Alternative energy gaining momentum in rural pockets of Madurai, banks focus on solar loans

Dawn is a mere glimmer on the horizon and the city is still plunged in darkness. Its cobbled streets are menacingly dark.

But specks of light pierce the breaking day in villages in Alanganallur block, Madurai East, Madurai West and Melur blocks. The streets are unpaved but streetlights powered by solar energy burn bright, lighting up the dips and curves on the village roads.

Load shedding has now become a way of life in Madurai, but good news is emerging from hamlets – big and small - in rural Madurai.

When The Hindu correspondent visited villages in the interior of Madurai East and Alanganallur, the villagers proudly displayed the solar panels they had installed in their homes.

The prime beneficiaries are the villagers of Kidaripatti, behind Alagarmalai, the abode of Lord Sundararaja Perumal, 25 km from the city. The farm labourers here have embraced the new technology that powers their life.

Ayyavoo, an old man, said, "Earlier, Indian gaurs gave us sleepless nights…Now, with lights on at night, the wild animals have been kept away."

For K. Shanti, a 10th standard student, living in Vallalapatti, the energy tapped through solar power is a boon. "Till recently, I was studying in the chavadi (a common place in the village), where there is light for the villagers to sit and chat. Now, having a CFL light at home is a luxury I enjoy," she said and thanked her parents, farm labourers, for installing the new facility.

Capitalising on the deteriorating power scenario, many solar companies have set up shop in Tier-II cities such as Madurai. Public sector banks are offering loans on soft terms to people, especially those hailing from remote pockets.

The NABARD gives subsidies to different categories, while the State government made it mandatory for heavy energy consumers to install solar panels.

Even Town Planning and Local Body authorities are insisting on builders and realtors setting up solar panels, said M. S. Rajan, channel partner of Sun Edison, a North America-based solar company.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, during her previous tenure, had made it mandatory for every house to have rainwater harvesting (RWH) structures.

This had helped recharge the groundwater level. Likewise, in these days of acute power shortage, educating people to tap solar power is bound to reap good results, Mr. Rajan said and added that Tamil Nadu had the advantage to tap solar energy for 300 days in a year. This would go a long way in making it a power surplus State.

Voluntary organisations such as the Lions Clubs are promoting solar energy in far-flung settlements.

According to S. Nambirajan, senior executive (projects) of SELCO, a for-profit social enterprise, Indian Overseas Bank, Pandyan Grama Bank, among other banks, are offering loans for installing solar panels for people living in remote areas.

The results are promising — hamlets beyond Alagarmalai, which remained without power for so long, are now lit up. Today, huts have at least a single source of lighting.

Mr. Nambirajan recounted how fishermen in a coastal village near Dhanushkodi in Ramanathapuram district have benefited from solar energy. "Till recently, the fishermen, in order to re-charge their mobile phones, had to travel six to eight kilometres to reach the nearest place where electricity was available. After a demo solar panel was installed, the villagers were happy to see that they could re-charge their mobiles right in the village. Today, at least 20 individuals have obtained "solar loans" and installed panels in their houses. Realising the potential, a women’s self-help-group (SHG) is in the "business" of charging mobile phones — Rs. 5 per hour for charging a handset. On an average, it gets Rs. 150 a day," he said.

Sharing yet another success story, he said that Akshara School near Madurai Kamaraj University has a computer laboratory with 30 terminals.

The school had registered for online courses for the students. However, power cuts had put the students in a quandary. A solar power facility was designed exclusively for the lab. "Now, there is absolutely no interruption due to power cuts," school correspondent Kousalya said.

Private engineering colleges and polytechnics, along with a few public sector banks such as Canara Bank in Madurai, are inclined to install solar panels on their premises.

Collector Anshul Mishra said that the State government is promoting solar energy in a big way by giving sops to different categories.

"This is just a beginning towards achieving self-sufficiency. We hope to do it with cooperation from small and big end users," he said.

As Ayyavoo and Shanti bask in the glow of solar-powered light, it looks like solar power has a bright future in Madurai.

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