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BALLA, HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA - After the sun went down on Balla village nestled in the Himalayan slopes in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, people never ventured out.
"We used to be scared. This is a lonely area and wild animals used to come," recalls village resident, Umesh Chandra Awasthi. That is no longer the case. "Now we have a free pass to go outdoors after dark. Animals, even pigs that wandered into our gardens don't trouble us any longer," he says sitting outside his home.
Life changed after the installation of solar lamps outside homes in the rural hamlet helped break the darkness after sunset. As part of its big push to expand solar energy, India is lighting up hill and remote rural areas that have limited access to the electrical grid with tens of thousands of solar street lamps. Launched three years ago, the program extends from hundreds of villages in the northern Himalayas to poor, underdeveloped states like Bihar and Jharkhand in eastern India.
With grid power inadequate, unaffordable or just not available for an estimated 240 million people in India, the sun-drenched country has been trying to plug the gap with renewable energy options that extend from massive solar parks to solar study lamps inside village homes and streetlights outside.
Incentives by the government have made solar energy attractive. The program for street lighting for example has picked up pace rapidly because it is cost effective: the government provides a 90 per cent subsidy for the lights that cost around $350. Village residents contribute the rest of the money – one lamp costs them around $35.
"The street lights became very popular in villages because they have no provision for street lighting from the grid," says Surender Dhiman, Project Officer at Himurja, the Himachal Pradesh government energy development agency that is spearheading the program. He says people are opting for these as security lights in public places.
A popular source of power
Solar lights are also attractive because unlike grid power there are no bills to pay, so besides the initial cost, village councils do not have to worry about setting aside funds.
The unreliability of grid electricity makes these solar street lamps a boon in mountain areas like Balla where power outages are common according to residents. "Due to frequent storms, conventional power lines often go down, and sometimes lights are out for long stretches while repair work carries on," says Ajay Awasthi. "Now even during outages, the solar lights keep the area lit.
And in the village that once fell silent after dark, people no longer hunker indoors. Some residents sit out to enjoy a cool summer breeze. Others get together to discuss where to install more lights. Some even use the streetlight to read a book when darkness engulfs their home.
With a newfound sense of security, women step out after dark and mothers even allow children to come out after sunset. "Now my children can play outside in the courtyard," says a relaxed Shivani Sharma, a mother of a seven and an eight year old boy and girl. "If they have examinations and there is no light, they can even study outside," she says watching a group of children playing.
Maintenance and theft of batteries posed a challenge for some time resulting in some lights falling into disuse. But improved designs with integrated batteries are helping overcome such hurdles according to Arun Kumar at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, a non-profit that has also led a program to put up street lights in villages. He says they are changing age-old life patterns in rural India in subtle ways. "People now intermingle after the day's work is over, so they help increase the community feeling, and promote a sense of safety," he says.
The solar option is proving popular -- many now want solar installations on rooftops also to light up homes. Villages like Balla have a large proportion of people who are poor, who often do not switch on lights at home due to the cost, points out longtime resident Madan Dikshit. "I want the government to put up solar panels to supply households with energy."
While that may take time, the gentle glow of solar lamps on these hillsides is bringing them alive after darkness.