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Lightening lives Across the Universe

“Lighting a Billion Lives”

“Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree, I travel the world and the seven seas, everybody’s looking for something…”

The lyrics of Eurythmics’ brilliant track were pumping through my earphones as I sat behind Sanjay (an employee of TERI’s local partner organization in Uttar Pradesh) on his vintage Hero motorbike, heading to a tiny village on the border of India and Nepal to conduct a photo shoot.

I’d been on a field trip to Jharkhand before, for an impact assessment, and having navigated my way through the Naxalite infiltrated forests, this particular journey seemed like a breeze. I could never, in my wildest imagination, augur what lay ahead. A little less than 15 minutes into our expedition and we were greeted by hard hitting – or at least they seemed so – army personnel. Sounding a bit like a boisterous kindergarten choir (quite a contrast I’d say), all I could construe was that our path ahead was fraught with difficulty and that we should turn around at once. Thanking them, Sanjay rode on, unperturbed. I guess he knew exactly what was in store for us and I naively put my faith in him, sitting behind, content.

We traversed the winding road along the humungous dam near Khatimaen-route to Ramnagra (an obscure village on the outskirts of Uttar Pradesh where the “Lighting a Billion Lives” programme had been implemented). It was great. Gorgeous green fields on one side, the calmness and serenity of the clear blue water on the other; the tranquility of the picture perfect moment had engulfed me giving me major goose bumps, much like the cooties I got back in junior school. Except, this time it was out of a state of mental clarity thereby bringing out my true disposition, a feeling unmatched. Or was I simply hallucinating? At that point, I just couldn’t tell. Much too drowsy to fathom my current condition, I leaned against Sanjay, feeling safe and secure.

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Kashiram, the Gram Mukhiya (village head) of Ramnagra, greeted us at Sundarpur, another village just short of our destination. Much to our dismay, he reiterated the warning we’d received earlier. He explained how the river had filled up a little and that the only way to cross it to get to the village, would be to walk through waist high water at first, and then hop onto a makeshift boat that would help us get to the other end. He did mention however, that it wasn’t so bad and would require us getting muddy and wet, and that’s about all. Didn’t sound too bad. I slyly cursed those fellas from the army under my breath.

ramnagra Across the Universe

On reaching the shore we understood the monstrosity of the task. Ramnagra was a good three kilometers away by foot and another five hundred meters by boat. The vista seemed like a description out of a Robert Frost poem. The river had branched out into a number of tributaries, some shallow some deep, dissected by bits of land in various pockets scattered throughout. And there, in the midst of my own sought after adventure, I stood, eager to experience its unfolding. Luckily I had my cargo cum three fourth pants on, an ingenious piece of clothing. Quickly unzipping, I pulled off the bottom half and waited while Sanjay and Kashiram rolled up their trousers. They seemed envious of my attire so I promised I’d get them one each the next time I visited.

The water was ice-cold. Three kilometers of walking in and out of it, a task I was dreading as soon as we dipped our feet in. Sanjay didn’t seem to mind though, I guess he was used to it. Nor did Kashiram. Whining, complaining, oohing, aaahing, I felt like a sore loser. But hey! I can’t help it; the water was much too cold. I mean, I remember running after an adventure and all, but not one in which I experience sensations of being feet-less. In that sweeping moment, I remembered my mother’s profound yet condescending words: “You only know how to talk”. Was she right? Was it actually so? Ah, the dread! NO! I had to prove her wrong. I had to prove myself. Mustering up enough determination, I zipped my incessant complaining. By now, the water had reached our bellies. As I looked up, I could see a faint line of the shore ahead. “One kilometer more”, Sanjay prodded.

We weren’t the only ones there though. There were others dotting the landscape, although for them it was just a daily chore. Holding their bags of vegetables and rations in one hand and lugging their bicycles with the other, they seemed to maneuver themselves through the freezing water with such ease; gliding along swiftly, laughing and chatting each other up, with not a care in the world. They were inhabitants of Ramnagra. And right in the middle of that vast expanse, the profundity of the situation vis-à-vis their lives dawned upon me. These people – most of them labourers – make this grueling trip everyday to find work in order to sustain themselves and their families. Generations after generations have lived here in a stasis, cut-off from the outside world, with the river as the only form of accessibility, without any proper mode of transportation, without any electricity and with no help from the ones that are formally accountable for their development.

However, as put aptly by Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Dawn arrived, shining brighter than ever before, and this time in the form of solar lanterns. It took us a full two hours to get to the village and finally, we reached Raj Dhar’s house, the entrepreneur at whose residence, the solar charging station had been installed. All I could think of, standing outside his kaccha dwelling, was how, HOW, did they manage to scope this village and successfully implement LaBL in it.  Hats off to the entire team that made this possible!

Amidst the misery and chronic destitution that plague the people of Ramnagra, it’s these solar lanterns that have instilled in them fresh zeal and an emphatic sense of purpose. Their daily routines still comprise of the cruel burden of crossing the river twice a day but it definitely isn’t the same. Hope, life and an ardent set of children await those that head out in search of work. The village transforms itself post sunset. What we saw was incredible.

A magnificent white glow emanated from each house, just like the vivid image of heaven our imaginations have often conjured up. Spellbound by the quiet and peaceful ambience – a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of city life – I decided to take a stroll around the village. Kusum, Raj Dhar’s five-year-old nephew accompanied me, providing her youthful insights every now and then. The solar lantern’s varied colours across the entire visible spectrum of development were crystal clear. It had been incorporated into almost all activities that were difficult and perhaps impossible to indulge in without the clean lighting. Studying, knitting, field patrolling, cooking, cleaning, discussions, debates, gossip, singing, dancing and numerous other personal, social and cultural activities were thriving with aid of the lanterns’ wonderful illumination.

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Young Kusum’s wide-eyed face beaming with joy, as she held her solar lantern high up in the air, was etched into my memory that day. But more so was the demanding journey we undertook in order to get to the village. It opened up a whole new dimension of realization and has corroborated my vision and resolve; of playing the part of a tiny pawn in helping TERI light up a billion lives.

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Bawa Sahibjeet Singh

Sahibjeet is a Research Trainee at The Energy and Resources Institute and is involved in TERI’s “Lighting a Billion Lives” programme (LaBL,  The LaBL campaign aims to bring clean light into the lives of one billion rural people who lack access to electricity, by displacing kerosene/paraffin lanterns with solar lighting devices and has adopted a localized bottom-up approach to addressing it.

Image Courtesy [Bawa Sahibjeet Singh]


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