How SEWA brings access to energy across India

In India, a lack of electricity can mean sundown equals shutdown – lost productivity and vital income. Now a grass-roots trade group, SEWA, is helping with solar LED lanterns and clean cooking stoves.

Anupam Nath/AP
Girls walk to a school at Burha Mayong village about 28 miles east of Gauhati, India.

“Till now we always lived in darkness. Now I have a solar lantern, it has brought brightness and light to us. Our hearts and minds are now bright. We see hope in the future.” – Fulaba, a weaver from the village of Khombhali in the Kutch deserts of North Gujarat, India.

India is an increasingly dynamic player in the modern digital economy, but many thousands of poor and rural communities still have their lives and work dictated by the rhythms of the sun and the moon. A lack of access to affordable energy means sundown equals shutdown – leading to a loss of productivity, efficiency and valuable income.

“No light means we cannot continue to work after sunset. This means less income, and often we cannot afford to eat on the next day,” said Santokben, an artisan from the village of Bakutra in Gujarat.

This predicament further compounds the marginalized status of women across India, which was  ranked 114 out of 142 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Index. There are vast inequalities of wealth in the Indian economy, and the position of women in rural regions is even worse than those who live in cities.

According to UN Women, 74.8 percent of rural women in India are agricultural workers but only 9.3 percent own the land, while more than 80 percent of women in the region are also employed in vulnerable jobs that lack the protection of labor laws.

Tackling such entrenched inequality requires a long-term, holistic approach that focuses on tangible results rather than lofty words alone. One such example is the “Green Livelihoods Campaign” run since 2009 by the grassroots trade union SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association).

The initiative, known as “Hariyali” in Hindi, aims to provide affordable access to sustainable energy across India. SEWA, founded in 1972 by Elder Ela Bhatt, has argued for decades that access to energy is vital in emancipating communities, and especially women, who are otherwise marginalized both economically and politically.

“The Hariyali Campaign has been structured to deliver energy access, financial inclusion and gender empowerment for SEWA’s members,” said Bhatt. “The key to success was in building a model which is sustainable, replicable and scalable.”

In practice, portable solar LED lanterns and clean cooking stoves are provided to SEWA members on installments, facilitated by affordable bank loans. Women salt farmers are also using pumps powered by solar energy instead of diesel fuel as part of a switch to renewable, sustainable sources of power.

The result has been electrifying – literally. Explained Kapilaben, a widow and farmer from the Gujarat village of Rasnol, “When my husband died I had to bring up three daughters. Life was dark as we had no electricity and everything felt hopeless. How do I cope? Thanks to Hariyali I now have a solar lantern and a cooking stove. Now I do all the work, send all my three daughters to school and am now a grassroots leader at SEWA!”

Working in a country as vast and diverse as India is complex. SEWA listens to local communities and learns from their needs and experiences. The association aims to raise awareness, for example, of how to use more efficient and healthier cooking stoves; to determine availability, so the right sort of stove is delivered to the right people (i.e., the stove made for the South Indian population who mainly eat rice isn’t suited to those who eat roti in North and Central India); and to guarantee affordability by working closely with local communities and financing partners.

SEWA has also developed “Project Urja” to provide solar lights to women’s self-help groups across the impoverished Bihar-Mungar region, in cooperation with India’s Ministry of Rural Development. By February 2013, the project provided 177 LED lights to seven villages, meaning that children can study after dark, women can cook better meals at night, and people can charge their mobile phones.

For Bhatt, this is a shining example of how innovation and cooperation can transform lives and raise communities out of poverty. “At SEWA we are looking forward to a bright future where all our existing as well as new members make use of energy technology and improve their lives.”

• William French is the head of international media at The Elders, an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights.

• Originally posted on The 2015 Skoll World Forum takes place April 15-17 in Oxford, UK.

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