A public sector company successfully took solar lighting systems to a sceptical tribal population in Bastar.

In 2008, the public sector company, Central Electronics Limited, undertook a major solar electrification programme in the tribal villages of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. It was co-funded by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The programme aimed to utilise CEL's solar photo voltaic (SPV) technology to electrify 90 tribal villages.

A team of CEL engineers with experience in operating in forest areas was formed. It interacted with officials at the district and block levels to collect logistics data and decide on a plan of action. The team was aware that it should be careful not to interfere with the lifestyle and customs of the tribal communities. It realised that basic services such as moving of materials should be entrusted with the tribal people in order to create in them a sense of participation. The team needed to have on board at least one local person who could communicate with the tribals in their language and to inform them about the objectives of the project. That person had to let them know how the project would improve their lives, and he had to train them in the use of the systems.

The villages were spread over two blocks. One was Bhopalpatnam, which had 46 villages and bordered Maharashtra. The other was Usoor, which had 44 villages and bordered Andhra Pradesh in Bhopalpatnam tehsil.

Officials at the district, block, tehsil and village level were briefed. From the start the reaction was positive; they were all willing to help and cooperate. The team visited each site and conducted micro-level surveys. It collected demographic, geographic and topographical data and accessed micro-scale maps with the help of the tehsil office of Bhopalpatnam.

A command centre was needed in view of the difficulties of approach, infrastructure, and availability of basic amenities. It was decided that Bijapur town in Dantewada district was the most suitable. However, Bijapur lacked some basic amenities needed for a command centre. There was a telephone link with subscriber trunk dialling facility, but it used to go dead for days on end. There was no cell phone coverage. Water and electricity supply were erratic. The availability of groceries was dicey, and medical personnel were scarce. The team-members would have to negotiate narrow, muddy and rocky terrain, most of it occupied by Naxalites.

The people lived their lives in seclusion, cut off from the world. Interactions with them had to be handled with care and sensitivity. They were simple folk, mostly hunter-gatherers and farmers, their sustenance dependent on the forest. They were under Naxalite influence and refused to receive any help from any organisation that even “smelled” of the government — even if CEL was there to set up lighting systems for them and provide solar lanterns. When it was explained that they would not have to pay for the electrification, they felt it was too good to be true. The team leader met the Sub Divisional Magistrate, Bijapur and some sarpanches. They concluded that electrifying one village in each block would demonstrate the technology and get the ball rolling.

The electrification involved the setting up of solar home lights, lanterns and TV sets in the 26 homes in the community, in addition to street lights. The house-roofs were made of mud and grass and would not stand the weight of the panels; these had to be mounted separately. The electrification of the first village, Mattimarka in Bhopalpatnam block, did not catch any attention. They were still sceptical.

After a meeting with the SDM, the team decided to target an influential village called Fulgundam for electrification. It was deep in the reserve forest, but had a number of neighbouring villages that were to be beneficiaries. Access involved a risky journey through narrow tracks, some of them booby-trapped by the Naxalites.

Fulgundam proved to be a turning point. The village, which used to be pitch dark after sunset, now glittered even after 10 p.m. The villagers' lives had been transformed. The news spread in the forest like wildfire and people from neighbouring villages came there to see the “magic” lights lit by sunlight. This led to a chain reaction, which enabled the electrification of almost all the villages in Bhopalpatnam block without any resistance. Indeed, the project received strong all-round support.

But after 10 villages were electrified, the chief Naxalite in the area sent for the CEL team leader. The team was asked to leave the villagers alone. But the team leader was determined to complete the project and re-establish the people's faith in the government. He succeeded, after six hours of discussion, to convince the Naxalites to let the team continue the work. He presented a series of arguments. He pointed out that CEL was a company owned by the Indian people and without any collaboration with multinational corporations; so it deserved the Naxalites' support. He promised that CEL would not exploit any natural or human resource of Bastar. The systems were being provided free of cost, and would be maintained by CEL for five years. One youth from each village would be trained by the company for “first-line” maintenance and receive a salary from CEL. After this crucial meeting, CEL's jeep was never stopped in the Bhopalpatnam block.

Despite the successful completion of the project in Bhopalpatnam block, Usroor block continued to refuse to accept help. The CEL team tried to target an influential village, Kotapalli on the Andhra-Chhattisgarh border that had a Telugu-speaking population. In order to liaise better with the people, Telugu-speaking officials were brought from CEL's Bangalore office. The success story of this village again led to other villages falling in line and readily accepting the gift of lighting. Seven weeks later, all the 44 villages in Usroor block had been electrified.

The electrification of 90 villages in Bastar district rekindled the people's faith in “their” government. However, as was to be expected, this reduced the Naxalite influence in the area. They realised that it was their fault to have allowed even CEL engineers who, to them were “government officials,” to operate in the area. The Naxalites then warned the team never to return there.

The CEL team was able to overcome formidable technical, logistical, behavioural and cultural challenges, an initial hostile reaction from the tribals and many a close call with Naxalites. But it found it all worth the trouble; for the team-members knew they had brought light to some of the poorest and most remotely located fellow citizens and transformed their lives.

(The author is Deputy General Manager, Solar Photo-Voltaic Group, CEL.)

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