If a woman told you she gave birth by candlelight, you’d probably imagine a Game of Thrones-like scenario set in the 1800s or earlier, before electricity was invented. Yet, right now in 2021, women living in remote villages on the Himalayan hills are still delivering their babies in these exact conditions.
Most of the communities in these hills continue to lack basic needs such as access to energy and are still dependent on burning fossil fuel and candles for their lighting needs. One such community is the Garo tribe in the state of Meghalaya. Located in the northeast part of India, Meghalaya is divided into multiple tribal areas with geographic limitations such as harsh jungle terrain that have led to very little development within these areas. Heart-wrenchingly, these circumstances have led to the state recording the third highest infant mortality rates in the country.
“This is due to the fact that the healthcare facilities do not exist. There are trained doctors, but they don’t have electricity. The deliveries are not only done under candlelight; the communities also lack electricity to operate basic equipment such as for monitoring a patient’s blood pressure,” says Jaideep Bansal, the chief operating officer of the Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE).
GHE is an organization that works to improve the living conditions of villagers across rural India by providing access to clean energy and education to these remote, off-grid communities across the Himalayan ranges of North India. Their objective is to empower and improve the lives of these communities by implementing technological solutions in a sustainable, scalable and environmentally beneficial manner. To date, Global Himalayan Expedition has solar electrified more than 131 villages in 3 regions of India, directly impacting the lives of more than 60,000 villagers.
In order to address the lack of energy access and healthcare facilities in the Meghalaya region, GHE and RYTHM Foundation embarked on an encore partnership that implements a two-pronged approach to bring solar electricity to these remote tribal communities and to upgrade the healthcare infrastructure in these areas.
The project dubbed ‘Empowering North East India’ kicked off in September with RYTHM pledging a one-year commitment to the project that aims to provide energy access to 470 villagers as well as solar power for a primary healthcare center that will cater to 23,000 villagers. The focus on powering and equipping healthcare centers devoid of these essential medical necessities is certainly timely as these centers have also been essential in the COVID19 treatment and vaccine delivery for these villages.
“We have implemented this model with other healthcare centers in the past with tremendous outcomes including a drastic 80% decrease in the infant mortality rates as well as a decline in the number of deaths due to lack of access to critical care equipment. With RYTHM, we want to implement a similar healthcare setup to improve the overall healthcare infrastructure of the communities in the state to ultimately save precious human lives,” Jaideep shared.
The Empowering North East India project implements a holistic development plan for the rural communities and creates a community owned sustainability model around it. The technology involved in this project is a simple plug n’ play solar micro-grid solution that is installed in each home. Each house gets their own solar panel with a battery pack which is wired nearly with high performance LED lights, low-energy consumption motor fans and mobile charging facilities. The grids are also capable of taking on any additional load.
“There is no grid line. Each home produced and consumes its own energy. This is the future of electricity, becoming grid independent so that households are not susceptible to hurricanes, rainfall or any other weather patterns,” explains Jaideep.
GHE has its own pool of trained engineers for the installation of the grid and to provide maintenance support. However, as part of the sustainability of the project, the organization also handpicks villagers to be trained as local engineers and equip them with the basics of solar grid maintenance and troubleshooting.
“The model is self-sustainable so that the communities don’t have to call us when something goes wrong. The idea is not to feed them fish, but to teach them how to fish so that if they wanted to scale up the grid tomorrow, they have the income, the network, and the knowledge to do it independently. That is the buy-in that we seek from the community, to know that they are willing to commit to such a model. It’s not just the deployment of the infrastructure, but also the servicing and maintenance which is crucial to the sustainability of the initiative,” said Jaideep.
The villagers are also required to open a community bank account with every household contributing Rs. 100 (USD$2) monthly. These funds will be used for any maintenance, servicing or troubleshooting of the grid and will be managed by a Village Electricity Management Committee that will be set up. The committee’s role is to ensure every household contributes to the village development fund.
“Luckily, there is a strong pull from the local community so it’s not like we are pushing a solution they do not want unto them. The request has actually come from the community after seeing the benefits of solar electricity and the impact of the pilot project we did. There was an overwhelming response for more of such interventions in the region. This pull approach works best because then we know that the community is going to own it and there will be sustainability of the model rather than just deploying and forgetting about the solution,” said Jaideep.
Head of RYTHM Foundation, Santhi Periasamy said, “The activities from these partnership attempt to address the issues and challenges of these underserved communities that are deprived of basic needs and healthcare which lead to the high child mortality rates. These measures that are being implemented focus on uplifting the communities through an organic and sustainable growth. The element of sustainability is well spelt out and we are proud to support such an imperative initiative.”
In speaking about working with RYTHM, Jaideep said, “I think it’s great to have partners like RYTHM who recognise the need to serve the most underprivileged areas. Everyone wants to make an impact in fancy or more accessible locations, but with RYTHM it’s really about reaching out to the last mile where nobody else goes, which I think speaks volumes about the kind of commitment RYTHM has towards bringing holistic, sustainable development to these communities.”
This latest partnership with RYTHM comes on the back of the last successful collaboration that saw both organizations impacting the remote regions of Ladakh in northern India. The previous project electrified the village of Rongdo and provided digital education access to schools in Skagyam and Sato, also located in the Himalayas.