Solar streetlights are proving to be very popular local infrastructure investments in rural Odisha at the moment. Universally appreciated, easy to procure and install, cost-effective and great for scoring political points with - solar streetlights are popping up in villages throughout the Indian state in which we set up a social enterprise, Urjaa Samadhan. Our team recently installed around 70 solar streetlights in a clutch of villages in the north-eastern district of Odisha called Mayurbhanj.
These streetlights are a little different to streetlights that we get in the UK in that they not only have solar for power generation, but they also have an integrated battery for storage and release of energy at night time.
Bindu Kumar was Urjaa Samadhan's technician on this job. When he first travelled to the villages in question he voiced concern to the client, a local NGO, that having the streetlight's battery on show could be a potential issue. After all, the battery is one of the most valuable components of a system like this, which in total is worth around £300, certainly not a trivial amount in these parts. The NGO, villagers and installation team agreed that, unfortunately, the temptation for residents of the village or nearby villages to remove the batteries may be too much to resist.
Discussions on how to protect the batteries ensued. A range of putative solutions involving glues, nails and timber were discussed but ultimately nothing stuck.
Several weeks later on, nearing completion of the job, Urjaa Samadhan's director, Sagar Mahapatra had a rather strange idea. He suggested that the best way to protect the batteries would be to remove them from the streetlights completely, instead wiring them to the nearest house and keeping them inside. With each resident's permission, each battery would come under the protection of a particular household. A decentralised approach to managing the commons. The idea was accepted and all 70 lights were rewired and rehoused.
On my last trip to Odisha in December 2017 Bindu had just completed this job. The lights were working really well, lighting previously dark village thoroughfares, making public spaces safer and easier to use. Feedback from villagers and our NGO client was very positive. Importantly, there had been no thefts - the idea of keeping batteries inside seemed to have worked. I particularly liked this because it echoed one of my (and indeed Scene's) core philosophies, that ownership and responsibility over assets is *the* crucial design factor in determining positive outcomes from a development project. The approach taken in the project got me thinking about how end-user responsibility can be woven into project design. After all, this project didn't require financial buy-in from the villagers, the lights were fully funded externally, yet we stumbled on a mechanism that instilled pride and ownership over the systems.
In late March 2018 I was back in Odisha. I asked the team about the project in Mayurbhanj, had anything happened since I last checked in? My question was met with a belly laugh from Sagar. 'Yeah, one thing did happen'.
Just days early an unknown group of men visited gone to one of the villages that Urjaa Samadhan had worked in and said they were from our social enterprise. They managed to convince a householder that the light to which the battery in their house was connected to was not working properly. Despite arguments to the contrary, the mysterious men managed to convince the villager that the light was under-performing and they should take it away for fixing. Needless to say, the light hasn't resurfaced.
'But this is a good thing' Sagar tried to convince me. 'It only shows that the reputation of solar light is shining brightly into the neighbouring areas'.