“Ever since my birth, I have lived only in darkness. I am seeing light only now,” says Selvi , a young village girl who, until recently, had no access to light. These words touched my heart. The dusty, rocky road which winds its way to the Sittuvarpatti village, about 20 kms from Madurai, gives no whispers of the changes which have been made. At first glance, the mountains endowed with trees, the croon of the cattle and the land scattered with crops suggest that this is any other rural, Indian village.

A special village

But this one has a special story to tell: a story of modernity, of technological advancement, of a community transitioning from darkness to light. The difference between this village and any other is the fact that tall, silver solar panels jut from each leaf-thatched roof. The name SELCO is proudly stamped in red across their underside. These technological contraptions, at first, seem juxtaposed with the pastoral surroundings, but upon just one visit to the village I could see how effectively the traditional and the modern have been fused together. I saw that the homes within the village are not the only things which have been lit up by these solar panels. Lit up, too, are the smiles of the people.

Lighting lives

This solar technology has been installed for the benefit of 25 families living across 16 houses. You wonder how such novel technology has come to such a sleepy, rural village. The project was born from a union of organisations, the most prominent of which is the provider of this life-changing technology, SELCO. For those who don’t know, SELCO is a unique social enterprise committed to placing sustainable technology in the hands of the poor and proving that, with the right financial models in place, it is viable to do so. The organisation was co-founded by Dr. Harish Hande, 46, affectionately known as ‘Mr Sunshine’, in 1995. I have the pleasure of meeting with Nambirajan S., 33, who has been an employee at SELCO for the past two years.

He leads us to the village, clearly a path he has trodden many times before and, after conversing with the locals in the manner of an old friend, shows us into one of the small, terracotta dwellings. I notice immediately the fan in the corner and the small light over the door. Dressed smartly in a crisp blue shirt and black trousers, after arranging himself cross legged on the floor, he proudly announces himself as ‘the SELCO staff.’ He talks animatedly of the project, the enterprise, the village and as he speaks, I recognised that SELCO is more than a business: it’s a way of life, a way of life to which Nambi is truly and utterly committed.

”We provide everything you see included. One fan, two lights, one battery, one panel,“ he announces waving his hand around the small hut and gesturing towards the fan and the light which I had noticed upon my arrival. “It’s a new technology for these people. We give awareness before selling.” The work of SELCO does not merely span the initial installation: a large portion of SELCO’s work is nurturing people’s awareness of solar energy before the installation and ensuring their confidence in using the product afterwards, as Nambi enthusiastically explains.

Inclusive technology

A question that instantly filters into my mind is how these poor, rural people, who make their living primarily from farming, are able to afford such advanced technology. Nambi has all the answers. “The project price is Rs. 10,000,” he tells me. “Of that, the people have to pay 10 percent and 40 percent is the subsidy which is given by NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development).The remaining 50 percent is the bank loan.” This financial model ensures that even the poorest people can afford this up-to-the-minute technology. “They can pay off the bank loan in three years or five years. This is based on the people’s income.” Part of SELCO’s mission is to make sure that the technology they provide is accessible to all. Indeed, it is clear from the beams of the people as they gaze upon their new solar technology that worries about payment are absent.

Nambi talks, too, about how the project was initiated. SELCO has only come to Tamil Nadu in the last two years. “I went and met the NABARD agent to inform him that SELCO had come to Tamil Nadu to work for the people. That’s when he said there is a village without electricity, perhaps you could provide them with solar. So I came here and I explained about solar,” he smiles, pride generously coating every word he utters.

Building a relationship

From then on, his relationship with the local people evolved into something much more intimate than that of business associates. “I spent more time here, “he tells me, with undoubted affection weaving its way to his speech. “I stayed here. I gave some old clothes. I washed them, ironed them and gave them to poor children.” His eyes are bright as he talks of his personal contributions to the society he has grown to have such fondness for. “When you come here, initially the people will see differences,” he gestures at his smart attire. “So you have to sit with them, drink water, eat. Then they see that you’re coming for a good social cause.” It is perhaps natural for these people, so disconnected from those which are not part of their immediate community, to feel apprehensive at the introduction of a stranger. Thus, Nambi made it his mission to become integrated within the local community.

