Till recently, life in Sirohi village came to a standstill after sunset. But the solar electrification project, being implemented by The Skilled Samaritan Foundation, will change everything.
In the late summer of 2012, Gauri Agrawal quit her high-paying investment banking job. She wasn’t looking for a job or searching for a purpose but she suddenly found both in a village in the remote corner of Faridabad’s outskirts.
Gauri discovered Sirohi, a village located at a distance of 15 km from Faridabad and almost 40 km from Delhi. Though a poor village, Gauri noticed that Sirohi was beautiful, boasting of pristine little lakes formed by quarrying and the Kot temple sitting atop the hills that surround it. Slowly, an idea began to take shape. Sirohi didn’t need charity; it needed people who wanted to help. It needed to be self-sufficient enough so that, when these people left, the village wouldn’t crumble.
Unable to get Sirohi out of her mind, Gauri made several trips after the first one. She met the villagers, became their friend and an ally.
In 2012, Gauri concretised her intentions by registering The Skilled Samaritan Foundation as a social enterprise under the Companies Act of 1956. Sirohi was to become The Skilled Samaritan’s first village project. Today, the fruits of Gauri’s efforts are obvious.
To begin with, the foundation launched the Sunset Treks, a unique mutually beneficial initiative between city dwellers and the village. For the trekkers, Sirohi would become a temporary and peaceful sanctuary from the noise and mad rush of a city. In the village, the urban crowd would get an opportunity to literally get their hands dirty by chopping vegetables, milking cows and painting the village’s classrooms.
The idea clicked and, after the first walk with 10 people, the number has grown. Gauri charges Rs. 1500 for the walk. The cost includes transport, organic food and water. “The walks are a means to create awareness of our projects as well as raise funds to implement the smaller projects,” she says. These smaller projects include assisting the villagers with handicraft projects and selling them to people over the Internet, as well as introducing the Sirohi farmers to the Pot in Pot refrigeration system, a simple idea developed by a Nigerian lecturer to preserve farm products for longer duration. Then came the bigger and more ambitious project: The Solar Electrification Project.
It didn’t take long for Gauri and her team to notice that Sirohi faced an acute electricity shortage and the darkness after sunset forced people to stay indoors. The solutions, in the form of kerosene lamps and dim wax candles, were not good enough. The Solar Electrification Project has become a beacon of hope and relief for a village that has learned to live in darkness. This time, apart from the Sunset Trekkers, The Skilled Samaritan Foundation has found collaborators in Engineers Without Borders, India (EWB-India), Bechtel Corporation, which is funding the project as part of its CSR initiative, and the National Power Training Institute (NPTI).
“We couldn’t believe that this would actually happen in our village,” says Sawan, a craftsman from Sirohi. “Gauri has already done a lot for us, but this programme will change our lives. Every single person will benefit from it. Our children will be able to study better. We can work at night also now, and produce much more.”
According to the data from the India Human Development Survey 2012 by the NPTI Student Chapter, the average village in Haryana receives 9-11 hours of electricity supply a day. Sirohi, on the other hand, receives only five hours. Also, some houses complain of faulty or inflated electricity bills and this holds back others from applying for a regular electricity connection. Currently, only 203 households in Sirohi have regular electricity connections.
It didn’t take long for Gauri, and her core team of Kartik Sharma and Tarun Nanda, to notice that Sirohi needed help. The initial assessment submitted by the foundation and the NPTI Student chapter to The Bechtel Corporation proposed the installation of two solar powered LEDs in each Sirohi household. The EWB-India’s Delhi/NCR chapter, along with the Bechtel Corporation, appraised the assessment and, after techno-commercial evaluation of available options, decided to install an individual solar system in each Sirohi home. The product model, Luminous SHL-10, includes 10W solar panel, two LEDs of 3W each, one portable torch, a port for charging mobiles and an AC adaptor. The entire installation will be done in three phases over a period of six months and will cover every house in Sirohi. The first phase for 50 houses started in July 2013.
“Our 16-member team comprising NPTI students has worked tirelessly for this project. We are thankful for the persistent cooperation of our peers. As the first phase nears completion, we feel proud as our efforts are recognised and are looking forward towards the second phase of Project Sirohi,” says Deepak Kumar, vice president, EWB-NPTI Chapter. The involvement of volunteers from colleges has given the project a further impetus. Nineteen-year-old Megha Nair feels that she has gained more than she has given by being part of this project. “Project Sirohi has proved to be a dynamic experience. Through the needs-and-demands assessment, I gained an insight into the lives of rural people. I also participated in the basic research and implementation part of the project, which has enhanced my technical skills.”
Gauri is particularly careful to ensure that the project isn’t viewed as charity by the villagers. “The villagers are extremely supportive and have been involved in implementation. They will also be contributing financially so they understand the value of the services provided to them,” she adds. The village sarpanch has galvanised the villagers too, encouraging active community involvement for the duration of the project. As per EWB-India guidelines, this project needs to be sustainable for at least five years.
To sustain the project after completion and to involve the community, a Village Energy Committee (VEC) will be formed. At least 4 villagers from Sirohi including the village headman will be among the members and the committee will be guided by two volunteers from EWB-India. Its will oversee the commissioning of the solar project in consultation with EWB-India and NPTI Student Chapter, collect monthly energy charges (Rs. 70) from the villagers, open a separate bank account to deposit the charges, remove the solar system installed in individual houses if they default in payment for two consecutive months and use the funds collected to maintain the current solar solution and for further development in the village as decided by the VEC. On June 7, 2013, the sarpanch, along with the villagers, agreed to the proposal.
Gauri’s frequent visits to the village, along with her efforts to bring about a permanent change, have strengthened her bond with the villagers. She hopes to establish this bond with other villages and replicate it in other places that need help. “Our aim is for Sirohi to be a self- sustaining community where the locals eventually take ownership of the projects we help implement and take charge of their lives. We do not have an estimated time but hope for projects in sanitation, water, waste management and education to kick-start within the next two years.”
Sirohi has its fair share of problems. It faces numerous crises that are everyday stories in hundreds of villages scattered across the landscape of our country. But, today, as the sun sets behind the picturesque hills, life in this little hamlet won’t come to a standstill. Finally, the villagers in Sirohi will do something we usually take for granted. They’ll turn on the lights, and go right back to what they were doing.