In July 2012 I volunteered with the Australian NGO The 40K Foundation. As a part of this, I worked on a project aiming to supply solar energy to poor communities: mostly temporary communities which form around construction sites in Bangalore. This project was made necessary by the unreliable access to energy that these people had, and their dependence on kerosene for lighting and cooking. Kerosene has severe health side effects, is expensive and also dangerous to use in their homes, which are often lean-to wooden huts. Given the temporary (and illegal) nature of the communities, they are unable to access the permanent infrastructure in place within the city: so a better solution is needed. Out of this project, the India-based NGO Pollinate Energy was formed.
As part of this project I read many articles on the lack of access to reliable energy that a majority of people around the world have. While I was in Bangalore there was a huge power failure in the north of India which left 600 million people (25% of India’s population, 10% of the world’s population) without access to electricity for days.
However, as this article in the WSJ pointed out, a large majority of people in the affected areas would not have even realised that there were power shortages: because they do not have access to the electricity normally!
Now, I have read a lot about lack of access to electricity and the impact this has on people’s lives, as well as reading a lot about the shortages in northern India when it was happening. But until I came to Coimbatore, I didn’t reallyunderstand what this meant.
That was a month ago. Now, I think I have a much better idea.
Coimbatore experiences regular power cuts. And when I say regular, I don’t mean ‘scheduled’, I mean ‘frequent’. If I am having a lucky day, I have power for 2 hours of an evening after I get home from work at 6pm. Some mornings there is power when I wake up, most there aren’t. While I am at the office we are more often than not using electricity sourced from a backup generator. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury at home.
My landlady’s apartment next to me has a backup generator, but I have to rely on an emergency lamp and candles.
Mostly, it isn’t so bad. Its actually kind fun at times: there is something to be said for having a shower by candle light, and with only one person in the apartment it is easy enough to carry the lantern around with me.
Having said that, there are some minor inconveniences. Its taken me 4 weeks to get used to thinking about putting my devices (phone, laptop, lamp) to charge as soon as the electricity comes on, in order to continue to use them when it goes off. And some nights I really miss the ceiling fan – it helps to keep the room a little less stuffy (I can’t open windows because of the clouds of mosquitos waiting outside to suck me dry).
Also, it is a bit of a hazard when cooking, because a few times I have been chopping vegetables and the power has gone off mid cut. Note to self: keep emergency lamp close at critical times.
I guess it is just a habit that needs to be formed: coming from Australia, I subconsciously thought of access to electricity the same as I did about my access to oxygen. Until it wasn’t there, I didn’t think about it being there.
But, the last 4 weeks have cured me of that, and given me a new found appreciation for the work thats done by so many NGOs around the world. Because as the saying goes: there is always someone worse off. My two hours of electricity most evenings still makes me luckier and richer than 3/4 of the world’s population: who only have access to 10% of the world’s energy.
Disclaimer: I’m writing this at 11pm on a Thursday evening, and it just so happens to be the night of the most power since I have been here: it was on when I got home from work, and besides a 20 minute period when it went off, its been on all evening. I’m waiting with baited breath though for it to cut out again…