This tiny village in Ladakh might be frozen in time, but its initiative to harness renewable energy has led to all-round empowerment
“Stupid TV,” Rigzen Tsomo mutters in the local Bodhi language as she taps her black & white TV set hard enough to get the reception back. “There…,” she smiles and returns to her seat.
“Main samay hoon…,” says a man on the screen. “It’s Mahabharat!” I shout in excitement and turn to Rigzen. She looks at me, nods and quickly returns to watching the serial.
Udmaroo village in Ladakh is a civilization away from civilization. After a nine-hour journey from the capital Leh that involves trekking across two mountains, crossing a flower valley and a river, one reaches Udmaroo, a bright green triangle located at 10,320ft. This tiny village of 90 farmer families might be frozen 25 years back in time, but in terms of energy generation, it is at least 10 years ahead of all of us.
Ushering in hydropower
In 2005, the villagers put away their smoky kerosene lamps and a small diesel generator gifted to them by the Army, and approached the Ladakh Ecological Development Group to help them move ahead. Coal-based electricity was never an option for this remote village far away from the national grid. So, the group began to assess the villagers’ needs and feasibility of various types of renewable energy. Within three years, in 2008, Udmaroo was basking in the glow of electricity generated from a micro-hydro power plant installed in a glacier stream above the village.
Though just a power plant, in no time, it became a matter of pride, a source of income and a generator of happiness for the people of Udmaroo. Households got electricity to run their appliances. Children could play music and watch TV. A group of women, who bought an oil extraction machine to crush mustard seeds and apricot kernels, paid Rs.15 an hour for electricity and sold their hourly produce for Rs.80. Excess oil was packaged and sold to the Army for Rs.300. Another women’s group bought a pulping machine, making 750 bottles of apricot jam every year. The men’s carpentry group doubled its income after it purchased an electric wood carving machine. While households paid Rs.90 per month, widows were given free electricity because they have no source of income. And even after all this, the village still had surplus electricity.
To understand what renewable energy is doing in a country like India where 300 million people still have no access to basic electricity, Udmaroo couldn’t explain it better. For the villagers, the hydropower plant didn’t just light up homes. It brought a community together. It gave people the key to control their lives and the power to choose how and when their resources are used. It helped the village save Rs.1.2 lakh that it used to spend every year to buy diesel for the generator. For the government, it is about saving money that it would have spent on importing coal to meet everybody’s energy needs. For environmentalists, it is about saving the climate. For human rights groups, it is about human well-being and poverty reduction. For feminists, it is about women’s empowerment.
Gone are the days when renewable energy meant dim solar lanterns. Small-scale renewable energy power plants are now cheaper, more reliable and more efficient. In Durbuk, in Ladakh, a solar power plant is powering 347 households, a clinic, a school and some government offices. In Tamil Nadu, a panchayat purchased a windmill that is not only providing electricity to the entire village but is also selling the surplus to State utilities and earning profit. In Bihar, a company named Husk Power Systems is using rice husk to generate electricity and supplying it to 250 villages.
Unlike coal that kills everything around it, renewable energy plays a transformational role by uplifting those who were earlier languishing in the dark. But the irony is that clean energy risks being typecast as a poor man’s fuel when it should be everyone’s first choice.
India is currently the world’s third largest carbon emitter. According to the Copenhagen Accord, which India signed along with 167 other countries, 80 per cent of the world’s proven coal, oil and natural gas reserves must remain in the ground in order to avoid warming the planet beyond the internationally agreed limit of 2° Celsius rise in average temperature. To achieve this, renewable energy must come up on a large scale and not as isolated stories of miracles.
From an economic point of view, no one needs proof that India is facing a power crisis. Coal reserves are depleting and getting expensive. Nearly 21 major plants in the country are facing severe coal shortages. In the last fiscal, India imported over 50 million tonnes of the fossil fuel, widening the country’s fiscal deficit to further dangerous levels.
From a social point of view, the government had promised to deliver electricity to the entire population by 2012. But considering that providing electricity to all means providing it for 24 hours of 365 days and not four hours in a day, the government missed the target by a long shot. Worse, it was the same year when India faced the world’s biggest power blackout.
Renewable energy is the need of the hour and it is capable of delivering what India needs. But will we, like the people of Udmaroo, realise it in time?
(Ramapati Kumar is campaign manager, Climate and Energy, Greenpeace India. June 5 is World Environment Day.)