During fall quarter we began preparing for our trip to India to work on our assigned projects for the Self Employed Women’s Association. I was assigned to the Hariyali team. The Hariyali project had recently shifted focus from providing cookstoves to villagers as clean burning, fuel-efficient solutions for cooking meals rather than the common three-stone fire, to looking at the feasibility of providing electricity to off-grid communities in India. With only this general idea of what we were going to be working on, we began reaching out to people and companies who could help provide insights into current electrification efforts in India. We spoke with local engineers about power sources, and Indian companies such as Mera Goa Power and Gram Power, who are currently working to provide energy to remote villages in India.
With more questions than answers, and still several final exams to complete, we boarded a plane bound for India. Arriving in Mumbai in the evening I had my first glimpse of Indian weddings–large, beautifully decorated, outdoor areas lit up by professional sports-grade lights; thousands of people dressed in fine, bright-colored, sparkling attire celebrating the wedding.
Less than 24 hours later our group boarded another plane bound to Ahmedabad to meet with SEWA and our project managers. There, we met Anurag, our project manager. We had only spoken with Anurag one time before via Skype. For the next week and a half we spent almost every day with Anurag, discussing aspects of the project. We spoke about different social, technical, and economic challenges. We discussed how religion and caste could impact our project. We learned the general political structure of a village and how a panch and sarpanch were elected and what their roles were.
We spoke about current structures in SEWA that could help support the project. Anurag even invited his nephew, Aditya, to help us with the project. Aditya not only provided a fresh perspective and insightful questions, but he also helped research information regarding solar cells and translated questions for us when we visited a remote village.
In addition to spending time with Aditya and Anurag, our team had the chance to visit local temples and sites. We became accustomed to the traffic flow, learning how to comfortably cross busy streets, embracing the different right-of-way perspective. I was amazed at how so many people on foot, bike, motorbike, car, and truck were able to safely use one roadway without following “strict” traffic rules. Our team also had the opportunity to speak with locals, enjoy delicious local foods, see local art, and visit the local university.
Our time in the field, around Ahmedabad, with Aditya, Anurag and with the other SEWA members, was illuminating and memorable as they took time to explain things about their work and their culture, and shared their lives with us. It was both interesting and challenging to learn about solar energy, gasification, and mini-grids, as well as the needs for energy in different villages. The experience highlighted the importance of electrification, even if there is just enough electricity to power several lights and charge a mobile phone. This small difference has huge impacts–children can study into the evening, parents can do work to generate more income and be able to serve three meals a day, new businesses are created around the repair of these electrical devices…
Simply living in India for a few weeks, being exposed to the dynamic culture, following local politics, and even going to a Bollywood movie reminded me of the importance of travel and the impact these different experiences can have on me personally and the group as a whole. It is only when we get outside of our daily lives and challenge our perspectives that we can truly broaden and expand our awareness and understanding.
I look forward to continuing working on the Hariyali project throughout the winter quarter.