Lighting lives in remote areas of Sundarbans
The Sundarbans in India is an energy deficient region and many villages as well as islands are yet to be connected to the conventional power grid. According to a study, 18 villages coming under the purview of the Sundarbans Development Area are not likely to be electrified through conventional power, at least in the near future. Given this scenario, an appropriate solution is decentralized distributed generation (DDG) energy systems using renewable sources like solar, wind or biomass. WWF India, in collaboration with The Centre for Appropriate Technology Incorporated (CAT), Australia’s indigenous science and technology organisation which works to secure sustainable livelihoods for indigenous communities through appropriate technology, is implementing The Bush light India Project to demonstrate and assess an optimized model for the electrification of remote villages in the Sundarbans using renewable energy. In March 2011, a solar power station was set up at Rajat Jubilee village in the Gosaba area of the Sundarbans. This project is unique as it is owned and managed by a cooperative society in which all consumers are shareholders, working to provide reliable electricity (alternate current) round the clock. WWF-India took the lead in facilitating community mobilisation including the Village Energy Planning process. In addition, WWF-India assisted and supported the community to establish the institutional structures required to manage the system for the 15 years of its design life.
Solar lights for human-wildlife conflict mitigation
Another effort of WWF-India in the Sundarbans is the installation of solar lights. In the villages adjoining Bashirhat and Sajnekhali Ranges of Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR) twenty combined solar street lights were installed in two phases, in August 2008 and April 2009. The locations were identified in collaboration with STR officials, and Eco Development Committee (EDC) or Forest Protection Committee (FPC) members. To ensure security of the installed systems, WWF-India provided one home light connection to each of the individual households who were the immediate beneficiaries of the street lights thus making them accountable for these systems’ well being.
This is an ongoing effort and according to Soma Saha, Livelihoods Coordinator for WWF-India’s Sundarbans Programme, “To reduce the human-wildlife conflict in the fringe villages of Sundarbans, WWF-India installed ten combined solar street lights (encompassing home and street lights) in Raidighi Forest Range of 24 Parganas (South) Forest Division, in May 2011. Six of these were in Kultali Forest Beat and the rest in Nalgora Forest Beat.”
Before installation of each solar street light, a separate Memorandum of Association (MoA) was signed between WWF-India and the concerned EDC/FPC in the presence of the Forest Department’s local officials as well as the Panchayat Pradhan (Head of Gram Panchayat, the local self-government). The responsibilities detailed out in the MoA, were performed successfully by each organization. The systems functioned well and the community and the Forest Department were satisfied with their performance. There were no incidences of tiger straying out of STR into the villages where the lights were installed.
Unfortunately 16 of the solar lights installed in Bashirhat and Sajnekhali Ranges were destroyed by the Cyclone Aila in May 2009. While the cyclone damaged the actual lighting systems, none of the materials supporting the systems - modules, batteries, solar panels and others were lost during Aila as all were kept in safe custody by the immediate beneficiaries proving the success of the institutional mechanisms initiated by WWF-India. Encouraged by this, in January 2010 authorities of the STR came forward to bear the expenditure to repair and reinstall the solar lights. The resulting repairs have ensured the proper functioning of the lights till date.
Eyewitness account of a beneficiary
Shakila Bibi is a resident of Kalitala village adjoining Sundarbans Tiger Reserve and one of the beneficiaries of the solar lighting. She has the following to say. “A narrow creek separates our village from the forest and earlier there was no light at nights in the area where I lived. Tigers would frequently visit our village under the cover of darkness. I am already a victim of human-wildlife conflict; my husband was killed by a crocodile while patrolling for the Forest Department. WWF-India provided me a combined solar light connection (a streetlight and home light) in April 2009. The street light was installed in front of my house, due to which straying incidents have reduced. I am also happy with the home light connection. In May 2009, while the cyclone damaged the system installed on the street, I kept the materials at a safe place with the hope that they would be re-installed. I am happy that the light was put in order in mid-January 2010, thanks to WWF and Forest Department officials of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve.”
WWF-India is exploring the possibility of developing a carbon finance project to convert mechanised rickshaws and ferry boats into electric vehicle (EVs). For this purpose, two solar battery charging stations are being planned in Sundarbans. The charged batteries will be loaned to the electric vans of selected routes. WWF-India aims to help communities in Sundarbans access electricity which is not only reliable but also has a minimal carbon footprint.