Mahatma Gandhi said the ultimate solution for fighting poverty in India was not mass production but production by the masses. If we are to contain massive migration from the rural areas to the urban; if we are to preserve the rich traditional knowledge, village skills and practical wisdom in Bharat from fast disappearing into the slums of Mumbai and Delhi; if we are to protect and improve the quality of life in villages, then we have to apply the Gandhian model
to solar electrification of villages and think out of the box. We have to trust and believe in the capacity and competence of ordinary people to identify technical problems and offer simple technical solutions. Urban India thinks that just because there are millions of families living in Bharat which cannot read or write, they cannot think clearly for themselves or act responsibly.
What we definitely don’t need are $1,000-a-day consultants from the World Bank and international donor agencies producing voluminous reports to tell India the infinite advantages of business models. What Bharat, and the rural poor, need is an indigenous Gandhian solution where the control, management and ownership of the technology lie in the hands of the people themselves. This argument is entirely based on common sense. It is absurd to force an urban solution on a rural problem. If we don’t involve the people in decision-making from the very beginning, top-down multi-million dollar solar projects currently being planned in India will become colossal failures.
The Gandhian model is a partnership “Make in India” model that believes in inclusion and development with dignity, where everyone is treated as an equal and everyone benefits. The “business model” thrives on greed and profit. It is a cold insensitive money transaction. The humane and compassionate element is totally missing from it. It increases inequality between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. Those who can afford will install it. And those who cannot? Take a loan and be harassed for life. With the negative mindset of managers in rural banks in remote villages, the poor would rather continue to use kerosene, candles, torch batteries and wood for light than step into a bank. There is not one remote village in the world where a business model has ensured the whole village benefits and is 100 per cent electrified. There is not one non-electrified village where a business model has a proper repair and maintenance system of solar systems and solar lanterns at the village level because it is not “cost effective”. Most of the entrepreneurs live in cities and once the systems are sold, the purchaser becomes an instant stranger. The annual maintenance contract is a farce. For servicing, they have to travel to the cities several hours away.
With the Gandhian partnership model, the whole village is involved when the fixed solar systems are installed in every house. There is a continuing relationship filled with warmth, companionship, intimacy, trust and sharing — aspects money cannot buy or sell.
India might need a high tech pro-business model to show the world they are going to produce enough solar panels to electrify villages, but what Bharat needs are solar systems that the poor can make in the villages and maintain themselves. They are not dependent on anyone from outside the village.
Let centralised solar power plants be installed in cities and towns in India and make them “smart” in the process. But let Bharat adopt a demystified decentralised model where poor rural people without formal education are trained to fabricate, install, repair and maintain their own solar
systems. The Gandhian model believes solar technology must not deprive people of work in villages. Technology that will improve the quality of life immediately and tangibly must be selected. Initially, the choice of solar technology should be such that the people could maintain it themselves.
The Gandhian model of training requires thinking outside the box. The focus is
on training only rural women. Select women from only non-electrified dhanis and kasbas who have never been to school or college and train them to be solar engineers. We should never underestimate the capacity and competence of illiterate rural women to pick up the most sophisticated of solar technologies and become solar engineers in six months. They, in turn, could train the youth of the villages to be barefoot solar engineers.
It would be unwise to train younger men. The formal educational system has made them think that to stay in a village is demeaning. All the youth want is to acquire some skill so that they can leave their village and look for a job in a city. The only people we
find in villages today are the very old and
the very young. So why not empower old women to be solar engineers? They will stay and serve their communities and pass their knowledge and skills to the young.
It is about empowering women to assemble solar systems in Bharat. Train them to
be entrepreneurs to fabricate, install, repair and maintain solar systems in their own villages. Stop issuing certificates that do not have any value today and concentrate only on practical skills that will make a visible difference to the lives of people. Save millions of litres of kerosene from polluting the environment. Instead of subsidising the rich indirectly, subsidise the solar systems directly on the condition that the poor pay for the repair and maintenance. Demonstrate how solar electrified villages can be totally self-sufficient. This will generate over 50,000 jobs in the rural areas and prevent migration. This is not a dream on paper. It is actually happening. But Piyush Goyal, the minister for new and renewable energy, has not had time to hear how it could be scaled up all over Bharat.
The writer is the founder of Barefoot College, Tilonia.