21 November 2009

Barefoot into the light

By Marguerite Finn

The debate continues as to whether overseas development aid is working or not. I want to tell you a story about a group of women in rural India. It is the most optimistic tale I have heard in a long while - a testament to the indomitable resilience of the human spirit. This is the story of India's female barefoot solar engineers.

Tinginaput is an ordinary village in remote rural India - two rows of neat mud houses, a few water pumps, a mango tree where people gather to talk. But there is something very modern perched on the tiles of each roof: a solar panel the size of two A4 books. From these, wires lead into the houses, bringing light and power. Five tall street lamps have their own solar system – giving light throughout the night and the villagers no longer fear attacks from bears from the surrounding hills.

Three years ago, four women from the village made an extraordinary journey. They left their remote highland homes for the first time in their lives and travelled into modernity, way beyond the strict boundaries that govern a woman's life among the tribes of India's Eastern Ghats – the irregular range of mountains running along India’s eastern coast.

"Before 2005, I'd never even seen an outsider", says grandmother Pulka Wadeka. Like most women in the villages she cannot read or write. But she can wire up and run a solar-powered 12-volt electricity system.

With three friends, Pulka journeyed to the southern city of Hyderabad for five months training in solar power technology. It took courage to travel to a big city where no one could speak their language. The initiative came from the Orissa Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme (OTELP) funded by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Pulka remembered: "The train to the city was very scary. We missed home. But as head of the village self-help group I had to go, for my community". Training was hard – learning the English alphabet and numbers to work out the circuit diagrams. But now Pulka wields pliers and multimeter like a practiced electrician.

It is hard for us to imagine how solar power transformed so many aspects of the villager's lives. They save on kerosene for their oil lamps – an expensive and dangerous item. The bright portable solar lights they now use enable craftwork - such as broom making - to be done at night as well as during the day. Children can do their schoolwork in the evenings and there is more time for working in the fields. As a result, incomes are increasing.

Success at Tinginaput means solar power can spread across the district. A training centre has been set up to teach other people from the hill tribes how to erect street lighting and house-power systems. A banner proudly announces the women’s new co-operative: The Orissa Tribal Women Barefoot Solar Engineers Association. The women have been given a contract to build 3,000 solar-powered lanterns for schools and institutions.

Although DFID's five-year funding for the OTELP project runs out in 2010, the Department's representative in Orissa is convinced the project will continue: "When DIFID steps away, it will keep going because it is now a flagship programme for the Orissa state government".

Development Aid works providing it remains focussed upon the needs of the community. Peter Reid, DFID's chief technical adviser to the project, sums it up succinctly: "What's very satisfying is the increased strength of communities, especially among women. That may be the most important thing, because social cohesion enables people to withstand shocks. It gives them better access to finance, to information and skills – enabling them to adapt to the challenges of climate change."

Tinginaput is one example of the effectiveness of oversees aid.

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