Suman Sakharam is a 10-year-old tribal boy in Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district. Till three months ago, he would spend the day grazing cows. This meant he could not attend his local school, which shut at 6 pm.
His village had no electricity, and so, the school gave over at sunset.
Now, he does both. His village still doesn’t have electricity, but his school now has a few solar lanterns — solar-powered lamps with a power storage device — that allows it to conduct classes after sunset.
“Earlier, the school would shut at 6 pm. But now, thanks, to the solar lantern, it functions till 8 pm. This means I can finish my work and then study,” said Sakharam.
The benefactor: Chetan Solanki, a 34-year-old assistant professor in the Department of Energy Science & Engineering at IIT, Bombay, who has donated 540 solar lanterns to rural schools across the country through his NGO, New Energy Foundation. This has enabled 16,000 underprivileged children to pursue their studies.
Solanki remembers how, as a seven-year-old, he escaped being stung by a scorpion while studying under a kerosene lamp. His home in Nemit village, MP, didn’t have electricity then.
Even now, it has only intermittent power supply and no public transport. Fortunately for him, those days didn’t last long. His father sent him to Indore for secondary schooling and college thereafter.
These memories came flooding back when he recently received a letter from Sakharam, thanking him for “bringing light” to his academic life.
“Having studied under kerosene light as a child, I know how tough it is. There are all kinds of insects walking around and your eyes start watering due to the smoke. Solar lanterns are an ideal enabler of education in rural and tribal areas where power supply is non-existent or erratic,” said Solanki.
It was a sense of déjà vu while visiting his village that goaded him into action. “We need to make use of technology for development. Education is the biggest bottleneck to development.”
Solanki set out on his mission to provide rural schools with solar lanterns in 2007. He started by distributing 40 in 2007 to Ekal Vidyalayas, a chain of non-formal schools for tribals run by the Kolkata-based Friends of Tribal Society, in 18 villages of Jhirnia tehsil in MP.
Since then, he has expanded his list of beneficiaries to schools in Maharashtra, Andhra, Kerala, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Rose, a Belgium-based non-profit organisation, which he started while pursuing his PhD at the 500-year-old Catholic University in Leuven, gave him Rs 3 lakh to fund his dreams.
“The functioning of our schools has improved since the introduction of solar lanterns,” said P.N. Kulkarni, FTS organising secretary for the Nashik branch. Added Hemanth Modh, Ekal Vidyalaya’s project coordinator in MP: “Several children who work in the day cannot join school since there is no electricity. With solar lanterns, we can run evening schools.”
NEF works with donor organisations from private groups or individuals. Last year, for example, Applied Materials, an MNC that makes solar lanterns, gave him Rs 23 lakh to take his mission forward. Solanki also sources lanterns from Tata BP Solar.
His next goal: approach corporate houses for sufficient funds to distribute 15,000 lanterns to tribal schools over the next two years.