A Solar Journey: Reaching the remotest villages
Deploying Solar in Sarda Village, Odisha, India
The absence of a road initiated a journey to a remote village located in a forest in Odisha, India. The village, Sarda Gram Panchayat, is actually a cluster of five villages and is located in a dense forest near the Sambalpur District of Odisha. The remoteness of the villages has severed ties to development work—energy access, education, health facilities and other services all have hit a roadblock. None of the 331 households in the villages have electricity and all of them rely on subsidized kerosene or battery-powered torches for lighting. Given this bleak situation, the government has responded by placing the village under the supervision of Member of Parliament (MP) Nagendra Pradhan through the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana scheme (SAGY) to actively initiate development. Since its adoption under SAGY, the MP’s key focus has been off-grid solar lighting. The team’s purpose in visiting the villages was to understand if Sarda could be an ideal case for leapfrogging from darkness to accessing light using modern energy services through renewable energy.
· Sarda is located in Ushakothi Wildlife Sanctuary Reserve, a National Forest Reserve.
· This remoteness limits development works (like roads and electricity) since the access route is through the forest.
· The forest department has denied clearance to many development works, cutting off market linkages for these villages and reducing incomes.
· Residents of the 331 households in these villages belong to different tribal groups.
· Sustenance agriculture is the predominant occupation of all households.
Energy access is a prerequisite for basic services like cooking, lighting, transportation, education, healthcare, etc.. Sarda’s remote location in a dense forest cuts off its market linkages and increases the challenge of making electricity accessible for all households and other basic services. Given these limitations, solar off-grid is a solution that can provide home lighting and simultaneously boost the village economy by offering solutions linked to livelihoods. For example, solar-based appliances like solar-powered cold storage can help supplement incomes of the largely agrarian and forest-dependent villagers by allowing them to store their produce and increase its shelf life until it reaches the nearest market.
A few solar initiatives are installed in the villages, for example: solar-based ground water pumps for drinking for the community, solar street lighting and a solar-powered banking outlet. However, at the household level, kerosene continues to be the main source of lighting. Given the large impacts of kerosene on health and on the climate, there is an urgent need to deploy clean home lighting solutions in each of the 331 households.
There are stark contrasts in lighting expenditures for rural and urban households. While urban households receive subsidies for grid electricity, rural households often get penalized for their remote location. For example, the people of Sarda Gram Panchayat have to walk to the nearest government shop to purchase three litres of kerosene a month and travel 10 kilometres (with no road access) to the nearest town to purchase three pencil batteries. Their monthly lighting expenditure is INR 84. Contrast this with urban households in the City of Bhubaneswar, where poor households receive subsidized grid electricity at INR 80 per month for 300 units. Occasionally these urban households don’t pay their bills and the penalty is written off. Unfortunately, the energy expenditure of rural households does not reveal the hardships experienced by accessing the dirtier fuel.
This back-of-the-envelope calculation has other implications: the quality of grid lighting surpasses that of kerosene and torches, as the latter have lower lumens. With adequate lighting, the number of wild elephant attacks will also decrease. Choice of lighting fuel also has gender implications and a lack of lighting restricts the movement of women away from their homes.
The visit to the villages revealed that techniques used for reviewing and monitoring by the district administration can be crucial for influencing the pace of development. One of the simplest techniques to increase the pace of work was a regular monthly visit to the village by the most senior district official. On these monthly visits, he commanded that all department officials travel with him to discuss the pace of work with the villagers, to make the officials directly responsible to the villagers and also explain the importance of schemes—from sanitation to education, etc.—to increase their adoption. His commitment resulted in many other development works being executed: hostels for boys and girls, a football field, banking access, a cellphone tower, agricultural pilots like mango orchards, sweet corn farming and irrigation works, among others.
Sarda maybe remotely located and in need of many development projects, but it is reassuring to note that both the district administration and elected officials are determined to ensure Sarda’s place on the map is not lost.