In India, Many Small Steps To Combat Big Problem
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
India's economy is expanding rapidly. And with increased industrialization, carbon emissions are expected to soar. So India's government is working towards a major switch to cleaner energy. That includes the construction of the world's biggest solar power complex.
And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, people in the Indian countryside are already finding ways to use alternative energy.
PHILIP REEVES: In India, there's a sweep of hills that rises in the west and rolls across the landscape for hundreds of miles. They're called the Satpuras. Much of India is overcrowded and polluted. Here, in these hills, you find teak forest and rivers, leopards, vipers and flying squirrels. There are tribal people using survival techniques that haven't changed for centuries. There's also a rather unusual couple.
REEVES: Michael Mazgaonkar and Swati Desai aren't from these parts. He trained as a textile engineer; she as a physicist. They could be earning a lot of money by now. But, says Swati, they chose a different path with a particular goal in mind.
Ms. SWATI DESAI (Co-Director, Mozda Collective): And we don't want to exploit on nature and human being. That's how life has to be.
REEVES: For the last 18 years, Michael and Swati have been living in a tribal village called Juna Mozda in the state of Gujarat. The villagers helped them build their home, weaving the walls from strips of bamboo and sealing them with a mixture of mud and cow dung.
India can be unbearably hot, yet Michael and Swati have no fridge, no AC and no electric fans. They don't own a TV, a microwave or a car.
Ms. DESAI: The less you have, the life is much more peaceful. And, you know, that's how we like it.
REEVES: They do have a windmill. It's on a hillock just behind their home. They built it four years ago with members of the village collective they help run. Today there's a strong breeze, so its blades are spinning rapidly. It's generating power for about half a dozen village homes. The windmill powers up a big central battery bank. Michael says villagers who've signed up to receive windmill power have a small battery they keep at home.
Mr. MICHAEL MAZGAONKAR (Co-Director, Mozda Collective): And every third morning, they bring their home batteries to the central battery bank. From there, it is charged during the day, and in the evening, they take it back to their homes.
REEVES: The village is hooked up to the government-run electricity grid, but there are frequent power outages, sometimes lasting days. Most of the villagers are poor. They find grid power very expensive. Power from the windmill is extremely cheap. There's a solar backup system in case there's no wind, so it's always there. Michael says villagers see this as important.
Mr. MAZGAONKAR: This is the first time that they have a reliable lighting supply. And this is the first time that they can feel that the lighting is in their own hands and in their own power to switch off and switch on, instead of somebody down the grid.
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REEVES: Khalia Rattah's(ph)home is a modern waffle building divided into two rooms. Khalia lives in one with his wife and son. His cattle live in the other. The family goats wander between the two. Khalia only uses windmill power. He has grid electricity, but he can't afford the bills. This means he only has enough power for a couple of small lights, glowing dimly above the cooking pots and a couple more over the cattle area.
Mr. KHALIA RATTAH: (Through translator) If the cattle fight at night or if they need feeding, it means I have some light. It's very useful.
REEVES: In the yard of a nearby village house, there's a strange contraption. It looks very like a large oval satellite dish covered in small mirrors. It is in fact a solar oven. Michael and the village collective are also building these. The dish tracks the sun using a clock made from a bicycle sprocket. The mirrors fire the sun's rays in a concentrated beam at a metal box, that's the oven. It doesn't work too well on a cloudy day, but when the sun shines, you can cook a feast.
Mr. MAZGAONKAR: We've made rice and dhal and vegetables for 22 people in three, three and a half hours with this. And so, it's excellent.
REEVES: The village is a long way from India's high-powered institutions, where scientists are searching for ways to reduce carbon emissions, yet Michael believes these small-scale initiatives are crucial.
Mr. MAZGAONKAR: Because these are also technologies where people can make them, maintain them, install them and so on. If people can make them and maintain them, then they can also control them.
REEVES: That means transferring power to people at the grassroots, away from officials with a long record of neglecting India's rural poor.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.
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