The Saura Mandala Project aims to provide Internet access and stable electricity supply to a mountain school of first-generation students in Jammu and Kashmir.
Keerthi Sagar and Nagakarthik MP are engineers by qualification. They had lucrative jobs in the tech industry before realising that perhaps it was not for them. So, Nagakarthik quit his job and found himself signing up to volunteer in a school in a little village called Breswana in the Doda District of Jammu and Kashmir.
Little did he know that the Haji Public School, run by volunteers, would inspire the birth of an idea – of providing the people of the village with solar energy.
The village is genuinely remote and winters are tough here. Vishwesh Singh, another volunteer with the Haji Public School, recalls, “Something even as basic as a car they haven’t seen; they don’t know what it is, how it works or what it looks like.”
Amjed Latief, a student at the school, says, “When the weather is bad, it gets foggy and we have to move the classroom outside to study.”
The passion and perseverance of the school children, however, stoked a need to teach in Nagakarthik. But, like all the other volunteers, he could not do that well without accessing the Internet for informative videos and pictures. The volunteers have to make sure that the kids fully understand what they are being taught in school because they will be unable to receive any help from their parents back home.
“Most of the kids haven’t been out of the village. To explain to them things about the world, it is possible only visually,” says Sabbah Haji, director of the school.
The lack of reliable electricity supply adds to the difficulty. Zubair Ahmed, a teacher at the Haji Public School, says. “At the most, we get about 200 hours of electricity in a month.” Saleem Haji, the sarpanch of Breswana, concurs, “On the 3rd or 4th of every month, we get the bills, but we don’t get the electricity.”
Charging electrical gadgets and accessing the internet is, thus, unusually tough here.
“Prateek and I have been teachers at the Haji Public School before and we have faced the issues first hand. Because these kids are first-generation learners and have no or limited exposure to the outside world, it is difficult to teach them without using the audio-visual medium. We try and use it as much as is possible, but the power scenario here being very bad, it is never satisfactorily possible,” says Nagakarthik.
All the impediments inspired Keerthi, Nagakarthik and their partner Prateek Shetty to come up with an initiative called ‘Saura Mandala’ (Hindi for ‘solar system’). Their plan is to provide solar energy to the school so that learning is an easier and more efficient experience.
But solar energy is not a cheap investment. Initial costs of setting up the solar panels and other solar devices, as well as the cost of the panels themselves, is steep, especially considering the location of the place high up in the mountains. The risk of major losses in an expensive project is ever present.
Travelling to Breswana alone is tedious. One has to get a bus to the last possible road-stop in Premnagar and then walk uphill or on horseback for three to four hours. Chances of dropping the equipment while transporting it to the village are high.
“Everything for the project will need to be carried upon mules but the great thing is that all the villagers are more than willing to help,” reveals Nagakarthik. Planning the execution of the plan in accordance with the weather, gathering funds from the people, as well as making deals with solar energy cooperatives are few of the many difficulties that these three men are currently grappling with.
The primary benefit of this project is expected to be the easier access to videos, multimedia study material and experiments using screens in classrooms, empowering the local teachers and volunteers to supplement everyday teaching.
“The systems would require basic maintenance of the battery and cleaning of the panels. The panels would last for about 20-25 years and the batteries for about 5-7 years. During winters, it could act as a community centre for power as the rest of the village gets absolutely no power from the grid,” says Nagakarthik.
Explaining to the people the inspirations behind their mission is no mean task either.
“Last year, we had given solar lanterns to some families in the village. Since then, many of them have seen the benefits of solar energy and are also aware of its environmental impact,” says Nagakarthik.
Projects like these, especially in places of conflict like Jammu and Kashmir, need to lay out their plans and finances very clearly so as to assure the people that their money will be and is being used responsibly.
Here is wishing the Saura Mandala project great success in its journey!
Visit their Facebook page to know more: https://www.facebook.com/SauraMandala.in/
If you wish to donate, go here: https://www.ketto.org/fundraiser/sauramandala
Listen to Keerthi and Karthik’s interview with RJ Catherine on Radio Active CR 90.4 MHz:
(Written by Catherine Shadap)