A group of organizations, including SELCO Foundation, Rang De and Kotra Adivasi Sansthan, are teaming up to provide low-cost financing for distributed solar in tribal communities
The Kotra area in Udaipur district, Rajasthan state, is without access to grid-based electricity. Kotra has the same problems as other remote, tribal regions in India — a chronic lack of access to healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities. The lack of access to electricity compounds many of these problems, stifling development.
In the absence of grid-based power, the families in Kotra spend a substantial chunk of their monthly income on accessing traditional sources of fuel like kerosene or wood, which have an adverse impact on the health of the family, particularly the women and children. In villages throughout the region, the need for electricity is acutely felt. It is not uncommon for the men in the villages here to undertake long trips to the central marketplace to charge their mobile phones — for something as innocuous as listening to the radio or favourite Hindi movie songs.
Vivek Shastry, an energy analyst at the SELCO Foundation in Bengaluru, has been working with the tribal Adivasi community in Kotra, providing them with electricity through decentralized solar systems. According to him, “Energy is an entry point for many people. All development in agriculture, livelihoods and agro-based industries follow from there.”
For communities like the ones in Kotra, decentralized renewable energy systems — individual solar units or community wind turbines — could very well provide an alternative way of accessing energy. Despite the remoteness and relative backwardness of the region, solar power is not an alien concept to the people here. Over the past decade in Kotra, cheap, China-made solar products have flooded the market. A few years ago, an initiative by the state government also provided many of Kotra’s residents with heavily-subsidized solar. The Chinese products were often of poor quality and stopped working within a few years of use.
The systems provided by the government posed another challenge. As Shastry explains, “Solar systems worth ₹20,000 (USD $300) were subsidized and offered at ₹1,000. This was a great initiative. But without an existing network of service and repair, if the solar system stopped working for some reason or the other, people stopped using them entirely.” When it comes to ‘energy poverty’ in regions like Kotra, providing ‘band-aid’ solutions erodes the faith of people in renewable energy, thereby making it hard to convince them to take it up again. This is tragic because the benefits of solar energy are immense.
Ensuring the success of renewable energy in Kotra requires innovative strategies. One method is to engage local community members. The Kotra Adivasi Sansthan is an NGO that has been working for the rights of Adivasis in the Kotra region for more than 30 years. They are playing a pivotal role in convincing local community members to take up solar energy.
Another effective strategy is to introduce an alternative financing model. The SELCO Foundation is working with Rang De, a peer-to-peer microcredit lending NGO, to provide low-cost financing to the people in Kotra.
Since March this year, 25 families have been provided with solar units in the pilot phase of the project. The solar loans offered by Rang De will soon provide 45 more families in Kotra with solar energy units. These solar loans, which are to be repaid in monthly installments, are allowing many families with low incomes to go ahead with installing solar power units in their homes.
The persistent problem of ‘energy poverty’ in India can only be solved through concerted efforts of the government and policy interventions at the highest levels. But for the marginalized sections of the population, who often fall through the cracks in the system, a needs-based model of providing access to energy, like the one underway in Kotra, might be worth exploring.