Lighting up the ghost town

By Dev Kotak

As the village dropped into darkness, her cries echoed through the village. She was in labour. And her labour was not progressing well. It was time to make the trek to Virampur, the closest health centre. But with no light, no transport, and no motorable road, the journey would be on foot. They helped her on to a doli, a makeshift cloth stretcher, and scaled the treacherous terrain. 7kms later, she was dead. And so was her unborn baby.
The twin villages of Modha and Chulipani in Banaskantha district in the western state of Gujarat have been bereft of development, the tribal population there neglected and sustenance of human life a serious cause of concern. Both the old and beautiful tribal villages are surrounded by hills in the Aravalli range.
The walk uphill to the village is riddled with rocks and boulders and is steep. While Modha is about six and Chulipani, in an exactly opposite direction, is an arduous four kilometers walk one-way, there is no motorable road that was ever constructed for easy access in the area.

This intervention was led by Project Chirag in alliance with their grassroot partner, Diganta Swaraj Foundation.

These villages are barely sustaining through farming, some of them do not even have their own land. The residents are extremely deprived as there is no recognition of the villages. It means that for the government, this village is a ghost town, lacking existence.

- Pratibha Pai, Founder Director Project Chirag
It is hardly surprising that even the state government’s revenue department does not mention it on its revenue map. The hamlets are missing as per the records of the district. This makes it even more difficult for the extremely poor villagers to seek benefits offered by government authorities.
With no electricity lines and, and their only water source being the nearby well, the villagers are forced to walk long distances in the dark. During the monsoon too, the villages become inaccessible, particularly problematic since the only means of survival for village people is agriculture,dairy farming, collecting firewood, forest products or work as daily wagers. The domino effect of being a ghost town is that the children have no schools in place, and to purchase the most basic of items, the villagers have to walk eight kilometers away to the main market town in Virampur. The lack of healthcare is a serious issue and lives have been lost in the past. The women, majority of them illiterate, complain that the lack of motorable roads makes it difficult for them to send the children to school as it is 8 kilometers away. One can only imagine what sort of a route it would make for when one has to navigate through a forest everyday to reach home. Especially in the evenings, when the villages would fall into absolute darkness.

“The water filtration plant consists of a pump submerged inside the lake. It pulls the water through suction up to a height of 80 feet and stores it in an overhead tank of 50,000-litre capacity,” informs Rahul Tivrekar, the founder and director of Diganta Swaraj Foundation.

The plant works on ultra-filtration technology. It’s power-efficient and a good idea for a village that suffers from the irregular electricity supply, he adds. Furthermore, the overhead tank is connected to taps across the village.

Project Chirag, along with their on-ground partners, Lok Niketan and Sarjan Foundation, began to identify the energy needs of the village, in an attempt to tackle their issues, root upwards.
As a first step to change, Project Chirag provided solar home lighting solutions to these villages, however the terrain posed a huge challenge for installation, as the homes are at least half a kilometer apart. For safety and social security, sensor based street lights were installed at strategic points, bringing this ghost town into the light.

The availability of clean drinking water has led to a drop in the cases of water-borne diseases in the village. “Earlier our stock of 50 tablets (for cough, fever and dysentery) would last for about two months. But our last stock lasted for eight months!” said the resident ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) worker.

The tap water facility was followed by the construction of public toilets in the hamlet. This has brought down the instances of open defecation and made the women feel safer.

“Earlier, we had to wait till the dark or venture out very early in the morning to the fields. And it was always embarrassing to take someone along to relieve ourselves. [But] after the construction of toilets, we don’t have to worry about our security,” says another woman anonymously.

The survival of these village residents is dependent on sustenance farming as the produce they grow of makai (maize or corn plant), is for self-consumption. Hardly any of it is sold outside in the markets, managing to make each farmer a mere Rs 10,000 annually.

The electrical energy received from the grid activates the main control board that draws water from the dam and stores it in the overhead tank. Narendra Ghane, a 30-year-old farmer, who is in charge of operating the main control board, says, “The dam caters to Warghad and Gumbadpada villages. I run the motor for two to three hours every day to meet our requirements and fill up the tank.”

Clean energy and lighting have had far-reaching effects. Around 108 households in Warghadpada today have solar home lighting systems comprising of two bulbs, mobile charging facility and a portable lantern installed under Project Chirag. The farmers are able to save close to Rs100 per litre, which they would earlier spend to run the kerosene lamps. The lamps would also give off dangerous fumes, which the villagers don’t have to put up with any more.

Sanitation, education, healthcare and livelihood support are objectives to achieve here, and while the journey seems long, the villagers are seeing brighter days and nights than ever before.

These sustainability programmes have addressed the issue of migration in this tribal village. Labourers, who had returned to their homes during the pandemic, now grow and sell their farm produce in the open markets.

However, education does remain a challenge and it has suffered further because of the pandemic. On the one hand, schools and junior colleges within the Zila Parishad aren’t fully equipped to impart e-learning. On the other hand, many children haven’t been able to take online classes since the lockdown because their parents do not own a phone, leave a smartphone.

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