By: Priyanka Balakumar July 2015
In the summer of 2011, I spent two months in southern India. When I came back home, there were two conditions that were cemented in me: the heat and power cuts. These two memories pretty much summed up my trip due to their frequent occurrence. The power cuts were significantly prominent in my grandfather’s house in Kunnur. Kunnur is a village located in a rural area, 50 miles away from the nearest city. Unlike the polluted air in the city, the air felt clean and fresh. However, the heat still remained just as sweltering as it was in the city. One major difference in the lifestyle was the power cuts, which were much more frequent in the village than they were in the city. For someone who had never experienced a power cut before, I was shocked and could not get my mind around such an occurrence.
At the time I wondered why people were not using solar energy in a country where sunlight was so plentiful. I soon found out that solar panels were simply too expensive to have integrated in a small, rural village. This is essentially what led me to get interested in solar technology and in 2014, I applied for a summer program called the Solar Science Academy. The academy was a week long program that was sponsored by one of the biggest solar companies in the world, SunPower. Through the program, I not only learned all about the science behind solar energy, but also was introduced to One Million Lights. One Million Lights was the answer I had been looking for since 2011; the answer that would light up the village of Kunnur.
On the first three days, my dad and I explored the village on our rented bicycles, identifying the most needy houses, ones that did not have any access to electricity whatsoever. The children of these households were the ones that mostly used streetlights to study at night. By the third evening, we had decided which houses would receive the solar lanterns.After fundraising and planning a trip to go across the world, my family and I began our journey to Kunnur. After traveling for 26 hours in the air, we finally arrived in Chennai, India. From there, we hopped on a train and traveled overnight for about 10 hours and got off at the Madurai train station. Just as I thought the traveling was over, we had 2 more hours to go, venturing away from the city into what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The village consists of about 2,254 households, of which about 10% have no electricity. Many of the roofs are made out of tightly knit straw and little to no light comes through. In the 3 days I was there I was able to experience some of the everyday occurrences in the village. In the evenings, many of the children come out to the village temple to study by the moonlight and streetlights. During power cuts, the streetlights would go off, and the children would be left with just moonlight or candlelight.
Early the next morning, we went to the first cluster of houses I had chosen. Mothers were sending off their children to school and the men were getting ready to start their day working in the fields. When we got off our bicycles, village members started approaching us. They were all curious as to see why we were there and once we told them about the solar lanterns, the recurring question at every part of the village was “How much does it cost?” (Sandhi 24) After telling them that they were of no cost, they were overjoyed. Before handing out the lights, I explained the parts of the solar lantern and how it was to be used. They were all surprised to learn that nothing except sunlight was needed to charge and use the lantern; they simply could not believe such a thing existed. While explaining the lanterns, everyone was listening intently and one villager even said, “We can charge the lights in the sunlight during the day, and our kids can use them to study at night.” (Ponnuthai 40) It was heartwarming to hear the villagers discuss ways in which to use the light and express their gratitude towards us.
The next day we went off to a different cluster of houses to distribute the remaining lights. The responses we received were just as positive as those we had received the day before. These homes were closer to the fields and many explained that they could use the lights “…to check on the crops in the fields in the middle of the night.” (Muthuramu 42) All in all, the distribution was a complete success and as word of the solar lights spread around the village, more and more villagers began to ask my grandfather for a light. Although I was not able to provide a solar light to every family who needed it, I hope to continue to help the village of Kunnur as a global ambassador of One Million Lights. Thank you to friends and family who supported this project.
To learn more about Kunnur: