Bringing electricity to one of the most ecologically sensitive regions of the world is no small feat. This is the story of Project Sahasra- Jyoti, through which more than 1,000 forest fringe households in Sunderbans were electrified by establishing micro grids of renewable energy stations.

Started by World Wide Fund for Nature – India, this project aimed to provide forest fringe un-electrified villages in the Sundarbans access to clean energy solutions. The project addresses requirements of clean and sustainable home lighting solutions, and also helps mitigate risks of human-wildlife interaction.

In addition to this, the project has helped increase the quality of life in these communities by providing technological support and entrepreneurial guidance to the locals. Venkat Garimella, vice-president, Access to Energy and CSR, Schneider Electric India shared how this project was realised and finally implemented. Excerpts:

Q.Why did you decide to implement this in Sundarbans and not any other part of the nation?

The Sundarbans, spanning across India and Bangladesh is famous for its unique and single largest block of mangrove forest in the world. Besides being the only mangrove forest in the world where tigers are found, Indian part of Sundarbans is also home to about 4.5 million people.

Project Sahasra Jyoti is an initiative to ensure communities have access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services that deliver socio-economic benefits to the forest fringe communities along with conservation benefits.

Access to clean and modern energy services have a potential to improve people’s lives and livelihoods and reduces their dependence on the forest and hence, reduces the risk of human wildlife interaction.

Q.What challenges did you face while trying to execute this project?

Geographical setting and climatic conditions of the region posed glaring challenges before us. Our team effort made it possible to procure large amount of hardware, its transportation through waterways and installation, many a times under adverse weather conditions, in a challenging landscape of Sundarbans.

The implementation of the project required extending institutional and technical support to the project. This further necessitated imparting technical education and awareness to the community.

WWF-India took the responsibility of community mobilisation and Schneider Electric India Foundation focused on the technical and knowledge support that made the project a success. Project Sahasra Jyoti kicked off in the month of January 2016 in consultation with the community members. During the first phase of the project 69 households and 25 shops participated in this DC Micro Grid Project.

A detailed survey of the project site was carried out. For the operation, maintenance, proper fund utilisation and safe keeping of the fund —generated through collection of security deposits and service charges —Village Energy Committees were formed.

We helped them to open bank accounts and also encouraged them to arrange for common land and land donated by individuals for installation of solar panels. We have been able to install five DC Micro Grids in Satjelia Island of Sundarbans till March 2018.

These micro grids not only electrified 500 households in the forest fringe villages but also power rural institutions (schools, disaster relief shelters and other community buildings) and 50 street lights.

Q.How did you manage to install the micro solar stations without disrupting the natural ecosystem of the region?

Since Sundarbans is an ecologically sensitive zone, it was important to put together solutions that would help decarbonise the energy consumption of these villages by reducing the carbon footprint of each household in the area. Community owned and managed DC micro grid systems have ensured that people do not depend on kerosene for lighting anymore.

Q.What other support is Schneider offering to the community in Sundarbans?

As a knowledge partner of the project, we have made an effort to create a positive impact on the livelihood of people in the villages through access to electricity.

We have now launched our Entrepreneurial Programme, which shall help the people to become entrepreneurs in solar products category. It will help them enhance their livelihood earning opportunity by addressing a challenge relevant to the rural milieu.

Q.What kind of impact has this project had on the community and its people?

Project Sahasra Jyoti has created an enormous impact by easing the lives of the people, opening up new sustainable socio-economic development opportunities and delivering safe, reliable, affordable, emissions-free and environmentally friendly electricity.

With access to energy, young children have a brighter future as lighting in their home allows more time to study in the evenings. With well-lit settlements, the risk of human-wildlife interaction has gone down significantly, especially tigers, leading to increased support for environment conservation. One of the most positive impacts is in terms of skill development.

The enhanced skill sets and capacity building of community-based organisations is enabling them to manage and operate clean energy infrastructure.

This project has also witnessed increased women’s participation in village energy committee. Also, it has led to the development of local entrepreneurship, home-run business opportunities and wealth creation.

Q.How did your partnership with World Wide Fund for Nature – India come about?

WWF-India has been working towards wildlife and environment protection in the country since 1969 and is one of the pioneers and leaders of conservation in the world. And Schneider Electric is committed towards conservation of the planet by reducing carbon footprints and increasing energy efficiency.

Therefore, when WWFIndia took the lead in facilitating community mobilisation including the Village Energy Planning process, we saw a great opportunity in the Sahasra Jyoti Project and approached them with intent to contribute our bit towards transforming the lives of people of Sundarbans through access to energy.

Q.What kind of projects is Schneider CSR going to focus on in India in the future and where?

Schneider Electric India Foundation is immensely delighted to have partnered with the project that made a difference to so many lives. We foresee a great future where every human being has access to energy.

Given the success of this project, we look forward to collaborating with WWF-India to expand the current project and explore similar interventions in other conservation priority areas.

As of now, our Entrepreneurial Programme is on a pilot basis in Odisha and North-east states. Based on the success we look forward to bring it to West Bengal as a region.