Dharnai: The story of one solar village

Local Residents in Dharnai Village in India. 31 Jan, 2014 © subrata biswas / Greenpeace

It’s been precisely one year now, since 2000 citizens of Dharnai, a small village near Bodhgaya in the eastern Indian state of Bihar achieved access to electricity for the first time in 30 years. To most us who are living in this digital era, even an hour of power outage can ruin an entire day. So to imagine an entire generation that had not seen the glow of a light bulb is mind boggling.

Our work on solutions campaigns in India spans a decade; from “Choose Positive Energy” in Orissa in 2005, to “Switch on the Sun” in Delhi today. We started our work in Bihar in 2010 with the Urja Kranti Yatra, urging political parties in Bihar to look towards Decentralized Renewable energy solutions, in order to empower people in the state with energy access at par with the rest of the country.

Last year, on 20 July 2014, when Dharnai came live, it was the first milestone towards a great vision of autonomous energy access for the state and the country. I was present at the launch of the micro-grid, and it was a moment when people’s lives changed from darkness to light. In such rural areas the lack of access to modern energy services further turns into the absence of basic facilities, like sanitation and health care into pressing problems. There are well-documented studies of women who walk miles to collect water or fuel, or have to relieve themselves outdoors without toilets, where trying to access basic facilities turn into harassment, or worse.

In contrast, the lives of women in Dharnai changed drastically with the advent of the micro-grid. Not only did access to energy act as a catalyst that drives other socio-economic improvements, but lighting up a village like Dharnai created opportunities for women and girls by increasing access to both public and personal spaces after dark. Children studied late into the night, and women no longer needed to finish preparing meals before the sun set.

Solar Powered Street Light in Dharnai Village in India. 21 Jun, 2014 © Vivek M. / Greenpeace

Streets could be accessed at night, and make-shift shops sprung up underneath the street lights. It made the whole community safer. Now in Dharnai, there are 60 solar based street lights that light up the four hamlets and thereby reassuring the safety and increasing productivity of the villagers as well.

Soon after the inauguration last year, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar visited the village and acknowledged that the Dharnai model is the future of energy supply to those 2000 people present and to the whole world that was watching. This validation from the head of the state was the most ambitious moment for this village micro-grid. For over 30 years, high-tension electric wires have passed by the village without lighting up a single home inside it, and this is also the grim reality of most villages in Bihar. The concept of a centralized grid seems perfect when you live in Delhi or Mumbai, but reality kicks in when you step into these forsaken villages plunged into darkness after dusk. The main problem lies with the defunct central grid infrastructure followed by wrong prioritization of the electricity supply that ends up in villages like Dharnai. Even with a large capacity additions of centralized solar photovoltaic (PV) farms, the situation will remain bleak. The efficiency of solar PV coupled with the poor grid efficiency will result only in inferior quality of electricity and will blemish the trust on renewables altogether. The last mile connectivity of the villages can only be achieved efficiently by micro-grids based on renewables.

Today after a successful one year, I wish there would be more success stories like Dharnai where people and energy are connected and governments envision a more sustainable pathway to our future. Like the roads of Dharnai that are lit up through solar based lighting, I would like to see the dark corners in Delhi and the 100 proposed ‘smart cities’ to be lit up by solar street lights for safer and smarter cities. And for this we need your support.

Pujarini Sen is a Climate & Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace India.

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