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Bringing sunshine to their lives

In Patna, a Jesuit priest who set out to save trees ended up heading a non-profit solar power appliance plant that is changing lives, reports Ruchir Kumar.

patna Updated: Nov 30, 2009 00:04 IST
Ruchir Kumar

It’s an unusual nickname, but “Solar Mathew” loves it.

To the Jesuit priest based in Patna, it’s a reminder of the community project that has changed the way the region’s villagers cook, live and view the green cover around them.

Father MM Mathew (52), who holds a diploma in mechanical engineering, is now planning to set up a solar crematorium in Patna. “Many (people from poorer sections) struggle to collect the Rs 4000 to Rs 5,000 need to buy wood for a funeral pyre.”

But what’s a Jesuit priest doing building solar crematoriums in Patna?

It all started in 1986, when Father Robert Athickal, also a senior Jesuit, founded Taru Mitra (Friend of Trees) in response to what he saw as a growing environmental crisis.

Trees were disappearing all over Bihar — and still are. (As per the 2001-03 Forest Survey of India, the state lost 162 sq km of green cover in just two years, between 1999 and 2001.)

Meanwhile, even in the 1980s, temperatures were beginning to rise and floods were getting more violent as river water coursed across erstwhile forestland unhindered.

So, Father Athickal set up a student forum in Patna to encourage residents to stop cutting down trees for firewood.

But what would locals then use for fuel?

To tackle this, Father Mathew sought the support of the Jesuit organisation in Patna to set up a solar appliances assembling unit — the Solar Alternatives & Associated Programmes (SAAP).

“I knew how vital firewood was to these people,” he says. “We had to give them something that worked.”

So, the priest requested assistance from the best expert he knew of: German scientist Wolfgang Scheffler.

Scheffler granted the Jesuits permission to use his technology, and began supplying solar reflectors.

The church offered land and funding — Rs 1.25 lakh to begin with and the one-acre plot at the St Mary’s Church campus in Phulwarisharif where the plant is still based.

Success soon followed.

Since 1996, when the Solar Alternatives centre first began operations, it has assembled a range of solar appliances, including solar steam turbines with reflectors that produce electricity using solar power, multi-purpose windmills, solar cookers and even solar cycle rickshaws.

Orders are pouring in from 18 states across the country. “The solar cookers are helping save millions of trees across the country that would otherwise have become firewood,” says Father Mathew.

And Solar Alternatives has been recognised as a supplier by the Union Ministry of New & Renewable Energy.

Not bad for a group of priests who just wanted to save the trees.