In 1979, an organization named Gram Vikas emerged in Odisha with the goal of supporting marginalized communities in India — from providing cleaner ways to access water and sanitation, to the construction of schools and renewable energy sources.
Today, Gram Vikas is working on a project to revive a solar micro-grid in Maligaon that had broken down in 2013 after its power source became depleted. Without improvement of the micro-grid, electricity in the community is unstable, and blackouts can last months at a time.
Eshaan Patheria, a Harvard College ’18 alumnus, joined the organization as an SBI Youth for India Fellow in 2018, and now oversees the micro-grid renewal project in Maligaon. In partnership with the local community, Patheria’s team is using modern technologies to improve quality of life throughout the district.
From Cambridge to Maligaon
As a Harvard student, Patheria participated in a 2015 summer program in India, entitled Use of Mobile Technology and Big Data to Change Societies in India and facilitated by the Mittal Institute. The program gave Harvard undergraduate students the opportunity to learn more about the connection between mobile technology, big data, and education, health, agriculture, and banking in India, and how the interactions between these fields can positively impact communities. Taught by Tarun Khanna, Director of the Mittal Institute and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School; JP Onnela, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health; and Satchit Balsari, Assistant Professor in Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the 8-week program brought Harvard undergraduate students to Ahmedabad, Bangalore, and Delhi — hotspots for mobile technology innovation and policy.
When he returned to Cambridge the following semester, Patheria took Professor Khanna’s course on entrepreneurship in developing countries. Together, the skills and knowledge gained from these opportunities have informed Patheria’s work on the Maligaon project present-day. “I have definitely drawn heavily on both of those experiences and both Professor Khanna’s and Dr. Balsari’s mentorship over the past year to work on this project,” Patheria says.
Electrifying the Countryside
Gram Vikas has undertaken a massive energy program throughout Kalahandi, implementing electrification projects in nine locations throughout the district. Within Kalahandi, the Gram Vikas team is currently hard at work revitalizing Maligaon’s micro-grid so it can ultimately provide electricity to all 45 households in the community.
After its power loss in 2013, a main grid was installed in 2014 — but the blackouts continue. Now, the new goal is to “provide the people of Maligaon a firm-footing on the next rung up the energy ladder for at least the next 10 years through the renewal of the micro-grid with the use of modern technologies and effective community management.”
To move up that ladder, four new technologies are being implemented within the system:
- Longer-lasting lithium ferrophosphate (LFP) batteries
- Three-phase power to take on heavier loads
- An additional seven kilowatts of solar panels to increase the array’s capacity and lifespan
- Smart meters that “collect real-time data on energy consumption at the household level” to build a culture of sustainable usage
With a greater capacity of the solar grid, its consumers can go beyond simple household use, potentially utilizing the energy for irrigation and motors to streamline their agricultural practices.
Transforming the Community
When the solar micro-grid was initially installed in Maligaon in 2009, its care was placed under a “single operator” model — managed by “an individual from Maligaon who was trained for this role.” But when the grid’s batteries ran out in 2013, it was discovered that the depletion was likely due to “a combined result of manufacturing defects and improper maintenance by the operator.”
That will all change with the installation of modern technologies and a new approach to the grid’s management, culminating in a longer lifespan and a better sense of shared ownership in the community. Together, Gram Vikas and the people of Maligaon have developed a new responsibility system that will educate the community about how the micro-grid works, incentivize the sustainable use of the system’s electricity, and ensure reliable and long-term maintenance of the system.
Moving forward, three women from each hamlet of Maligaon will be trained to operate and maintain the system, and will be elected by the community based on their role in local governance and self-help groups. On a fixed monthly salary, they will manage the equipment, facilitate payments through the smart meters, and log the daily and nightly energy consumption of the community.
The micro-grid renewal is only the latest of Gram Vikas’s many projects in the Maligaon community, having already built bathrooms and potable water systems for every home, in addition to the construction of residential schools to educate the community’s children. With their dedication to a true partnership with the community and an understanding of its peoples’ needs, Patheria and the entire Gram Vikas team will no doubt continue to positively impact India’s rural and marginalized communities for years to come.
To support Gram Vikas and the Maligaon Project, read more about their crowdfunding campaign here.