In Tripura, a village moves from darkness to solar-powered light
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Life has changed in Sarkhipara after a micro-grid solar plant was installed a year ago. Rahul Karmakar talks to villagers in the hamlet in Tripura’s Khowai district to chronicle how electricity finally came, and how it has affected their prospects and their daily rhythm

August 20, 2022 03:15 am | Updated September 22, 2022 03:38 pm IST

Solar power illuminates Sarkhipara village in Khowai district of Tripura.

Solar power illuminates Sarkhipara village in Khowai district of Tripura. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Ground Zero |

While others screamed with joy when the sun, condensed into eight-watt LED bulbs strung at irregular intervals from one end of Sarkhipara to the other, shone past dusk on September 10, 2021, Lebirung Reang just smiled. She recalled what Natuharia Reang had said before they got married six years ago — that he could bring the moon and the stars home for her. He had probably meant the sun, the nearest star, she thought.

There was another reason why Lebirung was less exuberant than the 85 other inhabitants of Sarkhipara, which means ‘hilltop hamlet’ in the local dialect. She was the only one who had had the experience of living with electricity at Ompi-Salkhapara, her native village, about 50 km west of Sarkhipara.

Natuharia, a school dropout like his wife and a jhum cultivator, fell for Lebirung after spotting her at her village’s periodic market in 2016. It wasn’t easy for him to change two public vehicles to meet her at Ompi-Salkhapara regularly. He did the next best thing: travel frequently to Chakmaghat 30 km away to charge his mobile battery for ₹10 until it was full, to be able to speak to Lebirung. He did not tell Lebirung that Sarkhipara went to sleep after sunset or used kerosene lamps for emergencies at night. Neither did she ask him if his village had electricity; she just presumed it did.

“Felt like the home I was born in,” Lebirung says, recounting the day the control room of the 2 kWp (kilowatt peak power output) micro-grid solar power plant at Sarkhipara was switched on.

For Natuharia, September 10 wasn’t just the day that power reached his home in the village; it was the day his wife stopped teasing him for bringing her from light to darkness.

A request for light

Sarkhipara, in Tripura’s Khowai district, is about 90 km east of Agartala. Its residents are all Reangs, one of the 19 Scheduled Tribes in the State but the only one recognised as a PTG (primitive tribal group) although the nomenclature today is ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’. According to a 2016 survey by the Tribal Welfare (Tribal Rehabilitation Programme and Primitive Tribal Group) Department, commonly known as TW (TRP and PTG), the population of Reangs in Tripura is 1,85,308. The department was formed in 1985-86 for the rehabilitation of PTGs through the Forest Department in three tribal divisions.

Sarkhipara might probably have been off the State government’s radar had Dilajoy Reang, the most educated among its residents, not written to Jeebonjoy Reang, the district-level chairman of the TW (TRP and PTG) Department, to bail his village out of darkness. His application in 2019 was transferred to the Tripura Renewable Energy Development Agency (TREDA), the State nodal agency for implementing new and renewable energy projects in Tripura.

Reang tribal villagers walk pass by solar plates installed in Sarkhipara village in Khowai district of Tripura.

Reang tribal villagers walk pass by solar plates installed in Sarkhipara village in Khowai district of Tripura. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

“I came to know that the PTG Department was pursuing a solar lighting project in remote villages and hamlets where conventional power was not economically viable. The officials would probably not have taken almost two years to work on my application had COVID-19 not struck,” says Dilajoy, who teaches Bengali at a private school at Gandacherra in the adjoining Dhalai district. Dilajoy studied up to Class 12 in Gandacherra, about 30 km from Sarkhipara. His father had sent him to live with relatives so that he would not end up as a ‘nirakkhar’ (illiterate) like him in Sarkhipara during his formative years.

