With a huge gasp of air, and a big sigh of relief she let out the air and blew out the Kerosene lantern…and looked at us and said ‘This is the last time I ever had to do this’.
Ayesha Mirchandani, Vice-President, Operations at Project Chirag recalls this as one of the defining moments in her life. Ayesha’s association with Project Chirag, an initiative to provide solar lighting to villages in India, has left her with many such anecdotes to share.
Let there be light
Project Chirag was started in March 2010 as a students’ project in Mumbai’s HR College as part of the SIFE (Student In Free Enterprise) initiatives. The project was co-founded by Jyotirmoy Chaterji, and the students were mentored by faculty members Pratibha Pai, and Dr. (Mrs.) Indu Shahani, Principal of HR College. The first village they reached out to was Ujjaini in Thane district, where the villagers were provided with solar lights through a crowd-funded project, ‘Rs 10 for Light’, where college students were asked to give Rs 10 out of their pocket money to help light up a village and its 100 homes.
“It was tough to raise funds. But the idea was unique… a college student can afford to give Rs 10. It could mean not having a packet of chips for lunch, or taking a train to college instead of a taxi….so the idea was well received. The project was highly successful”, says Ayesha.
A project that started with a few students has today turned into the ‘Chirag Light India Movement’ that has also spread across multiple colleges and schools in India.
A rocky road
But it wasn’t an easy journey. According to Ayesha, they faced a lot of challenges in terms of convincing people to switch to the new lighting systems. Initially, for the villagers, the virtue of solar lights being a clean energy source wasn’t of much importance. She recalls, “There was one woman who was reluctant to use solar lights. She was of the opinion that if she has lived her life so far without it, she could do this for the rest of her life”. According to Ayesha, hardwired ideas such as these were difficult to tackle, but personal interactions between members of the Chirag team and villagers helped convince the latter and seeing an illuminated bulb would seal the deal.
Since its inception, the initiative has provided solar lighting to more than 10,000 rural households in seven states, impacting 60,000 villagers.
Lighting the way
The NGO has been reaching out to the remotest villages in India. The most recent project was in Aruna Chapori, a village located on a sandbar in the Brahmaputra. The village was cut off from the southern bank of the Brahmaputra in the 1950s, and had no access to the electricity grid. Before Project Chirag’s intervention, the villagers were totally dependent on traditional lighting methods such as kerosene lamps and firewood. But after the team’s visit in mid-July this year, all the households now have two lighting systems – one for their homes and the other portable. Each solar lighting system has an individual solar panel and one of them also has a mobile charging facility. The solar lamps are sourced from a company, which chooses to remain anonymous, that develops and manufactures solar products. Each lamp costs around Rs. 2,500-5,000, and is given to the villagers for free.
As for the villagers, the solar lights have become a boon. The minimal usage of kerosene oil has cut down their monthly expenditure. The kerosene through the PDS system is available to them at Rs 30 and the cost on the black market is Rs 50. Previously, each household consumed around 3-4 litres of kerosene a month; today, it is one litre in nine months. An added and welcome bonus is a a healthier environment to breathe in. Occurrences such as small children gulping down kerosene mistaking it for water have reduced significantly. The introduction of solar lights has also impacted various other areas, especially education. The children have switched from kerosene lamps to solar lights, which not only give better lighting but also allow them to study late at night. The men and women can also stay out for their work for longer hours without worrying about finishing the household chores before it gets dark. In some villages, women especially have benefitted and are able to take on handicraft work or join self-help groups and support each other.“Despite rural India being primarily patriarchal, the solar lights given to an entire household, benefit every individual in the family, be it men, women or children”, says a team member.
The uniqueness of this project also lies in its initiative called ‘The Youth Ambassador Programme’, which is popular with school and college students, who want to volunteer their time to such social causes. The recent Assam project had two youth ambassadors, Saumya Dedhia and Noori Chaudhary, who accompanied the Project Chirag team to execute the operations in the villages there.
Project Chirag has also been partnering with last-mile NGOs as they become the point of contact for villagers to ensure better coordination and execution of their plans. These NGOs also help them identify the villages that don’t have any electricity. The recent Assam project was executed in partnership with Jadav Payeng, a Padma Shree recipient, who is a tribal environmental activist and forestry worker from Jorhat. He is also known as the Forest Man of India for his efforts in converting a washed out land into a 1,360 acre forest.
The way ahead
Project Chirag primarily associates with corporates and trusts for fundraising. Individuals can also contribute through cheques and bank transfers. However, with the Assam campaign, the team has leveraged the online platform for fundraising for the first time. “We are more than happy with people’s response. This campaign has given more individuals a chance to contribute to a good cause,” says Ayesha. According to her, the success of such campaigns has also become a motivating factor for the entire team to keep going ahead. The online fundraising campaign for the project in Assam was concluded on July 16 this year where the targetted Rs 6 lakh was collected within a month.
Project Chirag is looking at more such online fundraising campaigns to happen in the future to create a novel platform for individuals looking to contribute to a cause. After the Assam project, the team is looking forward to touching more lives in other remote areas by associating with NGOs and educational institutions for extensive participation. Their target is to reach out to 15,000 households in next three years by expanding to different states in the country.
Having touched so many lives in such a short span of time, Project Chirag is going stronger day by day. Their mission is to light up million more lives as they go ahead.
The individuals and the corporate who are willing to contribute to their cause can reach out to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.