Access to Energy: Empowering India’s Rural Communities

Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Odisha in the Bay of Bengal, the village of Keragam is home to around 230 families, most of whom are farmers. They live about 30km from the nearest town, while the state capital, Bhubaneswar, is an 11-hour drive away.

Those who work the land here do so in relative isolation; they grow rice and sugarcane as best they can, in a patchwork of green and brown pastures sweeping over India’s Eastern Ghats.

“We used to use a dhenki[1] to harvest rice from our fields,” explains one of the women in Keragam, where villagers have long relied on manual labour to irrigate their paddies and process the rice and sugarcane.

“Until last year we were using a bullock-powered crusher to extract juice from sugarcane to make jaggery,” said another woman. “Five people were involved in the process, which was very time-consuming,” she added.

Access to Energy: Empowering India’s Rural Communities

The installation of solar panels to power the irrigation pumps have been a game changer in the community.

All this backbreaking, labour-intensive work limited the amount of land the villagers could farm and the number of crops they could grow and harvest each year. When development did arrive, it brought with it a new set of problems. As the Keragam women recall, “we shifted to a diesel-operated rice mill, but fuel was expensive, so we had to walk long distances to get it.”

What they needed was a helping hand from new technologies – a way to upgrade their farming practices and expand their production capacity, without increasing their costs. Last year, the solution finally arrived: a team funded by Schneider Electric installed a series of solar-powered irrigation pumps, connected to a sustainable energy centre known as a microgrid; this self-contained electrical network lets the villagers of Keragam generate their own power, by utilising on-site renewables such as wind and solar.

“Now we’re using the solar-powered rice mill and it’s much more convenient and less expensive for us,” says Sumani Bhandari, one of many women in Keragam to have been energised by the new technology.

The microgrid can help cut costs, improve reliability and even generate income, by selling energy back to the grid. To support its implementation, Schneider trained several farmers to operate the new machinery, as part of its Access to Energy programme.

The solar-powered irrigation pumps have been a game changer in the community. “They’re very low cost and low maintenance,” explains Trinath Gumudia, who now works as a microgrid operator. “In the past, the manual approach was very labour-intensive, and people were only able to cultivate a small area of land, but these days we’re using solar-powered irrigation pumps to irrigate our fields.” For farmers like Gumudia, the initiative has flicked a switch, super-charging production and supplying his community with the energy they need to grow.

New technologies have transformed the lives of Keragam’s farmers. In years gone by, they only had the manpower for one annual harvest. Now, workers are bringing in two or sometimes even three crops a year, while the time and energy they have saved has also allowed them to open up larger areas of land for cultivation. In this way, energy solutions from Schneider are helping rural Indian communities to break new ground and broaden their horizons.

Keragam is just one small node in a network of villages that criss-cross rural India, each one facing the same problems of access to clean, reliable and affordable energy. Zooming out, Schneider’s approach can be repeated in multiple locations, reaching out to thousands of people each year. This can improve yields, lower costs and ease the working burden on India’s rural communities. Most importantly, it can empower them to become the drivers of their own sustainable development in the years ahead.

This development is central to India’s vision for the future, which the government has been striving to bring into focus at the national level. In recent years, high-tech industries have sprung up, spurring rapid economic growth and helping large swathes of the population to live longer, healthier lives. Nevertheless, beyond the major cities, poverty and carbon dependence continue to pose major obstacles to sustainability.

Access to Energy: Empowering India’s Rural Communities

The Indian government has outlined ambitious targets for energy development in rural areas and believes clean energy can offer a pathway to achieving low-carbon commitments. By 2030, India aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services,[2] using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a roadmap for its journey in the decade ahead. These 17 SDGs, broken down into 169 interlinked targets, address a range of issues – from poverty and climate change to gender equality, health and education.

Major milestones have already been reached on this journey. Last year, India’s performance jumped from 60 to 66 on the SDG Index[3], sparked by nationwide developments in clean water and sanitation, and affordable and clean energy (the latter actually scored 92, which indicates just how central green energy has become to development on the subcontinent). However, if these initiatives are going to take root in the soil of rural India, careful nurturing from the private sector will be needed in the years ahead.

Through the Access to Energy programme, Schneider is putting theory into practice and turning potential into concrete progress. The village of Keragam provides an example of just how much these initiatives can impact the lives of local people in some of India’s poorest areas, reducing their working burden and supplying them with the clean and reliable sources of energy they need to develop their businesses and grow into a greener future.

With a combination of training and technology, Schneider is working to empower rural communities and deliver lasting, sustainable impacts. By supporting clean energy solutions at the local level, networks of farming communities can begin to find connections, thereby sparking development on a regional scale. For those plugging into the new power source, the future looks brighter already.

To find out more about the story, watch the video below:

[1] A wooden rice mill or husk lever found in agricultural regions of Nepal, Bangladesh and India, used to separate grains of rice from the husks. Operated by hand, the dhenki is most commonly used by women, for whom the work can be long and physically exhausting.

[2] Next Decade Action Agenda to Advance SDG7 on Sustainable Energy For All, In Line with the Goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Energy Compact of the Government of India, 22 September 2021

[3] According to the third edition of the SDG India Index and Dashboard 2020-21 prepared by the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog); the Government of India’s main public policy think tank.

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