‘How many IITians have done research for a good cooking stove? Where is the contribution of IITs to the real India?’
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I am in a village called Lingarajapura on the outskirts of Bangalore, right next to the city's new airport. This village, for decades, has seen many things. It has seen many planes fly overhead but one thing it had not seen was electricity until Harish Hande found this village. Before I make a routine introduction, I'll quote from your Magsaysay Award citation—one, that you brought solar power to about half a million households.
No, 1,20,000 households, which is about half-a-million people.
And second, that your approach has been to look at the poor as people who can create assets, not as people at whom you can throw money or subsidies or charity or alms.
Today, everyone thinks that the poor are employees. But we think that if India has to develop, then the poor have to be employers or asset creators.
In fact, it is worse than employees, it's a pejorative translation isko naukri do, keep them occupied, so that he or she can fill his/her belly.
We are more solution-oriented rather than just complaining about stuff that's not happening. We want to prove that sustainable energy for our country is a big catalyst for getting people out of poverty, without even talking about the environment.
Before we talk about you, tell us about this village. What was there when you came in?
We came here in 2008-9. Some of our colleagues were scouting for villages without electricity in some other part of Karnataka. Then somebody said, "You have villages right in front of Bangalore, why haven't you looked at them?"
Right next to Bangalore, that's a shame.
Right next to the international airport, forget Bangalore.
India's Silicon Valley, Bangalore, provides light to all of India. Bangalore is so integral to Brand India.
It is supposed to be the first city in the country to have got electricity.
In Urdu, there is a saying, chiraag tale andhera, darkness under the lamp.
Exactly. We came at 6.30 in the evening. In every household, there was a kerosene lamp, under which a woman was cooking. There was so much smoke that you and I could not have stayed there for a minute. There were kids in school, but obviously, unable to study. The best thing was what I learnt many years ago when we asked some labourers what it meant to move from kerosene to electricity. One of them said, "You don't know what it means after physical work to come to our house with the kerosene lamp. Already our mood is down, it goes further down. And now that we have solar light, it makes such a difference."
And yet, with that poor quality of lighting and life extinguishing cooking...
That smoke is equivalent to two packs of cigarettes on a daily basis.
Without even the alleged pleasure of nicotine. And yet, it punched a big hole in their household budgets, in spite of the huge kerosene subsidy.
See, that's the irony. As we go poorer into the economic strata of society, people spend more on energy. The average household income in many of the villages we visit is Rs 1,600 a month. Out of that they spend Rs 155 on kerosene and candles and Rs 40 a month merely to charge their mobile phones.
That means the mobile becomes a source of expense other than paying their mobile bills.
Yes, they go to the nearest shop which has electricity and pay Rs 5 per charge. Typically, they charge their phones eight times a month as the landlord might call them for work anytime. So that's Rs 195.
This is a classic example of broken window economics. You break a window, someone fixes it. You break it again and someone fixes it again.
Absolutely. You know everybody says the subsidy is on kerosene, but if you go and ask a street vendor in Bangalore, she spends Rs 15 a day on kerosene. And what happens is, everybody sits in Delhi and says, "Solar (energy) is expensive, we need to subsidise it." They don't look at the fact that there are various other parameters and an ecosystem that needs to be built. Today as we say, solar (energy) is expensive for the rich and affordable for the poor.
Could you please explain that?
Because the poor spend more on energy. Today it is at Rs 195 a month. If you look at five-year financing, solar (energy) actually works equal or cheaper.
I see nice houses here. What would they be without electricity? Every single house has a (solar) panel. These are almost like TV antennas.<.b>
And they get power when they want now, without fear of power cuts.
How much power does that panel give them?
That small panel can run two lights for four to six hours daily. So, evening for three hours and morning for one hour.
And they can charge their phones.
And that panel would cost about
And that pays for itself in three years.
Three to five years.
It lasts forever.
Absolutely. In India, we tend to look at the poor as a monolithic structure, which is actually not true. The key is to create, with financing, solar, biogas, small wind and small hydro sources of energy.
