Thursday, July 28, 2011

“Asia’s Nobel Prize” For India’s Solar Lighting Pioneer

Harish Hande, the IITian(IIT-Kharagpur) and University of Massachusetts doctorate and founder of Selco gets the coveted Ramon Magsaysay Award 2011 for his pioneering efforts to provide solar-based lighting solutions in rural India.

[reproduced from

Kantamma is a vegetable vendor in Karnataka’s silk town, Ramanagaram, just 50 kilometers away from the glittering lights of India’s silicon city. Till recently, she used to pack up her business as dusk falls. Not any longer. Thanks to an innovative social innovator, Kantamma carries on her business during the peak buying hours till 8 pm.

How? She basks in the glory of a solar lantern, rented from a local NGO, at a nominal daily cost of Rs. 10 (22 US cents) which has helped to increase the business hours by 180 minutes. The extra volume of business generates more than compensates for the nominal rent.

The lantern for the program comes from Dr. H. Harish Hande’s Solar Electric Light Company (Selco) India, a social enterprise founded by him in 1995 to electrify rural India using innovative solar power technologies. Dr. Hande was a member of the jury for Technology Review India’s Grand Challenges 2010 program to pick innovative technology solutions relevant to India.

In the last few years, the program has caught on with the involvement of civil society groups and philanthropic organizations, and micro finance institutions in the states of Karnataka, Gujarat and Kerala. Selco, founded as a social enterprise, works with these groups to provide innovative lighting solutions in rural areas. More than 125,000 households in these states have benefited from the Selco program so far.

It is not just increased business that matters, said Dr. Hande in a recent meeting. Most of the vegetable and other vendors in rural areas are women from poor families and the only bread winner in their families. The additional income generated enhances the overall quality of life of their families and gives them an extra edge in the subtle power plays at home, besides boosting their self esteem.

After completing his engineering education at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, he enrolled for doctorate at the University of Massachusetts. His topic was on rural electrification and traveled extensively in Latin American countries. He was impressed by some of the innovative solutions used there and decided to start something on his own.

Back in India, Dr. Hande chose solar power to fulfill his mission to light up the lives of rural poor. (Read his Notebook Think Beyond Subsidies on Government of India's model of capital subsidy for solar systems.)

Dr. Hande and Selco have embarked on another ambitious initiative, the Light for Education program. Under this program just last week, students at the Viveka Tribal School in a rural hamlet, which is part of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, got 80 solar lanterns.

The lanterns, made by Selco were bought and supplied by the Rotary Club of Bangalore (RCB) in association with Arjun Menda Foundation.

The program works like this: NGOs like RCB and the Menda Foundation use their funds and buy the solar lantern each costing about Rs. 1,500 ($34) and donate it to schools of their choice. Selco sets up the solar lantern charging stations at the selected schools. RCB members have decided to supply hundreds of solar lamps in other needy schools.

Students from homes without electricity are given a fully-charges lantern each for use at home. With assured lighting available, students get to study in the evenings which was not possible earlier. Students have to take it back to the school for recharging and hence there is additional incentive for attending school regularly. Absenteeism by students mainly to do farm work is a major problem in rural schools. Free supply of midday meals in many of these schools have somewhat improved the attendance records.

The power of Dr. Hande’s simple idea has caught on. Arjun Menda is an alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur. The IIT-Kharagpur Alumni Association in Bangalore is a supporter of the Light for Education program. The Association has targeted a supply of 1,000 solar lamps in 2011. Corporates like Tyco Electronics, Tulip, Sungard, Empyrean, Total Environemnt have all enrolled as sponsors.

So Selco provides the basic raw material. But the success comes from the wide network of supporters who take this good idea forward in their own way.

And the Magsaysay Award citation has captured the essence of Dr. Hande’s work in the citation which reads: “… for his pragmatic efforts to put solar power technology in the hands of the poor through his social enterprise Selco India.” The Award was instituted in 1957 in memory of late Philippines President Ramon Del Fierro Magsaysay to recognize outstanding contributions in the public and community service. Each winner gets a citation and $50,000 cash prize. So far 290 Asians have got the award. The 2011 awards have been given to six people/organizations including Dr. Hande and the presentation ceremony is scheduled for August 31, 2011 in Manila.


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