Waiting for Light
Waiting for Light FROM Sierra THE SKY ABOVE northeast India looked like mango skin. It was late afternoon in May, and across a constellation of villages, deliverymen worked to unload their solar-charged lanterns from trucks and bicycles beforenightfall. They leaned into dung-and-straw huts, calling, “Lantern,lantern.” They passed the devices to women in colorful saris, to bucktoothed kids, to men in sweat-stained undershirts, lingering while the customer made sure the lantern worked, head angled and skeptical. As the sky dimmed, the lanterns were hung from the ceiling of every shop, precise white spheres in the darkness. A mustard grinder ran his seeds through his diesel-powered machine. A bangle maker massagedheat into metal until the smell of malleability crept out. Children did
homework. Women cooked dal. All were warmed by the day’s trapped energy diffusing from the mud bricks. The next morning the deliverymen would retrieve the lanterns and whisk them back to solar-powered plants to be recharged during the day.
“The local banks are looking for 100 percent collateral, really high rates of interest, and short loan terms. That’s a huge issue,” said Alex Doukas, a research analyst at World Resources Institute. “If you really want these enterprises to scale up, you need to have financial institutions on the ground that understand the business models.”
India’s government is in a position to help, and with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent pledge to bring solar energy to all Indians who need it by 2019, Guay and Doukas hope he rides the cresting wave of off-grid solar by facilitating low-interest loans for both solar providers and their customers. Bangladesh did something similar in 2003, and off-grid has swept the countryside, with 80,000 rooftop systems now being installed a month—a rate that’s rising.
A recent report coauthored by Guay valued the worldwide market for off-grid at $12 billion annually. That’s for 1.3 billion potential customers who currently live without electricity, a majority of whom are in India and sub-Saharan Africa. After energy will come Internet access, fans, electric bicycles, and refrigerators. Then again, the promise of energy for all is a tiresome one in India, where the government has been notoriously bumbling and corrupt. In the 1990s and 2000s, India made an attempt at off-grid solar. NGOs and government entities that no longer exist installed it on rooftops at a highly subsidized rate, and the broken remnants, too expensive for consumers to repair, still stick out of rooftops in Jangaon. But there were no OMCs then. A few years from now, there might be 80,000 new Indian households extending their lives beyond sunset per month. Or there won’t. In either case, the people without power will be waiting for
someone to make a decision that could change their lives in an instant. The lanterns arrived in 15-year-old Bhawana Singh’s village, just a few miles from Jangaon, in December 2012. They came in the typical way.
After sundown one evening, without prior notice, a cart full of them rolled up to a prominent location in the village and was lit up. OMC’s Ritu Raj Verma calls this a road show.
“We are illuminating forty, fifty lanterns on top of the vehicle,” Verma said. “It looks like the sun rises there. Slowly, slowly, the villagers are attracted toward the light. We give them our lantern in their hand so they can enjoy this light for a fraction of a second.”
A year and a half later, Bhawana Singh told me that she uses her family’s OMC lantern for studying and crafting. Outside her thatched hut, she leaned in from the dark to catch the lantern’s sphere of light and unrolled a colorful strip of bunting that she’d stitched together from
discarded yarn and cement packaging. “I made this from the waste,” she said.
“Will you sell that in the market?” I asked.
She went to a doorway and pretended to hang the bunting above it.
“It is not for selling. It is for the house.”
“Beautiful,” said Verma.
“What did you think the first time you saw this lantern?” I asked.
“I very much enjoyed it. Now I can study. In the storms, it will not be off.”
Before the lanterns arrived, she used a kerosene candle.
“Do you prefer the lantern?” I asked her.
A man sitting nearby jerked to life and pointed to his eyes, indicating the way kerosene fumes made them tear up. Bhawana nodded. Then Verma got into a conversation with one of the Singh men.
I asked him what they were talking about, and he said, “This Malaysian aircraft has been lost. I am telling them that when I would like to access information about that plane, I’m accessing my Internet. I’m not getting a newspaper from Malaysia.”
“He is requesting that I create a library for the students over here. But the Internet is the biggest library. It’s the electronic library.”
“Do you hope that one day you will have electricity?” I asked Bhawana.
“Every year we think electricity will come,” she said. “We think the light will come. Only the pillars are there, but there is no electricity in the wires.”
“How long have the pillars been there?”
“Four years. Every year since they came we hope they will be turned on.”
“It is the hope of a human being,” Verma added. “Something new is there, and sometime, someday, it will work.” He was getting protective.
He had a paternal thing with Bhawana, had kind of taken her under his wing. Looking around the sky, I found the pillars that Bhawana was talking about—towering, solitary poles. Their silhouettes leaned like giant cacti against the moon.
Bhawana’s younger sister Sonal sat down beside her. She held a painting of a rose that she had made. “What do you love in the world?” I asked.
“We love to study. We love to do embroidery.” They said they wanted to go to college and learn about computers, the future Verma was nudging them toward. They travel 18 miles daily just to attend grade school. It’s a two-hour journey each way, by bicycle and bus.
I asked, “What do you hope to learn on computers?”
“We would like to get all the faraway information,” said Bhawana.
There was more talk in Hindi between Verma and the girls. I let it pass for a few minutes and finally asked, “What are you discussing now?”
“I am telling them that in America, everything is done by machines. The tea has been prepared by a machine. When they are extracting milk from the buffalo, it is done by machines.”
Bhawana now asked me a question. “Are you going to feel happy fter visiting this village?”
“Will I feel happy?”
I stuttered through something about the merits of living without machines, about the fact that I didn’t know how to do anything because machines did everything for me, how we drank cow’s milk, though I found India’s buffalo milk delicious. Verma didn’t even bother translating. He let me finish and turned away.
A few months earlier Verma had found Bhawana waiting outside an OMC plant in the rain. That is how they met. She stood on the brown road beneath a dark green bough, schoolbag in hand, surrounded by rain, waiting for someone to emerge from the plant who could explain this thing called the Internet. Verma showed her. Soon Bhawana was using Verma’s computer to look up market prices for sugarcane, mangoes, wheat, and rice so her father, a farmer, could use these as negotiating points. It was a tool for her father’s agriculture business, as practical as a hoe. It fit into the farming lifestyle like the cell phones that enabled people to read weather forecasts, like the portable lanterns they carried into the fields at harvest time, when they worked all night pulling mangoes from big trees.
One of the Singhs brought out chai on a tray. It’s something everyone does here. Chai, fried things, water with sugar mixed in—people always give you the best thing they have. And Verma took the moment to make sure I was noticing the world around me. “See that this is the village,” he said. “See that their roofs are of grasses and all. See mud houses, a few brick. See that you can see the darkness. Only the moonlight is there.”