TBI Blogs: An IIT Bombay Initiative That’s Using Solar Power to Empower Women in Rajasthan

Designed by IIT Bombay, the Solar Urja Lamp (SoUL) project is not only lighting up homes with renewable energy, but is also providing rural women with the chance to become entrepreneurs.

Rukmani Devi Katara, Maya Roat and Babli Devi have many things in common; they live in remote villages in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district, they share a tribal heritage and have lived in abject poverty for as long as they can remember. However, today, it’s not their deprivations or their culture that binds them; instead, it’s the pride of becoming capable entrepreneurs. For that is what these women have become, thanks to the Solar Urja Lamp (SoUL) project, the brainchild of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, currently underway in their district with the support of the Rajasthan State Rural Livelihood Mission.

The intervention was started as a means of ensuring that clean energy lights are made available to boost the education of children in the area (given that just 49.8 percent of households in Dungarpur are electrified).

Today, however, the intervention has also ended up empowering tribal women who are now making a good living, assembling and retailing small, portable solar lamps.

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Prof. Chetan Singh Solanki of IIT Bombay with women who have been trained to assemble solar lamps.

Image Source: Renu Rakesh\WFS

A resident of Mandava village, Rukmani, 30, could only study up to Class 8 because her parents felt that contributing to the family income was far more crucial to their survival than their daughter gaining an education. She, however, has put no such restrictions on her four children, for whom she has planned a very different future, one that she feels she will be able to realise because of the solar lamp assembly work she has been involved in since May this year.

“I have been able to make good money in these last couple of months, which I want to use to ensure that my children complete their education and get the kind of jobs that we couldn’t even dream of. My elder son is doing his diploma in engineering, one daughter is in Class 10 while the younger two are in Class 8 and 7, respectively,” she declares proudly.

IIT Bombay has launched the Solar Saheli venture, as part of its SoUL project, in 281 villages spread over Dungarpur, Dovara and Jhonthri blocks in the district.

Initially, the Rajasthan State Rural Livelihood Mission, or Rajeevika, stepped in to organise the women into four clusters of 40 Self Help Groups (SHGs) each. Every cluster has five office bearers, all women.

Before the project actually began, trainers from IIT conducted a comprehensive training programme, divided into two stages, at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Dungarpur.

Over 10 days, women were familiarised with instruments such as the millimeter and solar panels, and then taught to put the solar lamps together.

Women come in everyday to the assembly unit to work.

Women come in everyday to the assembly unit to work.

Image Source: Renu Rakesh\WFS

The second stage of training consisted of learning marketing techniques. Once the women successfully completed this module, presidents of the four clusters signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Chetan Singh Solanki, professor of solar energy at IIT-Bombay and principal investigator of the SoUL project, in the presence of Rajasthan’s Minister of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Surendra Goyal.

According to Prof. Solanki, SoUL project was initiated a couple of years ago to ensure energy efficient lighting to school children in areas where kerosene lamps are the only source of power after sundown.

So far, under this intervention, solar lamps have been distributed to one million children in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan.

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The women are now familiar with all the parts of the portable solar lamp that they assemble efficiently.

Image Source: Renu Rakesh\WFS

The Dungarpur project, however, has turned out to be unique, as it empowers children as well as their households. While 13.5 percent of Rajasthan’s total population is tribal, the majority of them, 77 percent to be exact, live in small hamlets dotting hilly Dungarpur.

As a first, each home in the project area can buy up to three lamps – two for children and one for the mother.

“Communities in these parts live in widely dispersed settlements, and the hilly terrain makes access to these areas difficult. This simple intervention has made a lot of difference to their everyday lives. Most of them are using the lamps for outdoor activities. They say they are no longer afraid of stepping out after hours, especially during the rainy season when snakes and scorpions abound this countryside,” shares Prof. Solanki.

The lamp emits 150 lux light and has a 12-by-12 cm solar panel, which can be detached for charging.

The market price of the solar lamp is Rs 500, but villagers can buy it at a subsidised rate of Rs 200. The remaining Rs 300 is being contributed by Idea Cellular. Out of the Rs 200, Rs 80 goes into the cluster’s corpus, Rs 55 to IIT-Bombay and Rs 65 is absorbed as the operational cost which includes the rent of the assembly room, and honorarium and transport for the women. There is a six month warranty on the lamps. Five women from each cluster have been trained to conduct repairs, should the need arise.

The clusters have set up assembly units at Jhonthri, Punali, Biladi and Antri, where, until July 15, 86 women had assembled 19,450 lamps; of these, 14,700 had been distributed in 90 villages.

A woman hard at work.

A woman hard at work.

Image Source: Renu Rakesh\WFS

Each woman makes Rs 10 for assembly and Rs 15 for distribution of a lamp. Until July, each one, on an average, had made Rs 5,000. Of course, there have been remarkable exceptions, too.

Maya Roat, 30, has been religiously going over to her cluster office at Antri – it’s a seven-kilometre-long walk – to assemble solar lamps. She used to toil all day as an exploited farm labourer, but this vocation has restored her dignity and confidence. In three months, she has earned Rs 13,000. “I have never seen so much money in my life. I don’t know what to do with it!” she says with a beaming smile. Maya has four children and her mother-in-law lives with her too. Her husband, Ramesh, seldom works and is dependent on her earnings.

Rukmani and her friend, Babli Devi, 47, of Padli Gujreshwar village, have managed to make even more. Babli made a tidy sum of Rs 20,000 over two months – June and July. “It all depends on how much you can work. There’s more income in distribution, so I focus on sales,” she reveals.

For distribution, the women are required to visit a village two days prior to the start of sale. They have to distribute pamphlets and use audio messages to inform people about the advantages of using a solar lamp.

The tribal women have also learnt to market and distribute their locally manufactured solar lamps.

The tribal women have also learnt to market and distribute their locally manufactured solar lamps.

Image Source: Renu Rakesh\WFS

Like Babli, Rukmani is a star saleswoman. She sold 1,300 lamps in the very first month and made Rs 19,500. Previously, she used to work as a labourer and made a maximum of Rs. 6,000 a year. Her husband, Kamlesh, had a tea stall where he made Rs 500 daily, but ended up spending Rs 200 on kerosene. With her increased income, Rukmani has rented a small shop for Rs 2,000, where she wants to retail solar lamps.

Before the first phase of the Solar Saheli venture comes to a close in September, the women hope to sell 40,000 lamps. In the second phase, they are gearing up for training which will enable them to set up small-scale solar power plants and solar repairing centres. Moreover, each cluster hopes to build a corpus of Rs 12 lakhs, from which women can take loans to start up their own solar enterprises.

For his part, Prof. Solanki has an eye on the bigger picture. “With this model, the entire country can be electrified in two to three years. We want to make sure that no child in India has to give up studies because his/her home is without electricity. During my stay in Dungarpur, I learnt that most rural families spend an average of Rs 200-250 on electricity for a single-phase domestic connection. I am working on a model where I can completely take them off the grid by providing them with three LED lights, one flashlight and a mobile phone charger for Rs 250 a month,” he elaborates. These expansion plans obviously indicate sustained work opportunities for Dungarpur’s team of solar ‘sahelis’ and they are indeed ready for the challenge.

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