Chairman of SELCO Solar, Harish Hande has been in the sustainable energy space for the last two decades. His aim has been to address poverty by sustainable technologies. In addition to providing mini solar equipment that suits the Indian environment, the company helps those in the rural areas earn their livelihood, for which he was conferred with the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011. In spite of global accolades, unassuming Harish values humanity beyond all. Excerpts from an interview where he reminisces about his education.
“I went to Ispat English Medium School in Rourkela, Orissa. As a student I hardly passed in exams during my elementary classes,” says Harish. “Being a last rank holder in class used to be a routine every year. It was only after class IX that I developed interest in studies, mainly due to the concern and support from some of my classmates. That is when I started getting engrossed in science and mathematics.”
“My mathematics teacher R.N. Das,” elaborates Harish, “eased the difficulty associated with maths. After that, maths was not a mere subject for me. I internalised it as a means to understand things. Credit should also go to Ms. Baligar who was my class teacher for three years. She never lost hope in my ability despite my consistent poor performance. This led to my transformation from an unresponsive kid to an attentive one.”
Harish has fond memories of his school town Rourkela. With a spark in his eyes, he elaborates, “Being a company town, Rourkela comprised people from all over the country. As children, when we thought of a Punjabi household, all that used to come to our mind was the smell of cholebature . None of us had rigid views based on people’s cultural and religious identities.” The diversity of culture, food, and the environment of Rourkela had an impact on the young Harish, who credits it for imparting values of humanity in him.
Harish completed his B.Tech. at IIT Kharagpur in the late 1980s. He confesses, “I had never thought of pursuing a degree in energy before joining IIT. As my rank matched the college, I happened to enrol in IIT Kharagpur. However, during my engineering, I was moved by the vision and commitment of two professors to the field of energy — Y.P. Singh and V.G. Rau. Back then, I thought large-scale solar panels would change the energy equations in India.” Thus, he set out to do an integrated M.S. and Ph.D. programme at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “But, my thesis supervisor, Prof. Hussain Martin, asked me to look at small solar systems instead of large ones. We wrote a joint paper discussing how small solar units would make a huge difference to developing countries. I presented it in IISc Bengaluru and IIT Delhi. Sadly, both premier institutions rejected it on the grounds of practicality and economic value. Despite the discouragement, I could set up SELCO only because of the confidence Martin had instilled in me and my research,” he admits.
On what he cherishes the most about his Ph.D., he says, “The field works. When I used to speak to people in Indian villages, I could not reach out to them. When I compared my interactions with people in Cuba, Sri Lanka, and other countries, I realised my degrees had become a barrier to communicate in India. It taught me how to dissolve barricades of status, qualification, culture, and talk to people from an equal platform. This is something I have carried forward till this day.”
Failure is not everything
Based on the trajectory of his life, he says, “I urge parents not to freak out when their kids fail in exams as I am a living example of how one can still be successful in life after failing five out of six subjects in school. Teachers and parents need to look at alternative possibilities, as a failed engineer might possess the calibre to become a famous artist. Potential of a bean cannot be judged from its pale coloured pod; a child’s 360° persona has to be unravelled, and for that students might have to explore different routes before carving out a vocation for themselves.”