGO and a 10 MW capacity micro-thermal plant that’s driven by superheated steam.

“Our generations-long wait for power was futile. The forest waste which was earlier left to decay has today become a very important product for us. Through this, the power-generation capacity in our village is 10 KW, through a biomass gassifier system,” says Jagannath Bedia, a resident of Kachchudag. The mud huts of this village are all aglow with CFL bulbs. And the roads too are lighted.
Child seen studying under CFL light in Kachchudag village

The alternative energy project has received support from the Jharkhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (JREDA). Explaining the process involved, Project Officer, JREDA, Prakash Kumar Das says: “The bio-waste products are burnt in closed containers that release producer gas. This gas is subjected to successive filtrations to remove impurities. It is then fed to the generator to produce power, which is distributed to homes via low-tension poles and wires.”

“Our lives have changed completely. Earlier, the arrival of dusk would almost put an end to our activities for the day. Today, our children can also study in the evenings,” says Lalki Bedia. What’s more, it’s completely pollution-free, says Das. The generator does not emit any toxic fumes as is the case with diesel-run generators. Further, the bio gassifier plant is simple and is run by members of the Van Suraksha Samiti made up of the villagers themselves.

The residents of Gardih are equally enthusiastic. Here, it’s karaunj oil that has changed their lives. The village has its own generator that runs on these bio-diesel seeds. The crushing unit installed in the village has a capacity of 50 kg/hour. Each household has been provided with two CFL bulbs of 11 W each. Twenty streetlights have also been put up across the village.

“We have constituted an Urja Samiti in the village,” says Kalicharan Ganju. The committee has 10 members who are responsible for running the project. For this a monthly contribution is taken from each household, he adds.

According to Das, karaunj seeds have tremendous potential for bio-diesel: barely two litres of the oil can light up 100 homes as well as 20 lamp-posts for three hours every evening.

The karaunj is a deciduous tree that grows up to about 15-25 metres. It sports a wide, thick canopy. Its leaves are soft, shiny and a rich shade of brown or burgundy during early summer that matures to a glossy deep green as the season progresses. Small clusters of white, purple and pink flowers blossom on the branches around the year. These eventually grow into brown seed pods.

The karaunj tree grows wild along the sides of streams and roads in Jharkhand’s forested regions. It adapts well to intense heat and sunlight and can survive drought. Karaunj oil is traditionally used in the state to light earthen lamps during Diwali.

The ease with which karaunj oil has substituted diesel or petrol in Gardih has opened up the possibility of electrifying villages at a fraction of the cost needed to extend transmission lines across remote and far-flung areas, says Dr Sudhanshu Kumar, a botany professor. “It is not easy to get the conventional mode of electrification to such remote villages,” agrees C D Kumar, engineer-in-chief, Jharkhand State Electricity Board, who is also in charge of rural electrification in the state. For one, acquiring forest clearance is a major obstacle, and, two, setting up the requisite transmission infrastructure through dense forests is a challenging job.

Meanwhile, for the villagers of Kekoriatand, Jharkhand’s eighth birth anniversary on November 15 was the happiest day of their lives.

Kekoriatand is remote and inaccessible, located in the forests of Hazaribagh. “No minister, politician or bureaucrat has ever visited us since Independence,” says Kari Munda. But members of the Jharkhand Alternative Development Forum (JADF), who work across the state setting up alternative models of development, did manage to make an entry here when they installed a micro-thermal project.

What better gift could the villagers have got on statehood day when the forum installed and operationalised its first 4 KW-capacity micro-thermal power plant in this remote village, says Prem Prakash, state convenor of the forum.

President of the JADF, Ram Dayal Munda, who is a well-known academician and recipient of the Sangeet Natak Academy award, adds: “The illuminated bulbs in the homes barely matched the glow in the eyes of the villagers.”

The power-generation unit consists of three major components -- a boiler, a steam engine and an alternator. The boiler is internally lined with tubes that carry water that’s heated by burning coal. The water is then transformed into steam which is led through pipes to the inlet of the steam engine. The constant flow of steam drives the steam engine, like the erstwhile railway engine.

The drive from the steam engine is taken to the alternator, and as the steam engine reciprocates, the alternator is driven through a pulley system. The rotating alternator produces an alternating current which becomes the power source to light up the village.

According to Gagri Soren, who was instrumental in mobilising the village for permission to implement the project, the 4 KW unit produces enough power to light up to five CFL bulbs in each of the 40 houses in the village. “The total operating cost comes to Rs 10,000 per month which, when shared between the 40 houses, comes to Rs 250 per house per month. Every house in the village is willing to share the cost,” he says. The generator unit is owned, maintained and operated by the villagers.

Indeed, control of electricity generation and distribution is fully in the hands of the villagers without any governmental support or interference. This is the true spirit and essence of development and people’s empowerment, says Munda. Since the villagers are pooling in both their effort and their money, the project will be implemented through community ownership. Further, there is no big technology involved; local villagers can even be trained in the manufacturing part at a later stage, he adds. The total capital cost of the 4 KW plant is barely Rs 60,000.

The forum will be running the plant on a trial basis for the next two to three months to iron out any problems that may arise. “We are planning to increase the capacity to 10 MW -- that will light up at least 100 households,” Munda adds.

By Moushumi Basu ,a journalist based in Jharkhand.


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