These are the things you can do until Jaitapurs come, if they come.
My point is, you don't need a lot of Jaitapurs if you start looking at these solutions. See for example, if we calculate per household electricity consumption in a typical economic way, we will say each household needs four to five units of electricity a day. But actually, they don't need that much. It's just two LED lights of three watts each, that is six watts. And they have another panel if they need four more watts. So why do we need to design for more than what the poor need?
To be making a positive contribution on the ground is not great brand value, doesn't make you a star that easily. You would rather be standing somewhere with a flag saying, "Do not do this."
We believe that the best form of protest is to find solutions. It is easy to go and stand anywhere, I can waste my time doing that. I would rather tell young people to use their energy to create solutions.
Every single house in this village is electrified now.
Yes, each of the 32-33 houses now use one or two lights.
So, when did this light come into your head? You were at IIT Kharagpur and went to the University of Massachusetts.
Typically in IIT, you have to study for PhD, that is what your goal is. My interest was solar and my love was thermodynamics, so I applied to the University of Massachusetts to study solar thermal. Fortunately, I had the chance to meet my friend Richard Hanson in the Dominican Republic. He was helping much poorer households in 1991 and taking bits of money. I thought that it was fantastic, just what a country needs. So I changed my thesis to look at socio-economics. It was the last I touched mathematics. I have always studied under electricity and I have never felt what it means to study in many of these houses (without electricity). So I spent some time in Sri Lanka and India looking at village dynamics, economics, politics and that is where this whole concept of a social enterprise came to my mind.
What took you to Sri Lanka? I think you went to Sri Lanka at the height of the strife there.
If I wanted to talk to any villager, they would always call me 'Sir' and I had that elevated status because of my education. I was never able to feel what they actually needed. While talking to an auto rickshaw driver, you need to be an auto rickshaw driver to feel his problems. I went to Sri Lanka because nobody knew my language. They would treat me at the same level due to that.
You were in Sri Lanka in 1993 in Anuradhapura. Those were tough times. An English-speaking Indian, particularly from the South of India, mysteriously appears in a Sri Lankan village not far from the Tamil borderline. Were you not suspected of being a spy?
I think the villages were more scared than I was. My colour matched theirs, so it was easy to blend in as a Tamilian or a Sinhalese in some of the villages.
So what did you learn in Sri Lanka?
I was doing an interesting project where the elephants were coming into farmland and a solar light actually scared them off. So I learnt not to look at problems from a unilateral perspective. For the poor of India, the poor of Sri Lanka, the poor of Dominican Republic, nationality does not matter.
That's why hypernationalism is a fad of the middle class society.
Absolutely. Today, it is more of the divide between the poor and the rich rather than that between developing and developed nations or anything else. I also learnt to be more solution oriented.
So when you came to India, what persuaded you to become a commercial entrepreneur rather than just a social entrepreneur and that too non-profit?
I looked at several NGOs and when you know that the grant writer in these has the second highest salary, you know that somewhere they have got their priorities wrong. You do one project for Rs 100, are you doing the next hundred houses for Rs 90? Where is the efficiency? So I wanted to start a company where I know why I made a loss and how to increase my efficiency.
With that came SELCO, your company.
With that came SELCO where the fundamental was how to balance social, economic and environmental stability at the same level. And to destroy myths like the poor can't afford technology, the poor can't maintain and thirdly that you can't run a commercial venture while trying to meet social objectives.
And the fourth myth that these days you don't expect an IITian to do something so innovative at the grassroots level.
I've got through an IIT education through huge subsidies which most of the poor have actually paid for and then I go to Silicon Valley or I go to Bangalore with millions and I say that I have made money and I am an IITian. This is exactly the brand for which IIT was not started for.
If the IITians were to sell toothpaste, then the Levers should have funded the IITs.
