Life Without Light in Rural India: Why Solar Lanterns Can’t Compete With the Grid
Monday, June 8, 2015
Chanda sometimes wakes long before dawn to sweep her house and beat the husk off her rice. Now in her 70s, Chanda has long since lost her sight. The sound of her morning activities reverberates down the narrow, unpaved street of the Adivasi colony, through the mud brick walls of the homes stacked either side, waking her neighbours. Next door, Leena complains but is sympathetic. “Living without electricity is like being blind,” she says. “You move around your home and cook without being able to see. Even in the day it is the middle of the night.”
Ducking into the home that Leena shares with her husband, you quickly appreciate the analogy. Two beams support a low roof made from a blue tarpaulin and corrugated iron sheets. The windowless walls offer some protection from the winter cold and the monsoon rain. They also keep the daylight out. Leena cooks on three polished stones at the back of her house, balancing her pots over a small open fire that have long since blackened the ceiling. Even at noon with the wooden door wide open, her kitchen sinks into the gloom.
Leena’s mother once made castor oil to light the inside of her home. She gathered the small orange seeds from plants in the hills, crushed them and boiled the grounds, skimming off the oil to burn in a clay lamp. Today, like everyone else in the colony, Leena burns kerosene. Each Wednesday, she carries a half-litre plastic bottle to the market, a three-kilometre walk away, and buys enough fuel for the week. Each night, she lights it in a coopi, a lamp made from an old coconut oil tin.
This is the village of Goudaguda, nestled in a fertile valley amid the high plateaus of southern Odisha, India. More than half the population of 1,500 are Poraja Adivasis, an indigenous community who rank among India’s poorest and most marginalised people. For many like Leena, life without electricity is most keenly felt in the home at night, when the kerosene lamps are lit. The use of kerosene lamps in rural India is associated with the risk of domestic fire and respiratory infection, but nobody in Goudaguda describes the risks in these terms. Many Adivasi houses are built to accommodate the use of kerosene and to mitigate the perceived danger of burning it indoors. Lamps are often placed in a small alcove called a tobo that has been built specially into the wall. At night, these keep the coopi’s naked flame out of the reach of children and partially contain its noxious fumes.
The absence of electricity is also apparent during the day. Goudaguda’s agrarian economy revolves around manual and unmechanised work, with no electrical appliances to ease the labour. The grains of millet, maize and rice harvested on the valley floor, for example, are all husked and polished by hand. Of course, on special occasions people generate their own electricity. During the Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi or the Poraja harvest festival of Pus Parab, the Adivasis hire a diesel generator from the nearest town, buying enough diesel to power a colony’s worth of coloured lights and run a sound system all night long.
Yet Goudaguda is not entirely unelectrified. Like elsewhere in Odisha, one of India’s poorest states, access to electricity here maps directly onto income and caste. In 1984, a line of wires and pylons first connected the homes of its richest families, the high caste Gouda farmers and traders who give the village its name, to the regional electricity grid.