Electricity from rice husk. Job opportunities for local people. Empowering women. How two young men are changing the face of villages in Bihar.

It is around 9.00 p.m. Eleven-year-old Kiran has only two hours to finish her chapter on linear equations before the light goes out. So, in the next two hours, she scribbles away for dear life without once looking up at her visitor. As the clock strikes 11, the single bulb in the small hut flickers as it goes off. Like the cloudy night sky above, the room is now pitch dark.

Welcome to Tamkuha, a remote farming village in Bihar’s West Champaran district. Like thousands of villages across India, Tamkuha too was once locked in darkness and silence. “Dacoits once roamed here, kidnapping, murdering, looting and raping,” says Kishore Singh, a village elder. “Everyone huddled inside their homes after 5.00 p.m. People rarely let their women venture out of the house.”

But there was no guarantee of safety inside their homes. “When there is no light and no electricity, it’s hard to spot even one’s own hand, leave alone snakes and scorpions. So almost every day we would hear of someone dying,” says Sonu Yadav, a local. “Every night, we would wait for the sun to rise, so it could rescue us.”

Neglected by the state government, the villagers endured the administration’s apathy and accepted that their lives were “a fate they were born with”. But things changed when two young men — Gyanesh Pandey and Ratnesh Yadav — bought some land in the village and set up a power plant that used rice husk to produce low-cost, efficient and clean electricity. On August 15, 2007, the plant became operational and the villagers got the gift of light. “In the local Maithili language, Tamkuha means ‘fog of darkness’. The village was finally liberated from this fog on India’s 60th Independence Day,” says Ratnesh Yadav, COO of Husk Power Systems.

Tamkuha today stands as a success story of people who leapfrogged from darkness to development. Till six years ago, girls like Kiran in this part of rural Bihar had no access to books. But today they are studying, dreaming and hoping. “She has been able to study very hard. That is why, last year, she came first in the entire village,” says Baldev Singh, Kiran’s proud father.

Baldev, a Dalit farmer, has only 1.5 bighas of land and, till Husk Power came, his family of six survived on what little he could produce and sell. But for the last four years, he has been working as a husk off-loader at the power plant, earning Rs.4,000 every month. Baldev first got a hand pump installed within his hut so that his wife and kids don’t have to walk long distances to fetch water. With the remaining income, he feeds his family and pays for the education of his son and two other daughters. “I need not worry about Kiran, as Husk Power is helping pay for her education,” he says. The company funds the education of 200 other girls in the village.

In the six years since electricity touched Tamkuha, the village has managed to catch up with at least 20 years of development. Hit music blasting from laptops in mobile shops now greets visitors. “Although only 30 per cent of the households has got a TV, almost everyone here has a video mobile phone. So people go to mobile shops and get movies downloaded into their handsets for as little as Rs. 50,” says Aditya Wardhan, an electronics engineer with Husk Power. Aditya’s Samgung Galaxy Tab is the village’s current sensation.

For as little as Rs.150 a month, a household gets electricity to light two 15W CFL bulbs for six hours and for unlimited cell phone charging, no mean feat in a state like Bihar where 85 per cent of the population still has no access to electricity. “Earlier, we would go the rice mill owners to charge our phones for Rs.5-10 an hour. If there were long queues, it would mean leaving our phone there for a day,” says Sonu, a villager.

While electrical, photocopying, fax and mobile shops are a recent addition to Tamkuha’s streets, even traditional businesses like tailors and cloth merchants have benefited. “The average income level in the village has risen by at least 60 per cent, so people are spending more on clothes and other items. Earlier, I could save only Rs.100-150, now I work longer hours and save Rs.500-600,” says 40-year-old Bashir Alam, proud owner of ‘New Bombay Fashion Tailors’.

With electricity, children are able to study longer and get better grades. The older ones are being sent to the nearby town of Gorakhpur to study for competitive exams. Women are able to cook without worrying about insects crawling into their food and no longer risk burns from smoky kerosene lamps. Dacoits have long fled the village and animal attacks don’t happen anymore.

Apart from the electricity and the improvements it has wrought, there’s another change happening in Tamkuha. Ratnesh says, “Husk Power’s mission is not just electrification but empowerment.” And nowhere is it more visible than on the faces of the women.

Afreena, 46, is among the 200 women who come from nearby villages to work at the agarbatti factory set up by Husk Power after it realised that even husk char has calorific value. Afreena earns Rs.2,500 a month for making three quintals of incense sticks every day and this, she says, has given her a new confidence. “From a passive onlooker, I’m now an active participant in my house. So whether it’s about my son’s marriage or white-washing the house, my husband knows he has to involve me in the decision-making,” says Afreena, as she secures her cell phone tightly in one end of her sari before she dips her hands in the black tar. “Who gave you the cell phone?” I ask. “I demanded one from my husband as I need to coordinate with other women workers and the factory supervisor,” she says. Afreena is the one in charge here and is responsible for taking care of the other women’s needs.

She narrates how her husband and other men in the village opposed their working. “Traditionally the women stay in the house while men work. But why stay trapped in the home all day and quarrel with your husband when you can go out and earn?” asks Afreena. “If a man does not let his wife work, we gherao his house and protest till he lets her go,” she says.

In the six years since they began, Husk Power Systems has changed the fate of Tamkuha and 84 other villages across Bihar, providing electricity to over 200,000 people and employing 300 locals. The company has even expanded operations to other parts of India and also Africa. Through their ingenious biomass gasifier, the company has delivered what villages like Tamkuha need the most: hope for a better future.

“People in Tamkuha are opening up. More and more people are prioritising education. My own thinking has changed. Now I also want to stay here and improve my village,” says 24-year-old Rajesh Gupta. It is indeed a sign of the times and changing attitudes that the village school has been rebuilt bigger than the local temple.

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