Hardship-driven migration

Sarkhipara is a cluster of spaced-out hamlets comprising about 300 families. The cluster boasting of the micro-grid solar power plant has 17 families. It is perched on a ridge about 150 metres long and is the nearest to a road constructed in 2018 under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana. One has to ascend a steep slope for about 20 metres from the edge of the road to reach Sarkhipara.

Much of this road has peeled off, which explains why the villagers prefer to walk miles through the jungles for their needs. Chakmaghat is the nearest market for the residents of Sarkhipara. The nearest public health centre is at Teliamura, about 38 km away, while the nearest police station is Mungiakami, about 40 km away on NH8. The nearest school for Sarkhipara’s children is at Nabajoypara, about 4 km away.

“There used to be many families around when I was young. Half of them relocated to Nabajoypara so that their children could reach school faster. Many moved out to Gandacherra and other areas of Dhalai district in search of greener pastures,” says Kharanjoy Reang, Sarkhipara’s ‘Choudhury’, or headman.

But the scenario is changing. Two families returned to Sarkhipara a few months after the micro-grid solar plant was installed. About half a dozen families also moved back to the other hamlets of Sarkhipara hoping to be beneficiaries of a similar solar power project soon.

A Reang tribal woman switches on a solar light in Sarkhipara village in Khowai district of Tripura.

A Reang tribal woman switches on a solar light in Sarkhipara village in Khowai district of Tripura. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

“A 2 kWp solar plant can provide 7-8 hours of power for the basic needs of 15 families. Sarkhipara had exactly 15 families for us to set up the first such plant in Khowai district,” says Swaraj Debbarma, the TREDA project director for Khowai and Dhalai districts.

Sarkhipara falls in Krishnapur Assembly constituency, one of the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes in Tripura. Hopes of electrification in the hamlet were raised after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atul Debbarma upset Communist Party of India (Marxist) heavyweight Khagendra Jamatia in the 2018 State polls. Tripura’s Power Department, of which TREDA is a wing, had calculated that erecting poles and stringing power cables for 14 km from Nonacherra to Sarkhipara would cost more than ₹50 lakh. Nonacherra is the nearest electrified, albeit partly, village from Sarkhipara. The investment for a few scattered settlements which were unlikely to afford the monthly energy bill was deemed unviable. The vote went to a solar plant worth ₹8.5 lakh, inclusive of the photovoltaic panels and storage batteries. “Apart from 15 streetlights and a television set placed at the control room for community viewing, the solar plant generates sufficient power to let each family use three lights, a fan and a socket primarily to charge mobile phones,” Debbarma says.

A stand fan has made a world of difference for Kantirong Reang. She can now choose when to work on the loin loom to weave the ‘rignwai’, a traditional wraparound, and the ‘risa’, a piece that covers the upper part of the body. “Working is cooler now, but more importantly, the fan keeps mosquitoes and other insects away,” she says.

When the intensity of the lights increases, insects sting less, says Abhijit Acharya, a service engineer employed by the Kolkata-based Agni Green Power Limited, the vendor that executes the solar micro-grid project for TREDA. His job is to periodically check how the solar plant performs and troubleshoot any problem.

The only issue that cropped up in almost a year was when two new families — of Tamanjoy Reang and Jabanti Reang — moved in. “Their new huts were not in the initial scheme of things, but the villagers agreed to let them use a solitary bulb. The plant is now servicing 17 families instead of 15,” Acharya says.

The extra load made the villagers regulate the use of the solar power switched on from the control room at 5 p.m. every day. All the streetlights save three – one each at the extreme ends of the longish Sarkhipara and one in the middle – are switched off at 10 p.m. and residents are advised not to stretch their “waking hours” beyond 11 p.m.

A Reang tribal man helps his wife with a solar light while she weaves, in Sarkhipara village in Khowai district.

