Thursday, September 12, 2013

Spreading Sun's blessings around Spiti Valley

I arrived in the town of Kaza, the nerve centre of Spiti Valley on the 14th of August’13. After a 10 hour bumpy ride from Manali, I reached the town around 4 pm and by the time I figured out my accommodation and settled in my new abode in Kaza, it was close to 7 pm. There was no electricity in town that night, so my plans to charge my phone and camera went dead. I thought it was a one off situation and definitely power supply would be restored the next day, as is the case with any other town. But, there was no power the next morning either and on further enquiry, I realized that the town has not seen consistent power supply since the month of June, that is for more than 2 months!! So, effectively, on the morning of 15th of August (ironically Indian Independence Day), there was again no hope of power being restored. As an outsider, especially from a city which boasts of 24 hour power supply, it was quite a shocker to me. But, the localites seemed quite used to this and they did not seem to worry much about the power situation. To some extent, it is a reflection of the great Indian ability to get used to poor service. 

Nuns in Kungri(Pin valley) with the panels
So, on the morning of 15th of August, as per the plan, I went to the Ecosphere office in Kaza. To my surprise, I found all the charging ports occupied with multiple phones and laptops. Make no mistake; power supply has still not been restored. It is just that the office is equipped with solar power and this is serving as the critical source to charge our mobiles and keep ourselves connected to the world. Not just the office staff, even outsiders were generously using the charging ports. Other than solar, the other option which people here seemed to have adapted well is the use of diesel generators. But, as we know, this option is neither economically sound nor ecologically safe. 

Around the same time, Ecosphere was planning to expand the solar power capacity in their office to meet the increasing demand and deal with the worsening power supply situation. More importantly, they were planning to equip around 6 monasteries/nunneries in Spiti Valley with solar power; these installations were to happen in September’13. More details on these later. From my conversation with the Ecosphere staff, I understood that this is their 3rd solar power project in the region. The first 2 projects being in Demul village and Kungri monastery. The Demul village project is an interesting model where the whole village is electrified with solar power and each household has a stake in the development and maintenance of the project. In my previous job, I had worked on solar charger technology, as one of the products we had was related to charge controllers and high brightness LED drivers. Since I had plans to volunteer with Ecosphere from mid August to end September, I felt it would be a good idea to join the solar installations and see if I could be of some help. During the first week of September, a 3 member team arrived from Pondicherry to do the installations and they were joined by an equal sized local team.

Nuns cleaning the panel in Pangmo nunnery

By the time the installations started, I had spent more than 2 weeks in Spiti and was slowly getting used to life without electricity. During this period, there was power for hardly a couple of hours and the whole town was primarily surviving on diesel generators and solar power. The lack of consistent power supply was limiting the business opportunities in Kaza. As long as I was in Kaza, I thought this was the biggest impact. It was only when I moved out of the town and into the interior villages did I witness the more basic impact of the lack of power supply. It was on the 3rd of September that I joined the first installation in a nunnery in Pin valley. Setting up the panels, batteries, inverter and LED lights was lot more work than I imagined and it was late evening by the time the installation was complete (since we had to work with torches as the sun went down, it delayed the work further). I wish I had the vocabulary to explain the sheer joy on the nuns faces when it dawned upon them that the whole building was equipped with solar powered LED lights. The atmosphere was one of pure joy and jubilation, it was as if like their long cherished dream just came true. The celebrations made it clear to me that these installations are more significant than what I thought them to be. But, during this installation, I did not have the chance to talk to the nuns and understand what the newly acquired solar power means to them. I fortunately got this chance during the later installations.

Rinpoche in Pin valley monastery turning the lights on
We had another volunteer who was planning to make a short film on these installations and he was interviewing the nuns for the film. I had the chance to join him during the interviews, it was only then did I realize as to why the nuns were so ecstatic to see the installation complete. Firstly, studies are a dominant part of their daily routine. Because of the lack of consistent power supply, they are forced to squeeze their classes and study time into the first half of the day. Please note that they have to perform a lot of other daily chores along with studies and this make it all the more inconvenient to complete all their tasks during day time. The availability of consistent solar power means that they can peacefully study during evenings as well. These are the small facilities which I would generally take for granted back home. In Spiti, these facilities turn to privileges. Secondly, the availability of solar power translates to more safety and freedom to move around the campus during night times. The next advantage is that availability of power helps in simple things like charging their mobiles or occasional access to television. All the advantages the nuns listed sounds very simple and basic, but as I said earlier, these are more of privileges than facilities in this part of my country. I hope that my volunteer friend comes up with the short film soon, so you can hear from the beneficiaries first hand as to what the availability of consistent power supply means to them. One thing I am sure about is that it is more significant than what I can convey through this article or what we could even possibly convey through the short film.

So, during the first 2 weeks of September, there were a total of 6 installations: Pin valley monastery, Pin valley nunnery, Pangmo nunnery, Morang nunnery, Dhanker monastery, Komic monastery. I had the chance to join most of the installations and each place showed more enthusiasm than the other. I would definitely rate this as one of the most humbling and learning experiences of my Spiti stay.

Rinpoche in Pin valley felicitating Ecosphere representative
As I write this article, it is almost a month in Spiti Valley for me. To some extent, I understand that this is an unforgiving terrain and uninterrupted hydro electric-power could be hard to provide in this region. But, solar power seems so ideal for this isolated terrain and it is hard for me to understand why the government has not invested in this. The good part is that organizations like Ecosphere are now focussing on making better use of solar energy in Spiti valley and the solar installations are a by-product of this effort. The installations I was part of was mainly in the monasteries/nunneries, which are very respected institutions over here. I hope that these institutions become the model places for green and responsible living and the solar installations are the first step in this direction. May Ecosphere’s immediate goal of ‘Spiti off the grid’ come true in the shortest possible time and also let their grand vision of having 'Spiti On the grid' as a policy in this region also materialize!!

About the author : This post is by one of our volunteers, Madhan from Bangalore, who volunteered with Ecosphere from mid-August to end-September'2013. You can also visit his blog sharedmusings86.

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