”I feel very happy. Coming into the field you can really understand the feelings of the people. The people are very close to me,” he continues. I realise that installing solar panels is only part of the impact that SELCO has had on this community. Taking time to truly comprehend the needs and notions of the people is a huge component of the project and, again, the sincerity in Nambi’s voice cannot go unnoticed as he declares his attachment to the people.

One of Nambi’s anecdotes causes me to acknowledge the extent of the commitment expected from the SELCO staff. Nambi explained that after visiting a bank manager and explaining about the village, the bank manager said he would visit the village the next day. The chosen day happened to coincide with a function in Nambi’s home at 3 p.m. “Though my relatives were coming across town to attend this function and my presence was critical, I chose to wait until the bank manager visited the village as that was more important to me than the function,” he implores, opening his eyes wide and placing firm emphasis on this last sentence.

Nambi thought his engagement with the bank manager would be finished by eleven, but when the bank manager did not arrive until 2 p.m. he realised this would not be the case. “When I reached my home, the time was 4 p.m.,’ he laments. “All of my relatives were angry with me, even my wife.” These types of challenges often come up. We have to be ready always,” he says, nodding his head firmly and spreading his hands wide to signal his availability. I realise the working hours of SELCO staff are far removed from your average 9 to 5 occupations. The staff must be on call whenever and wherever they are needed in order to ensure the successful running of the projects.

Nambi’s animation returns as he speaks of the future plans for Sittuvarpatti village. “Our aim is to develop this village into a fully solar village. Now they have only lighting. Our next step will be providing solar water pumps. If it’s a possibility we’d like to also put in some solar fencing,” he explains breathlessly, energetically gesturing with both his hands.

A solar mission

I also begin to understand that the success of SELCO seems to work from the inside out. By effectively nurturing the staff within the enterprise SELCO leaders instil the passion which so evidently emanates from Nambi. “In the first seven months I didn’t get any business. I was fed up,” Nambi says, tilting his head to the side, a serious expression filling his features. But then SELCO told me, “for you, it took seven months, for us it took more than five years,” he laughs. “They really motivated me. Once they saw me as a regular worker. Now they have given me a branch.” He sits back with a smile. Being looked after by their superiors, the workers experience the impetus necessary to succeed in their endeavours.

There is an additional point he particularly wishes to hammer home. “We’re not an income project, this is a mission project,” he states firmly. After having spoken to him for over an hour by this time, this fact hardly needed reiterating. His passion for his work and his sentiment towards the people had already informed me that this endeavour was so much more than an attempt to make money.

He goes on, “Harish Hande providing light to 40,000 houses is not a small thing. It has a very big impact.” Nambi’s words indeed rang true. Illuminating 40,000 houses is an incredible achievement but the thankful words of the people of Sittuvarpatti showed that brightening just one village is no mean feat.

Solar champion

Ayyavu, 56, a resident of the village and the first member to obtain solar technology for his own household, shared his experiences with me. Dressed in a long beige dhoti and a white shirt, the villager looked older than his 56 years, the hardships of his life having become a permanent feature of his visage. However, as he talks laboriously about his experiences with solar energy, flashes of youth return to his countenance. He was the original bearer of solar power; the member of the village which first introduced solar power to the local people. He had realised the benefits that becoming a solar village would bring long before this project was initiated. “Years before this project, we (him and his family) were working on an estate in Kerala,” he reminisced. “I got one solar panel from there and installed it in my house. We slowly developed it and started to understand the way it works and its benefits.” Upon realising these advantages he was eager for the whole village to benefit in the same way that he and his family had.

“Not many people could afford it; so we contacted NABARD. They said we needed a bank loan,” he explained. Looking around at the houses adorned with solar technology, all surrounded by the excited buzz of the locals, it’s clear that Ayyavu’s initiative paid off. “Now it’s useful for every house and every house can meet their needs, “he says, casting his thoughtful eyes across the village as he does so.