Exactly, then they should not ask for subsidy from the Government of India. It is a very precious education. Six hundred-and-fifty million people are there without electricity in our country, which is around 48 per cent. Most of them do not have clean water or toilets. The only technology that has survived in this village is from the Iron Age. It's a three-stone cooker (chulha). IITs have been there for 50 years. How many IITians have done research for a good cooking stove? And 70 per cent of India cooks under that. Why don't we create efficient chulhas with better ventilation so that they use less wood? Where is the contribution of the IITs to the real India—these 650 million Indians?
Do you have arguments about this with your fellow IITians?
Yes I do, and a lot of them don't agree. They say that if the industries flourish, more employment will be generated. I said that's exactly the opposite of my point. You are creating more employment for the poor to become employees. When you tell a poor person to sell a Re 1 sachet, where does that Re 1 come from? It comes from non-expendable income. You are not giving the poor a choice between spending that Re 1 for good electricity, good water or shampoo. That is my argument with these people. IITians have become a bubble. We live in a cocoon, we only interact with industries.
Hallmates, yes. That is what I joke with Arvind Kejriwal, who is my hallmate.
One year your senior.
Yes, he was in mechanical (engineering), I was in Energy. But exactly, we hardly make friends outside our bubble. You never see IITians coming here, or even middle-class people.
Do you see the difference between your business, social entrepreneurship, and NGOs, a non-profit business? Do you see the tension between activism and doing something productive? Both are important but do you sometimes feel that the dice is loaded too heavily in favour of activism?
I believe so. I am not trying to sound brutal but I think activism is an easier way out. Let's look at (finding and implementing) a solution. That takes time, five or ten years. Yes, activism has to be there but we need an example where people can get inspired and decide to dedicate their life to something. I definitely see that more people are trying to see activism rather than the real world.
Do you have arguments with activists?
Yes, I do. My argument with them happens when activists become policy makers. Without having practical experience, how can you start talking about how the policy should be designed? Today, the solar mission for the country has been partly designed by some of the activists sitting in Delhi. It has been so Delhi-centric.
So you would say that they have no idea?
Have they ever come here?
Is that why the solar mission is not working?
It is not working the way it should have worked.
Do you get attention from Delhi, from the top leaders? I mean now you are a star.
It was easier to meet Obama when he came to India, but...
But not your own Prime Minister?
I have never met any minister in 16 years. It is better to work below the radar as you can innovate and are not under tension of any kind or interference from any quarter.
And you never have to worry about hosting ministers for distribution ceremonies because ministers bring subsidies.
Activists and politicians in Delhi need to see the daily expenditure of the poor and not come for four hours and say, "I learnt it, I'm the expert." They should come and stay. After 18 years in rural areas, I have not been able to learn one single bit of it.
Now that you are saying come, stay and learn what goes on, I bet you know more about the corruption that these people face than any of these activists or journalists. So tell me, what corruption do you see and how? Is there an instant solution, like a law?
There has to be an inherent change in a lot of the middle class people. I applaud what is happening, I totally support it as it needs to happen on one hand. On the other hand, if I look at the very poor and what you see in this village today, when they go to use their ration card, the shopkeeper does give them their subsidised rice. But he adds that with the money that they save, they have to buy 10 kg of salt and sugar from him. So the poor have no choice. It's corruption in a different way.
So what you need is governance reform.
Absolutely. Governance reform is the need, starting from people who earn Rs 10 a day. I see what is happening today with the Lokpal Bill and yes, that pressure needs to be there. Hopefully, the next stage is how can we actually make it more poor-centric. Until we don't remove poverty from this country, corruption will not go. Poverty is the fundamental problem of our country.
I do hope that when they look at the next stage, they talk to people like you who are actually on the battlefront, people who have some positivity. To me, you personify that old cliché, 'better to light a candle than curse the darkness'.
Through you, I want to tell youngsters that we have 650 million poor people but this country also has so many opportunities for solutions. You can be a star for Africa and Latin America, forget Europe and America. We can be the centre of innovation for the remaining four billion people. Can't we be a soft superpower? We don't always need to be a military superpower or an IT superpower. We can be a soft superpower for the poor too.
Transcribed by Pranay Parab
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