A Reang tribal man helps his wife with a solar light while she weaves, in Sarkhipara village in Khowai district. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

The control room “manager” is Sekharjoy Reang. He was a natural choice: the control room and the photovoltaic panel are on his plot adjoining his hut. He locks the control room during the day, lets in villagers around twilight to watch television for an hour or two, and handles some minor maintenance work he had been taught to. He has a couple of young deputies to look after the control room whenever jhum cultivation or any other work takes him away from Sarkhipara. “It took a long time for us to get power. We don’t want to lose it because of lack of proper maintenance,” he says.

Growing demand

Few would visit Sarkhipara a year ago. The solar plant has made it a local attraction, particularly at night when the hamlet is bathed in the glow of energy-saver bulbs. “No sooner did we install the micro-grid plant at Sarkhipara than people from other villages demanded solar plants, but many did not have the requisite number of families. We surveyed the area and established micro-grid solar plants at 11 other villages or hamlets,” says Debabrata Sukla Das, TREDA’s joint director who oversees the project. The other villages include Nabajoypara, Karnarampara, Poltonjoy, Battapara, Annarampara, Ranghajari Christianpara and Jenaraipara. “We are in the process of establishing micro-grid solar plants in 50 more remote villages that don’t have electricity. Some 500 other geographically disadvantaged villages across Tripura are also on our radar for solar power connectivity,” he says.

Although Tripura’s Deputy Chief Minister Jishnu Dev Varma and Tribal Welfare Minister Mevar Kumar Jamatia unveiled the Sarkhipara project in September 2021, it was inaugurated a second time virtually by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 30 this year. The local authorities nominated the hamlet’s Kalaiha Reang, a jhum cultivator, to speak with the Prime Minister. “The Prime Minister told me Sarkhipara’s children should now study harder under lights,” Kalaiha says.

But most of Sarkhipara’s children lost touch with their books after the COVID-19 lockdowns. Until a few months ago, the hamlet had only 2G mobile phone connectivity that did not allow online studies. It made more sense for students to sleep than study in the light of kerosene lamps at night.

Subrata Reang, who dropped out of Class 6 about a decade ago, understands that Sarkhipara’s children will have to resist new distractions such as entertainment programmes on the solitary television and their mobile phones as they resume their studies.

“The children will get over the initial enthusiasm. But I had no intention to wait so long and had Merunjoy, my younger brother, admitted to a government-run boarding school at Khumulwng,” Subrata says.

Khumulwng is the headquarters of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) near Agartala. Many of TREDA’s solar projects are in areas under the TTAADC. This is because the remote, unconnected villages and hamlets are within the map of the tribal council.

“The microgrids are one of three solar-powered projects we have been undertaking for more than a year now. The other two are the Grameen Bazaar Alok Jyoti Scheme and the pioneering solar irrigation project dovetailed with the PM-KUSUM scheme,” Mahananda Debbarma, TREDA’s director-general and chief executive officer, says. PM-KUSUM, or the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan, focuses on the energy security of farmers. The Grameen Bazaar Alok Jyoti scheme entails providing solar-powered lights at ‘haats’ or periodic rural markets, and is partially funded by the Central government. TREDA has installed 2,390 solar street lights in 239 rural markets across 12 aspirational blocks. A total of 1,291 rural and interior markets are targeted to be covered under the project by December 2022.

“The rural economy has been suffering because the rural markets that operate once or twice a week could not do business beyond the daylight hours. Unsold perishables would invariably be wasted because of a lack of storage facility and proper connectivity to bigger markets. The business has improved in the sunlit rural markets,” Das says.

Irrigation boost

The biggest game-changer in the rural areas has perhaps been the solar irrigation project that is expected to reduce the dependence of farmers in Tripura on monsoon rains. Neighbours Bokul Debbarma and Paul Debbarma of Baramaidan hamlet vouch for it.

A farmer works in a field in Hwaibari village in Khowai district of Tripura. With the help of a solar power water pump installed by the Tripura Renewable Energy Development Agency, farmers can now grow crops and vegetables throughout the year.

