Letting there be light

Aug 26, 2012, 08:53 IST | Dhvani Solani

At 8.30 pm on March 21 this year, as the earth plunged into darkness during Earth Hour, a tiny village in Maharashtra went from utter darkness to being speckled with solar lights. Making light of her birthday was Namrata Hingorani, with a team of student volunteers

For many years, Namrata Hingorani celebrated her birthday like most of us — with a party, or on a holiday. But her 40th birthday — celebrated belatedly in March this year rather than on December 16 last year — had a different agenda.

It included driving down to a village located three hours from Mumbai, and lighting it up, literally. As a result, the village of Dongaripada, in the Dahanu Taluka of Thane district, has been transformed — from having no electricity and endless dark nights, to now being dotted with solar lights.

Hingorani, who spent the past 22 years largely in the USA, and for a bit, in the UK, left her cushy job as a business consultant to come back to India to live with her parents, and explore other options in life, two-and-a-half years ago. “I thought I’d live in India for six months and volunteer in the non-profit sector. But as I started doing things I enjoyed, time flew. I call this a ‘good’ kind of a midlife crisis,” she laughs.

As her 40th birthday drew closer, Hingorani decided to celebrate by including friends and family the world over. “I wanted to do something that I could be proud of. I knew that my friends and family would happily participate.”

In July last year, she stumbled upon Project Chirag, a youth initiative started by students of HR College to provide solar lighting to villages without electricity. After meeting the young guns behind the venture, she sent out fund raising e-mails to people she knew around the world in December. By March, she was presented with a sweet bounty of Rs 2.5 lakh.

 Namrata Hingorani Pic/ Nimesh Dave 

“When I met Jyotirmoy from Project Chirag, I was impressed. This cause is entirely run by a group of passionate and smart college kids, and the assembly of the solar lamps is done by groups of differently-abled that include paraplegics, the deaf-and-mute, as well as Adivasis and some other indigenous communities.”

On March 31, Hingorani went down to Dongaripada with a group of student volunteers from Project Chirag. With Hingorani was a friend who caught their trip on camera, and is currently in the process of converting the footage into a documentary film.

Armed with a hammer, nails, a tool belt and a glove, the group divided itself into teams that walked up to the houses in the village and installed the solar panels that include a stationary light and a portable one, per household. The volunteers installed two panels on the rooftops of these tribal houses where one can get maximum sunlight, and connected the wires coming out of these panels into a battery, which in turn, energised the tubelight and lantern.

Locals in their home in Dongripada in the Dahanu Taluka of Thane district after the solar light was installed

“The kids followed us between houses and we even got some of them to speak on camera. When asked what they were looking forward to most now that they would have light after sunset, their unanimous response was ‘Abhyaas’. That thrilled us.” On this day, the world observed Earth Hour and switched off its lights at 8.30 pm. But Dongaripada, for the first time in its long life, was just coming alive.

It was when she went back to the village in June that she saw the full impact of the light on the lives of the villagers. “The women can now easily cook dinner post sunset, without having to rely on kerosene lamps. People can now venture out without the fear of being bitten by a snake.”

A “happy byproduct” of Hingorani’s propaganda through email and Facebook was that many others started signing up for causes, as a way to celebrate their birthdays. “Such experiences teach you to have a lot more appreciation for what you have, and to focus less on what you don’t,” she concludes. 

Right to light
Earlier this month, the village of Chichapada near Palghar in Maharashtra became the 100th village lit up by Project Chirag. Established by Students In Free Enterprise at HR College of Economics and Commerce (SIFE HRC) in early 2010, Project Chirag aims to replace the toxic and expensive kerosene lamps used by many villagers, with clean and sustainable solar lighting. “This started off as a small social initiative and a college project. But the experience was so enlightening that we did not want to limit it to one village,” says Jyotirmoy Chatterji, co-founder and head of the initiative that now functions as an NGO called Chirag Rural Development Foundation. The solar lamps, which cost Rs 4,000 per household for their set-up, are now in 3,781 households in 100 villages, bettering the lives of over 20,000 people. To know more, log on to www.projectchirag.com  

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