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Garo Hills on road to becoming solar hub of state

Solar lamp export to Bangladesh in the offing

TURA: What started off as a project to provide solar lamps at discounted rates for students living in zones where electricity is an elusive commodity, has now evolved into a  micro industry in South West Garo Hills involving several women self-help groups who have taken over the assemble lines for the manufacture of the lamps that have become a sort of “hot commodity” in several households in several villages.

Progress has been fast compelling the district administration to look at the feasibility of gradually exporting the solar lamps assembled in the area to neighbouring Bangladesh through the Kalaichar border haat.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma had recently inaugurated the centre and saw for himself the assembling of the solar lamps by the womenfolk.

“This model is so well developed that it not only providing lighting in households, especially for school going children, but also empowering the womenfolk who are getting paid for their work,” said S Ram Kumar while speaking to The Shillong Times at Betasing where the solar lamps are being assembled by the women folk at a centre.

The solar panels and components of the lamps are funded by the central government’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy in collaboration with the Aditya Birla group’s Idea Cellular and the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai (IIT-Mumbai) is actively involved providing the technical know-how and training the women SHG members who have enrolled in the project initiated by Deputy Commissioner of South West Garo Hills district, S Ram Kumar.

The cost of the solar lamp in the open market is approximately Rs 500 a set but with the government subsidy children are able to procure it for a meager one hundred rupees. The decision to import the lamps components and assemble it at ground zero has helped bring down the production cost.

The members from the twelve women SHGs currently engaged in the assembly lines are tasked with a target to assemble 18,000 solar lamps before the end of December. They expect to achieve the target ahead of the deadline as they cross the 1000 mark on Saturday, last.

“Solar lighting is definitely a boon for the rural folk because what we found is that many villages in the north east, including Meghalaya, are scattered and difficult to connect to the power grid. Also, the villages that are connected face erratic power supply, especially during the monsoons. That’s where solar lighting comes to the rescue,” said Ms Vijayeta Rajkumari from IIT-Mumbai who is currently stationed at Betasing coordinating the solar lamp project.

She goes on to add that it doesn’t end with the assembling of the lamp components by the womenfolk, “They are also getting paid for each lamp that they assemble.”

For every lamp a woman SHG member completes in assembling, she gets paid twelve rupees. Some have become experts assembling 20 lamps on a single day. The record for the maximum belongs to a woman SHG member in Assam who assembled 40 lamps in one day.

The next phase of the project is on imparting training to the women SHGs on the repair and restoration of solar lamps and other equipment.

“We want it to be somewhat like the Dungarpur project in Rajasthan that began with assemble of solar lamps and later transformed into a manufacturing centre creating components for solar equipment,” says S Ram Kumar.

He believes there is immense potential for solar energy growth in the Garo Hills and particularly neighbouring Bangladesh where a burgeoning population could be the market for solar items from Garo Hills.

“Once the training on repair of solar lamps is completed we want to expand the sale of the lamps and other items into Bangladesh through the Kalaichar border haat because we are aware of the huge demand for solar lighting across border villages in that country,” added the deputy commissioner.

For women folk like Nanda Koch (23) of Bansali village, Bairina Ch Sangma (36) of Wategre, Arpana Koch (24) of Kumligaon and Remin Ch Marak (23) of New Rongramgre village in South West Garo Hills, it opens up immense opportunities for entrepreneurship and raising their family income.

These women are at the forefront of the solar expansion in the region assembling dozens of lamps each week and getting paid for doing so.

“I have worked under MGNREGA but since I am free for the last few months I took the training to assemble the lamps. I am happy because I am learning something new and also getting paid,” says Bairina Sangma who experiences frequent power disruption in her village.

They are not the only ones to welcome the arrival of solar energy into their daily lives, four hundred school children of Emmanual School in Betasing stood patiently in line to purchase their first solar lamps on Friday morning.

They are just the beginning as more and more schools come forward to submit their list of children keen to procure their individual sets.

Clearly, nights are no longer the same and there is a sense of ‘power’ for children living in a village that had for long been ‘powerless’, bereft of electricity.

 

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