By Jonathan Balls, DPhil Candidate
Located on a hill overlooking a stretch of the River Ganges the settlement of Daundiya Kheda is typical of a small rural agricultural village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, North India. Around one hundred houses, a mixture of some pucca brick and concrete, but mostly kacca mud houses, it stands next to an old 19th century temple fort, in Unnao District. In late 2013 the village briefly lost its anonymity. A well-respected local priest had dreamt that a vast haul of gold was hidden beneath the ground near the village temple, and through a series of unclear events and interventions, this led to the Archaeological Survey of India starting an excavation to find the buried treasure. The Indian media and later the world’s media descending on the village; pursuing this unlikely story. The tale was that an ancient King had hidden 1000 tonnes of gold; and the following frenzy of speculation, support and disbelief gripped India.
Gold is yet to be found, and the dig was halted following strong criticism over why it had been started at all. But what interested me at the time was one interview with the village head, in the Times of India newspaper. According to the article, people in the surrounding villages had been making plans about how they hoped to spend some of this golden lottery win, which they wanted a share of. When asked about these plans, village head Ajay Pal Singh said that he had prepared a list, including: “setting up… Asia’s biggest hospital, a railway line, an engineering college and a solar power plant.” The article goes on further, listing the desire for more government jobs for members of the local area.
What surprised me was the inclusion of the wish for a solar power plant. For rural villages in Uttar Pradesh, where electricity is often sparse or not available, it might be expected that a conventional electricity supply would be thought of ahead of a solar power option. And yet thinking on this over the following weeks, I wondered whether solar power might now be seen as a more realistic energy and lighting option for a rural villagers like Daundiya Kheda. According to the 2011 Census figures, 36.8 per cent of households have access to electricity in Uttar Pradesh (Bhushan and Kumar, 2012:5). For many villages, reliable electricity is a ‘forever in the future’ dream. In contrast, in recent years the market for off-grid solar power has been booming in Uttar Pradesh.
Prices for solar power technology have fallen dramatically, and a proliferation of products and accessories, from a range of companies, are now available in local markets. Around 0.7 per cent of households in the state, 164,261, used solar power as a main source of lighting in 2011 (Bhushan and Kumar, 2012:5). With rapid market growth over the last three years, this number will now be significantly higher. In most small towns and markets in Uttar Pradesh solar panels are now common. The cheapest options are small 3, 5, and 10-watt panels, which can charge mobile phones and single LED lights, costing as little as £5. The cheapest locally assembled LED lights cost around 30 pence. Larger more expensive panels can be purchased, at various quality and price levels, to reliably power batteries, lights, fans, TVs and radios.
The events of this story were unfolding while I was conducing PhD fieldwork in Uttar Pradesh, studying the developing off-grid market for solar power. Therefore I decided to visit Daundiya Kheda to find out more, making the trip in late March 2014. The village is a three-hour drive southwest from the state capital Lucknow, the last stretch being on small rough country roads. It is a dry and dusty agricultural landscape at this time of year, with wheat crops ripening in the fields. Leading along a final stretch of road to the temple where digging had occurred are several villages, hugging the road, part of the same gram panchayat village area.
At the temple grounds there was little evidence of the dig for gold, and the site was deserted. We therefore travelled three kilometers back on the road to the house of the village head, where his son Mahendra invited us in to talk. The house was an impressive newly built concrete structure, and I quickly noted that it had a large solar power system installed on its roof, one that would power lights, fans and TVs. While sipping sweat chai in china cups, Mahendra told me that this solar system had been recently installed, and that many households in the village now had solar power. He told me that while electricity was available in the area, it currently only came for around sixteen hours a day, and that this was better than usual, likely due to upcoming elections; that usually ten hours of electricity could be expected. He said that people had confidence in solar power, and therefore were choosing it as a more reliable power option, and were willing to pay for it. Mahendra and his family were economically more prosperous than most in the village, and his solar system would be financially out of reach for most. However, walking through the village, it was easy to spot solar panels on many house roofs.
A short distance from the house of the village head, I met Anil, who works as a teacher in a local school. He owned a smaller 40-watt solar home system, brought one year ago. Installed with a battery, such a panel can power combinations of several lights, a fan, or a black and white TV. Anil purchased the system through a loan from the local grameen development bank, accessing a forty per cent capital subsidy from the government, available for purchases through a bank with a loan. The post-subsidy cost of the system was 10,000 rupees (£100), but he had to pay only 500 rupees as a down payment (£5). Monthly re-payments were then due over a period of two to five years. He told me that in the cluster of villages in this area, of about 500 households 200 had now taken loans from the bank to buy such systems. Again, he spoke of how electricity could not be relied upon, and how with these solar home systems lighting was now available in the crucial evening hours when electricity rarely comes, making cooking easier and evening activities possible. For Anil, solar power was extremely beneficial, although at times it did not meet all household needs.
Throughout Uttar Pradesh such solar home systems, purchased through banks, can be seen on village rooftops. Sometimes they entirely replace the need for electricity, but more often act as a booster system, to charge batteries and supply needs not fully covered by unreliable electricity. However, they are often still too expensive for people, and financing such systems can be unreliable. For these people, local markets are an increasingly viable option; indeed many people who can afford to buy through banks now choose instead to go to local markets. Within five kilometers of Daundiya Kheda two different shops were selling cheap Chinese and local panels and solar accessories, providing a final cheaper option for people in the village.
In the conversations that I had while visiting this village, the talk was rarely about the electricity grid being extended to more houses, or being made more reliable. This is something in the hands of people beyond village boundaries. In contrast, solar power is a viable option now, with different sizes and quality levels meaning that it is not just the wealthiest who can afford to buy solar power. It is therefore not surprising perhaps, that faced with the possibility of a windfall of money from the discovery of hidden gold, that people would speak of solar power rather than electricity.
During ten months spent researching in Uttar Pradesh it became apparent that this story of solar power being increasingly adopted was one that was similar in villages through much of the state. With the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India earlier this year, solar power has been receiving fresh focus in the media and in policy announcements. Modi has promised more money for solar power, and has said that by 2019 he will ensure every home in the country has one light bulb, powered by energy from solar (Bloomberg, 2014). Currently the focus is on large-scale solar projects, and ‘mega parks’ (The Guardian, 2014). Many point to successes with such projects in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, and the need to replicated these.
The story from Daundiya Kheda, and from similar villages in Uttar Pradesh suggests that decentralised off-grid solar power is also increasingly an important sector. While Daundiya Kheda has now regained its anonymity, the media having long left, the growing role of off-grid solar power is a significant longer-term issue bringing changes in the village, which should not be ignored. It is not as obviously glamorous a story as that of hidden gold, but it is I argue a more interesting long-term developing story.
Bhushan, C. & Kumar, J. 2012. Going Remote: Re-inventing the off-grid solar revolution for clean energy for all. New Delhi: Centre for Science and the Environment.
Bloomberg (2014) ‘Modi to Use Solar to Bring Power to Every Home by 2019’. Link: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-19/modi-to-use-solar-to-bring-power-to-every-home-by-2019.html
The Guardian (2014) ‘Can Narendra Modi bring the solar power revolution to India?’. Link: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/30/-sp-narendra-modi-india-solar-renewables-energy
The Times of India (2013) ‘Unnao residents want development, dream of hospitals, jobs’. Link: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/lucknow/Unnao-residents-want-development-dream-of-hospitals-jobs/articleshow/24651894.cms