By Ajay Kumar – SBI Youth for India Fellow 2014-15
I was in Chennai, in the summer of 2013, learning life skills and visiting adventurous places with Rajiv Gandhi Youth Leadership Internship Programme. In a short span of a month, I met interesting people from various walks of life, right from civil services to defence, scientists to social activists and people from various village communities. It was an enriching experience for me.
One morning, we all visited MSSRF, Chennai to attend a full day workshop on the type of work and research being done at their institute. Prof. MS Swaminathan took us through the work and it was impressive to say the least. In that workshop, an executive from State Bank of India too made a presentation on SBI Youth for India Fellowship Program. The presentation was fascinating as he illustrated about how young people like me are spending one year of their lives in rural India and are helping rural people improve their lives. I was very keen on joining the fellowship, but, since I was doing my research work on thin films fabrication, I couldn’t.
After completing my graduation, I joined Gujarat Energy Research & Management Institute, Gandhinagar for a 2 month internship on developing solar thin films. During the second month, I got to know that SBI Youth for India was inviting applications for 2014-15 Fellowship. Although I was very keen on joining, I had few apprehensions as I was planning to join PhD to carry forward my research work on thin films. To my surprise, I discovered alternative energy as a project area in the YFI fellowship and I decided to apply for it as I thought that I could work on solar interventions and products to help rural communities. When I got through, my mother asked me if I knew what I was doing. She told me that the work in rural communities will take me on a different journey than what I had initially planned for myself. I convinced her by telling her that I will be doing the same work there and will use my knowledge in solar energy to help rural people.
I joined the fellowship and I was assigned to the NGO partner, Aga Khan Rural Support Program (India) to work in Sakara Block, Muzaffarpur, Bihar as the field location. Despite being from Bihar, this was the first time I was visiting Bihar after its division. Sakra is a block in Muzaffarpur that falls in North Bihar. It has plain land, which generally gets water-logged in the rainy season. I used to visit different tolas (hamlet of 50-60 households) and villages of Sakara Block every day. I figured that lack of electricity and quality education were two main problems of the area.
I faced various challenges on my fellowship journey but none was as big as cooking on my own. Except for Maggie noodles and Tea, I had never tried my hand at anything else. It was a big battle initially, but now I am getting better at it with every meal. I even learnt sewing kurtas from the sewing center in my office premises. These experiences, although small, gave me a better understanding of problems faced by rural people due to unavailability of resources.
There is a Mushar Tola in the district where there is no grid electricity supply even today. This community lives in darkness after sunset. The tola is a cluster of 35 households and the houses are made of leaves. When I expressed my concern about the lack of lighting, one person added that they also face problems in charging their mobile phones and pay five rupees every time to get it charged. This is when I decided to first set up a solar mobile charging station and then I focused on setting up a solar decentralized lighting system.
Security against fire and smoke were other problems being faced by households dependent on firewood for cooking. There were unfortunate instances, when due to winds, whole tolas or villages were razed to ground by fire. I tried to design a Chulha or stove with a tank fitted above the Chulha like flush system in toilet to put off the fire during heavy winds.
Since agriculture is the main source of livelihood and electricity is absent, farmers depend on irrigation using diesel pump set. Expenditure on Diesel increases the input cost by 30-35%. I have tried to design a low cost mobile solar pump which can be used with regular boring and can irrigate 10-20 kathha land. As it is moveable, it can be used by a group of farmers.
I am really enjoying my time in the real heart of India. The warmth and hospitality of the people never makes me feel that I have came from outside. I have been invited to local festivals, weddings and birthday parties as if I am one of their own. Almost on a daily basis, we all fellows share our ideas and help each other to sort out problems. Youth for India is a platform for people from different backgrounds to understand, think and act in order to help rural communities and achieve an inclusive growth.