Harish Hande, the Bangalorean who has won the Magsaysay Award for Right Livelihood, tells Deepa Ganesh that hope lies in rural India
Walk into the IIT Kharagpur campus and in huge letters you find at the entrance: “To serve the nation”. Every day, during Dr. Harish Hande's student years, as he walked into the campus, these words troubled him. “Which nation?” he often wondered. “Our hostel fee was Rs. 10, and the annual fee was Rs. 25, and each student had three computers! Our education was completely subsidised by the government. Indian tax payers were funding our education, but at the end of it, most IITians go abroad to study further or on work. I used to feel very disturbed by this …,” recalls the 43-year-old Harish, the Bangalorean who is among the two Indians who have won the Magsaysay Award for Right Livelihood, 2011.
Recalling his schooling and growing up years at the Rourkela Steel Plant Township where his father worked, Harish says: “I got the best of education. It was nothing like the elitist upmarket International schools of today, yet top notch. Everyone, from the peon's children to the manager's kids went there, but the pressure to excel was very much there.” Harish says how even during a game of cricket, the wicket keeper and the batsman were often talking about how to solve a math problem. “If you don't make it to the IIT you are useless, that's how it was. Invariably, most of us did.” Much like his classmates, Harish went to Massachusetts to do his Master's and Ph.D. in Energy Engineering, and here he met Richard Hansen from Dominican Republic who had developed a sustainable energy model in and around his village, way back in 1984 itself. “I was very moved by what he had done. I decided that if I could in some way give back all that I had received from my country, it would be by changing the lives of the poor.”
Harish went straight to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, and lived in those villages for nearly six months working on a feasible sustainable energy model. “I wasn't sure if I would be accepted in the villages of India. I was educated, upper class and hence an outsider. Not knowing the language in Sri Lanka worked to my advantage, it was easier to integrate.” After the initial work, Harish lived and toured rural Karnataka for one and a half years, and by 1995, he got SELCO, a social venture to eradicate poverty by promoting sustainable technologies in rural India, registered. Headquartered in Bangalore, SELCO today has 24 branches in Karnataka and one in Gujarat. They have installed solar lighting units in more than 1,20,000 households in rural Karnataka.
It was not easy, there were many things involved. If 600 million people have to come out of poverty, “enterprises have to look at social, environmental and financial sustainability, all at the same level. It cannot be one over the other,” Harish explains. Also, the needs of the poor are not uniform. The requirement of a street vendor was far different from that of a farmer or a tailor. So after the hectic research and field work, different models of lighting systems were worked out. “But what is the use of all this without setting up an after sales service unit? Crossing this hurdle, the next question before us was affordability. Their income was so meagre, how would they afford this?” Harish approached rural financial institutions and convinced them after endless visits that they had to provide loan to the poor to light up their homes. “Banks were not willing to give loans because solar lighting was not related to income generation, whereas education was. It took me a long time to convince them that they were related,” remembers Harish. “But we have such wonderful rural institutions like Malaprabha Bank, Kaveri Kalpataru Bank, Tungabhadra Grameena Bank and of course our nationalised banks. They have stood by us and shared our conviction, without which we could not have done this.”
It took a while for Harish and his team to convince households to have solar lights. For instance, Arvind Rai in Dakshina Kannada refused despite several visits. Finally, the system was installed on a day he was not at home. “Even after 52 to 53 years of Independence they had not seen a bulb, and I can't tell you how empowering this was for them.” The response that began to flow in gradually was encouraging. It changed the lives of the people, and now there was impetus on parents to get their children educated – they could come back home and study. Harish is full of stories and the most recent one is of Aishwarya who topped SSLC in 2010. “She called me soon as her results were out, and even wrote a letter. I feel very touched by these experiences. What value will you attach to all this in terms of money?” asks Harish.
Alternate energy systems invariably turn out to be expensive. “Not really. It depends on what your usage is. If you are going to use it for 24 hours, then it is expensive. But say a panipuri vendor uses solar light, it will cost him Rs. 6 a day, whereas kerosene costs Rs. 15 per day. Customising our units for each consumer was our goal and we have achieved it.”
In the name of development we are creating employees out of the poor, says Harish. “Other than agriculture is there any other model where we pump money into the rural economy?” He is sad and angry that we have no business models for rural India that makes poor asset creators. “Only then can we reduce the financial divide. The sustainability of the world depends on the modified business models that look at the poor as asset creators. We have to bring in this paradigm shift.”
The hope lies in rural and semi-urban youth, says Harish. They are brilliantly innovative and are willing to take on challenges unlike middle-class, urban people who want to be “safe” and lack the will to take on any challenge. “The government must stop pumping money into IITs and IISc-s and must invest in rural innovation. They must set up labs and give rural youngsters the necessary expertise. For me, the future lies there,” says Harish.
The nation lies in rural India.