His brow furrows as he remembers life in the village before the installation of this solar technology. “If there’s no light, the bisons come towards the house,” he explains eyes wide. These large, destructive, bull-like creatures which live around the vicinity of the village would charge towards the homes of the locals, trampling crops and frightening adults and children alike. Nambi, too, mentions these alarming creatures. “The first time I came to the village it was 4.30 pm. I didn’t know the village then. Then, it was eight p.m. It was scary,” he shudders. “People were shouting so much; I asked them why they were shouting. They said that if they didn’t, the bison will enter the village and attack them.” Seeing a grown man speak with such fear made my blood run a little colder: I thought of the children who would have also witnessed this terrifying sight.

Transformed lives

”Now we’re able to have a lot of light in the night,’ says Ayyavu, “because when the bison and other animals spot this light, they get scared and return to the forest.” He seems to sit a little more comfortably in his chair after uttering these words. “Before we used to take the wood from the trees and light it for fire at night,” he explains. “When we had to go out of this place, to the city, we would light sticks and carry them with us.” This precarious strategy of creating light was simply routine for the villagers.

“The most important difference for us now is the fact that, when children are studying for their exams, they need light. Now the children can study at night.” The potential of the local village children is no longer suppressed by darkness. The installed technology not only secures their comfort at present but ensures that they can work towards a better future.

Return to nature
The burdens which have been lifted from the local community are not the only benefit which Ayyavu attributes to the sunshine powered panels. “This is really environment friendly,” he praises enthusiastically. “We need to learn to live with nature.” It then occurs to me that, for a society which is so accustomed to living with nature; a society which uses the land for their habitation, their livelihood and their pleasure, using nature’s energy for light is a wholly natural progression. “Instead of doing something against nature, doing something through nature and using nature is really good,” Ayyavu continues. As he utters these comments, his hands gesturing in the warm air and his bare feet resting on the dusty ground, I feel I would have struggled to imagine anyone more at one with the land than this man.

Ayyavu, like Nambi, sees solar technology as the future. “Agriculture is the backbone of India,” he asserts. “For everything, right from agriculture, to an individual house, to a community, to an organisation, solar panels will really prove their worth in the future.” I find myself, too, feeling excited for what is to come.
The following day I was lucky enough to attend the solar ceremony at the village. I arrive to find a large, colourful gazebo sheltering an abundance of blue plastic chairs. Milling around are a melange of villagers and dignitaries, conversing and laughing, too spirited to be seated. Hospitality emanates from the villagers as they hand around refreshments to all. As the ceremony begins children, officials and the people of the village share the stage, a symbol in itself of how unity among people achieves the best results.

A people’s victory

The AGM of NABARD, Mr. Sankaranarayanan stands to address us all. He takes the time to praise Nambi describing him as an instrumental figure in the process. “This is a victory for the efforts of the people,“ he declares, one hand holding the microphone, the other sweeping across the crowd. He echoes the words of Nambi: “this is not a commercial venture.”

The voice of the children is represented by Arun Kumar studying 9th grade,”Ever since the installation of the solar panels, we can spot insects in the dark, play at night, and study at night.”

The last to take the stage is originator Dr. Harish Hande, casting his eyes momentarily to the ground as Mr. Sankaranarayanan names him as “the star of the show.” His words of advancement and posterity are so concentrated with passion that the hubbub subsides and the crowd is transfixed. “We should make a case study of this,” he tells us. “This is the right way to develop. Hopefully this is a small step in showing the country what can be done.” This is a message I took away with me. This village does not merely stand as a village transformed today but it stands as an example of what is possible in the future.

As I leave the village for the last time, I take one glance back. The scene I see is this. Harish Hande talks vivaciously with some local villagers, children play together with no dread of the approaching darkness and the solar panels glimmer in the sun. I find myself truly hoping that this scene is one which finds its way to poor, rural villages all over India. There is no question that if SELCO has anything to do with it, the future of this country will be a sustainable one.