A farmer works in a field in Hwaibari village in Khowai district of Tripura. With the help of a solar power water pump installed by the Tripura Renewable Energy Development Agency, farmers can now grow crops and vegetables throughout the year. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Baramaidan is a part of the Ramdayalbari Autonomous District Council village under the Padmabil Rural Development Block in Khowai district. Two decades ago, the villages under this block used to be controlled by extremist groups seeking secession from India.

The scheme had no takers when it was announced post-lockdown in 2020. Dhananjoy Debbarma of Gungaraicherra Multipurpose Cooperative Society, which has been facilitating the solar irrigation projects for the local farmers, remembers going about Ramdayalbari and other villages with a traditional drum to draw the people’s attention.

“The Tripura government took up the installation of 3,000 standalone solar pumps for a total project cost of ₹80.24 crore. According to the Central guidelines, 50% of the cost was to be borne by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, 30% by the State government and 20% by the beneficiary. But considering the economic conditions of the rural and tribal farmers, the Tripura government is providing 48% of the cost of the solar pump and 100% of the boring cost for a submersible pump with funding from NABARD,” Das says.

Paul and Bokul were among the first to give it a try on their combined 8 kanis (10.5 acres) of farmland a few months ago. “By paying only ₹5,000 for a project worth ₹2.75 lakh, I had nothing much to lose,” Paul says.

The two-horsepower solar pump he invested in has been providing him 70,000 litres per horsepower a day to irrigate his field. All it takes is a movable solar panel of 1,800 watts and a controller to activate a submersible pump 210-230 ft underground for the water to start flowing into his paddy field. Today, Paul is a multi-cropper, which was unthinkable a few years ago.

In less than a year, TREDA has installed 35 solar pumps for farmers in the Ramdayalbari region. Thirty of these are submersible and five are surface pumps, set up in farmlands close to a mountain stream. A surface pump comes cheaper as it does not involve the cost of boring.

Baramaidan has seven solar pumps – three submersible and two surface – on about 45 acres of farmland straddling a small valley. Paul and Bokul are two of the seven farmers who share this stretch. Like their neighbours, they recovered their investment in the solar pump within a month of installation.

“What scores for this solar pump is that the solar panel has a 25-year warranty and our contract with TREDA says we have to handle the maintenance of the installations for five years,” says Vinod S., service engineer of the Chennai-based Ishaan Solar Power Private Limited, the vendor for the solar pump project. Other than setting up new solar pumps, the firm has been solarising old pumps in Tripura.

“We have already installed 961 solar pumps of 2HP capacity each for as many beneficiaries. More people are showing interest in this project, particularly in the remote, hilly areas. Off-grid solar set-ups are changing lives in parts of Tripura,” Dev Varma says.

Solar plates installed at a house in Sarkhipara village in Khowai district of Tripura.

Solar plates installed at a house in Sarkhipara village in Khowai district of Tripura. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

The success of the microgrid solar plants and the solar water pumps made TREDA think of extending a hybrid project that marries the two schemes to Sarkhipara and other remote hamlets where gastrointestinal diseases claim more lives than malaria does. This is primarily because residents in these areas depend on streams, often murky during the monsoon months, for drinking water. TREDA has already installed nine cost-effective solar-powered water treatment plants in areas facing a crisis of portable water.

The daily routine of Sarkhipara’s women includes trekking 120 metres to the nearest stream for the water they need. “We do get water from a 5,000-litre tanker of the Drinking Water and Sanitation Department that stops by from time to time. But our share of water is barely 500 litres,” Khumunjoy Reang, a Sarkhipara elder, says.

“We are working on a solar-powered water purification project that can be used alongside the microgrid plant for providing clean, drinking water to the locals. This can be done after analysing the availability of water, from a stream nearby or underground,” Das says.

Of late, the Sarkhipara residents have been asking officials to increase the ‘aagun’ for using electrical appliances such as a refrigerator. The ‘aagun’, meaning fire in Bengali, refers to the wattage or surge of power.

The water beneath or from the surface may soon fan the solar fire for Sarkhipara.

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