Brightly dressed in colourful cotton saris and reporting for work at the rural energy workshop between 9.30 and 10 am every day—including Sundays when they have to execute an order for solar lamps and panels —these women represent the face of changing India. In a country steeped with reports of farmer and weaver suicides and large-scale unemployment, they present hope. Chennamma and her team have formed the Women Barefoot Solar Engineers Association (WBSEA) and are the harbingers of change. Like Norti Bai of the Social Work Research Centre (SWRC) at Tilonia in Rajasthan, who maps on computers the water available in the villages of Ajmer district, Chennamma, Zayda and the others have shown that they can use the latest technologies for improving village life.
In fact, it was Bunker Roy of SWRC who, on a visit to the NIRD, offered to train the women and help them set up the rural energy workshop and a five-kilowatt solar power-generating unit. So Chennamma, Yelamma, Kalavati and Zayda made several trips to Tilonia between ’02 and ’04 and trained to be solar engineers. They learnt to fabricate, wire and set up solar energy systems. The workshop at the Rural Technology Park at NIRD is a production-cum-training and maintenance facility. Each woman has assembled 1,000 solar lamps, costing Rs 3,500 a piece. It takes two days to assemble one lamp, says Chennamma, the president of WBSEA. They also prepare small solar power circuits.
Of the 586,000-odd villages in the country, 140,000 to 150,000 still need to be electrified. In remote villages, it’s difficult and expensive to supply them power from the grid.
Impressed by the barefoot women engineers, the Andhra Pradesh Tribal Power Company Ltd commissioned the WBSEA to provide solar energy to the tribal hamlets of Pusalapalem and Thamingula. Chennamma and the others have trained local women in the maintenance of the systems. The solar power generated is enough to provide two lights, one fan and ensure the functioning of one black and white TV set for five hours every day. Each household that has a solar connection pays Rs 1,000 as installation charges and Rs 100 a month for maintenance. The money is entrusted to the village energy and environment committee.
Can tribal households invest Rs 1,000 on a solar facility? Of the 120 households, 80 have paid the full amount, 18 have paid part of the money and the rest are trying to raise loans from local self-help groups. Chennamma and her team earn anything from Rs 2,400 to Rs 3,000 a month. Life is looking up.
Contact WBSEA, Rural Technology Park, NIRD, Rajendranagar, Hyderabad. Tel: 040-24008564