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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

July 14, 2014 14:33 IST

How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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Geetanjali Krishna

Yogeshwar Kumar is helping villagers build and operate their own micro-hydro-power plants.

They say it takes tiny drops of water to eventually fill an ocean.

At a time when the world is questioning the construction of mega dams in the earthquake-prone and ecologically sensitive Himalayas, Yogeshwar Kumar's micro-hydro projects have the potential to do exactly that.

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You can contact Yogeshwar Kumar at yogeshwarkumar@gmail.com

Photographs, courtesy: Yogeshwar Kumar 

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Image: Yogeshwar Kumar instructing a technician on fabrication of equipment for power house. He has been designing power station and gets equipment fabricated in small units in Delhi


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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In the last three decades, Kumar, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, has engaged with rural communities to build over 15 micro-hydro plants. 

Constructed by villagers-turned-barefoot-engineers, these projects are also operated and maintained by them.

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Image: For very small projects of capacities below 100 kilowatt, water of river or stream is diverted by setting up a small two -three feet high diversion 'bund' or weir made of stones, boulders and bushes. Often there is no need of setting up concrete structure to divert water.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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"Every mountain stream flowing down a gradient is capable of producing some power - and every village community has it in its hands to tap it. In my estimate, every third village in the Himalayas can harness nearby streams and waterfalls to become self-sufficient in power," says Kumar.

Inspiring as the idea may be, it is certainly not new.

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Image: Water is then led into earthen or concrete channel that runs along the contour towards the direction of flow of river to create suitable head or height. The higher the height, larger is the production of hydropower and electricity.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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The first mini hydroelectric project in India commenced back in 1897 in Darjeeling.

But what sets Kumar's initiative apart is his emphasis on community involvement and the use of electricity to power rural livelihood projects.

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Image: At Agunda village in Uttarakhand, a village power house supported by UNDP was designed and set up by Jansamath NGO in the year 2008 for multipurpose benefits: electricity and mechanical power or shaft power, using two turbines for lighting, heating and cooking, milling, oil expelling, wool processing, welding etc.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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"The idea is to enable rural communities to become self-sufficient," he says. 

"Although it was hard at the outset to train the villagers, who are mostly illiterate, in power generation, the results have been great," says Kumar.

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Image: Electricity is used in the village for lighting and energising household appliances such as television sets, refrigerator, mixies, and electric iron.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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Today, all the plants he has set up in places as diverse as Kargil (Ladakh), Agunda and Budha Kedarnath (Uttarakhand) and Kalahandi (Orissa) are being maintained by locals.

Some of these grassroots engineers are now training other villagers.

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Image: A trained grassroots engineer operates the turbine in electricity generation unit and maintains supply to the village.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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So much so that when last year's cloudburst in Uttarakhand damaged the Agunda project, the villagers ingeniously restored power temporarily by connecting the plant to a newly created waterfall. 

In the fortnight that followed, when the state grid remained switched off, villagers would trek 20 km to Agunda to recharge their mobile phones.

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Image: Himalayan region, western ghats and other mountain areas are endowed with waterfalls, stream, rapids and rivers flowing down the hills.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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The power generated doesn't only light up bulbs in rural homes, but can also be used to set up myriad small-scale industries such as weaving, spinning, cold storages, milling of grains and bakeries - especially as the electricity generated is not always used to its fullest capacity.

Near Phata in Uttarakhand, I visit a multi-use watermill (which generates power in addition to grinding grain) under construction in Rampur village.

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Image: In the mechanical power section, the villagers operate and use another turbine for milling, grinding and oil expelling unit


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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Kumar is building this in collaboration with HelpAge India. Dayal Singh and six others have partnered in its construction.

"I used to have a traditional water wheel here, but it was very slow. With this new mill, we'll be able to extract oil and grind masalas and foodgrain more efficiently," says Singh. 

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Image: A family uses electricity for making juice for sale.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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With the electricity generated, Singh plans to set up a reverse osmosis plant and sell purified water.

Plans are also afoot to start a bakery unit. In Phata, where Kumar and HelpAge India trained local women to make felt rugs, the response has been great.

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Image: Villagers make woollen felt from wool.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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"People here keep sheep but throw away the wool. By putting it through an electric carding machine, it can be felted into beautiful and saleable rugs," says Kumar.

He feels that micro hydro power can be a significant contributor to the main grid and cites the example of Germany, where individuals generate electricity and sell the surplus to the grid.

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Image: In village Genwali, women use carded wool to spin yarn using their own hydropower.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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"Some youngsters in Genwali (Uttarakhand), where we set up a project some years ago, even want to supply power to neighbouring villages," he says. "The potential is enormous."

If these projects have been so successful, why hasn't he built more, I wonder. "It's the lack of funds," says he.

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Image: Raw wool available in nearby villages is carded locally for making woollen products for local market and sale outside the area.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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At the very minimum, the cost of setting up a micro hydro project is about Rs 1 lakh per kilowatt.

To be of any significant use, the plant should have an output of at least 50 Kw. "We raise some capital and villagers contribute the rest, around 40 per cent, by way of labour," he adds. Getting collaborators isn't easy either.

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Image: Local labour is employed for construction of all civil works such as channels, power house-shed. Local people also provide semi skilled labour for installation of machines and equipment.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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Thus far agencies like United Nations Development Programme, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Swiss Development Corporation, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Centre for Environment Education, and, most recently, HelpAge India have pitched in. 

After last year's cloudburst, the Agunda plant requires expensive repairs.

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Image: At the terminal end of the channel there is a small tank technically known as forebay tank which is connected by pipes to allow water to reach the turbines. Construction and installation of pipes needs training of local manpower.


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How an IITian is helping villagers to produce electricity

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"My NGO, Jansamarth, had dreamed of making Agunda a zero-carbon village independent of the main grid," says Kumar.

"The floods were a grave setback." Kumar is preparing to leave for Agunda again to oversee the repair of the damaged plant.

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Image: Boys and girls undergo training programmes on the basics of computer.


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He says, "Hopefully, someday policy-makers will understand the significance of gently harnessing the power of water as we do, without disturbing the hill ecology or the course of the river."

His efforts towards restoring power to the people are as yet small, but have the potential to revolutionise rural lives. As he says, "To me, electricity isn't only for lighting; it's the beginning of development of the rural world."  

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Image: Grassroots engineers regularly check the power systems.


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