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The Sutra Of Energy

Suggenahalli village turns around its fortunes as science goes to the grassroots

The Sutra Of Energy

FOR years, a sense of the peculiar hit you each time you walked through this village. It was the large number of mentally handicapped children, neither afflicted by mysterious disease nor scourged by malnutrition. They were simply the products of consanguineous marriages forced upon Suggenahalli due to one extraordinary factor:the lack of drinking water. None from the neighbourhood was willing to offer their daughter's hand in marriage. And condemn her to the toil of fetching drinking water from a tank situated at least two km away.

No longer, hopefully. Courtesy the efforts of experts from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, Suggenahalli is participating in SuTRA or Sustainable Transformation of Rural Areas. Technicians from IISc moved into the semi-arid area of Tumkur to ensure an uninterrupted supply of water and power for the villagers. And it's a package that has been implemented by the villagers, without any support from the government.

In fact, so enthused are the villagers they're even willing to pay for the water and electricity: Rs 10 for water and Rs 15 for electricity. Something unusual for the farmers of Karnataka who have been beneficiaries of the populist schemes of successive governments to provide power and water without even having to pay a paisa.

It's with a measure of pride that the Gram Vikas Sabha has accepted the responsibility of maintaining the project. Says Rajanna, a member of the sabha: "It's better than the drinking water schemes of the government because it's our responsibility to see that every house gets sufficient water. In neighbouring villages, we've seen borewell pumps which have broken down, but not repaired for months because officials take months to approve such repairs. Here, our technicians set the system right in a day or two." Adds Chandrashekar, another member: "We have sufficient water now in the morning, and can leave for the fields early. Before this project was given to our village, we had to wait for women to trek to the tank, fetch water and cook by noon."

 To begin with, IISc has set up two biogas plants in Suggenahalli and two other villages to generate electricity. They will soon be replaced by generators which run on Honge oil (oil extracted from the seeds of the Pongemia tree), castor seeds and even sprouted tamarind seeds as sources of power generation. The IISc team has found Honge oil an inexpensive and environment-friendly alternative to diesel. The Pongemia trees grow well in arid and semi-arid tracts and can augment the villagers' income as the oil also finds application in the soap and tanning industries of the neighbouring states. Besides, these trees can also help the country meet its obligations with regard to the United Nations Framework for Convention for Climate Change—India would have to eliminate engines which spew carbon dioxide by the year 2002. According to the scientists, a litre of Honge oil would cost Rs 8 as against Rs 13 for diesel. Besides, the oil cake can be used either to feed cattle or as fertiliser for crops. Prompted by their success in initial trials of running generators with this oil, the team has acquired a 100 KW plant in order to supply power to a cluster of villages.

Says Prof. Udupi Shrinivasa, chief programme executive of SuTRA: "We seem to have got most pieces of the puzzle together—land use, manpower utilisation, energy generation and water conservation, and money required for the package from the people. By December, we'll have a package in place, a package where borewells will provide drinking water, power generators will run pumps and lights, a water distribution system, a green cover of economically useful trees and a management practice. "

According to Shrinivas, unlike other programmes, SuTRA will link energy with development. "Energy is the engine to power the rural development programme. Of course, using locally available resources of land, manpower and the crucial component of water. We're also trying to recharge aquifiers, so that agricultural operations are independent of the monsoon, and ensure employment to every family. We'll also encourage them to grow cash crops like mulberry or groundnut so that they have money to pay for water and energy, and supply the raw material for generation of power. We're trying to double the income of farmers through this programme because now, the manpower utility is only half-a-day for a family per day. We could take it to three mandays of labour per family, which means the earning will increase by five to six times."

 Besides the use of local resources for generation of power and ways to enhance the economy of rural areas, SuTRA is the only project which envisages recovery of capital from farmers. The funds thus recovered can be ploughed back for similar projects in other villages, a process Shrinivasa describes as a rolling fund.

Shrinivasa and his team have also encouraged two young ayurvedic doctors to drive down from Bangalore once a week to treat patients at Suggenahalli and neighbouring villages. Most of the people who come for treatment suffer from infection of the skin and feet, perhaps because of the lack of personal hygiene, says one of the doctors, Dr Archana. "But we find very few cases of diabetes or hypertension which is common in urban areas," says she. The incidence of psychosomatic disorders is virtually zero, adds Dr K. Srikanth, another doctor who works out of a tiled house in the village. Soon, these doctors plan to hold camps on personal hygiene and related areas.

SuTRA's success, however, has been the loss of ASTRA or the Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas, an IISc facility Shrinivasa headed for eight years. The programme was conceived by Shrinivasa, but by the time the funding agencies cleared it, he had completed his term as chairman. Funding agencies like the ministry of non-conventional energy sources, New Delhi, insisted that he lead the team, but those in ASTRA refused to heed. Shrinivasa has few regrets since he thinks ASTRA didn't look beyond demonstrating the use of fuelwood or dung, while under SuTRA his team is exploring the possibility of power generation from a variety of sources.

These glitches apart, the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology (KSCST) and the ministry of rural development and panchayat raj are mooting a proposal for a UNDP-supported programme to carry SuTRA to other villages. "We're going to ask UNDP officials for funds of about Rs 40 crore next year," says M.S. Ramaprasad, KSCST joint executive secretary.

But before SuTRAcan go to other villages, Suggenahalli villagers are mounting pressure that the village be provided water for irrigation as well. Their plea: water be pumped over a three-km distance from Shimsha, a tributary of the Cauvery, to irrigate the parched lands. That, the scientists admit, is a tall order, for the pipeline would have to pass through two neighbouring villages and stretches of private land. Besides legal complications, the team is wary of the flow being reduced to a trickle because the neighbours can tap the pipeline to irrigate their land.

Education is another crucial component that the team has not placed emphasis on, but Shrinivasa is cautious and would rather restrict the focus on rural development and the prosperity of the farmers rather than put his fingers in every pie.

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