RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When the sun goes down in India, fully a quarter of India lives with little or no light. To fix that, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told global investors this week that his country needs $100 billion in green, renewable energy. NPR's Julie McCarthy has this report on coping with darkness in India and ventures that are bringing light.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: In many of India's poor villages, you make your own energy. Sagarwati, who goes by one name, digs her hands deep into manure and slaps cow dung into patties to burn as fuel to cook her family's food - drudgery that takes hours of her day. We are on the outskirts of Sadikpur, a village in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh in the north of the country. The road is lined with cow dung pies drying in the sun - their version of coal.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLADE CUTTING SUGAR CANE)
MCCARTHY: In this village of bucolic fields, mother and daughter-in-law Sheela and Sunita Devi are the horsepower that churns a blade that shreds sugarcane into feed. Sitting cross-legged in a courtyard hand-weaving a basket, 70-year-old Baburam says nothing is mechanized here. The residents of Sadikpur have never been connected to the national power grid. They are among the estimated 300 million Indians - roughly the population of the United States - who have no regulated source of electricity. Baburam, a grandfather, is angry that six decades after India's independence, kerosene still illuminates the houses with a light so dim he says it discourages anyone from learning to read.
BABURAM: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: Baburam also says the fumes from kerosene and wood-burning indoors "burn our eyes, and we cannot breathe." Exposure to indoor air pollution as a result of smoke from burning biomass is estimated to cause more than a half a million premature deaths a year in India. Rahul Tongia is an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University specializing in sustainable development and energy policy in India.
RAHUL TONGIA: The indoor air pollution is so bad that per one major study, it was the single largest cause of disability-adjusted life years, or impact on health - more than tobacco, more than blood pressure, heart attacks, all of these things. And it disproportionately impacts those who are indoors a lot, which is women and children.
MCCARTHY: Doing anything productive at night requires real grit. Resident Ajay Kumar Singh, 26, has ambitions of joining the state's civil service. That requires a lot of study. And if you are studying at night, how are you reading?
AJAY KUMAR SINGH: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "A lamp," he says, "rigged to the one generator shared by 150 families here." And even at times, he says he relies on candlelight. Village petitions for power have gotten tangled in the complex web of government edicts, power companies and suppliers. The villagers of Sadikpur are dismayed to learn they lack the 3,000 residents required to qualify for electricity. At the local electric company, we put the question to the superintendent engineer, Punkaj Kumar.
How is it that you could go for 67 years and not have electricity in a rather sizable village?
PUNKAJ KUMAR: It's a very big country. In 67 years, we have completed almost 95 percent of the country electrified.
MCCARTHY: India's electric grid may reach 95 percent of villages, but that doesn't mean it covers all of the houses. The 2011 census says that just 55 percent of rural homes use electricity as the primary source of lighting. This shortage in one of the world's largest electricity markets is stirring a modern-day gold rush.
Global investors from U.S.-based Sun Edison to India's energy giant Reliance came together this week in Delhi and pledged to install green power that would double India's energy capacity. India's Minister for Power, Coal and Renewable Energy Piyush Goyal says it will cut India's dependence on fossil fuels that make it the world's third-biggest polluter.
PIYUSH GOYAL: And for the people of India, it's more power to the villages. It's more power to the common man. It's more power to the last man on the street who's been deprived of it for 67 years.
MCCARTHY: For a look at how small entrepreneurs are helping some of those 300 million still not connected to India's power grid, we had South - a three-hour flight to Bangalore, then a seven-hour drive to the lush hills of the state of Karnataka. The last leg - a spine-jolting ride in a Jeep - is a metaphor for the challenge people who live here face.
ANANTH ARAVAMUDAN: This is a place where you don't have any electricity at all.
MCCARTHY: That's Ananth Aravamudan with the Indian energy company SELCO. It works with local banks to make loans to poor villagers to buy SELCO's $200 solar home lighting system on installments for as little as a hundred rupees or $1.60 a week. Arriving at the village of Tulasikere, women fetch water as they have for centuries. This 36-year-old farmer named Dummada says there's been no development here for the last three generations and says the government wants to reclaim the land as forest.
DUMMADA: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: Feeling let down by the government, Dummada electrified his own home - the first in the village to install the small solar lighting system. Seventy-five percent of the villagers now have solar panels attached to their roofs. The young farmer says the panels charge the portable torches villagers use at night to protect their fields against pillaging animals. Their children study at night with solar-charged lanterns. The headmaster reports school attendance is up. SELCO founder Harish Hande sees clean energy as an agent of social change.
HARISH HANDE: We look at sustainable energies as absolute catalyst between development, increased income and better quality of life leading to social sustainability, where people feel - yeah, everybody has a chance. And that's at stake.
MCCARTHY: Hande says India's rural poor are not looking for sympathy. They are looking for a partner. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.