Solar units beyond people's reach in Sunderbans

By Maureen Nandini Mitra
Published: Thursday 15 March 2007

Solar units beyond people's reach in Sunderbans

A few years ago, Shaktipada Jena, a small farmer could dream of buying a home solar power system. He'd have to stretch his means to save between Rs 3,100 and Rs 4,800, the going rate. But now prices have gone through the roof and a solar unit is out of his reach. Everyday, as darkness falls, he sees electric lights come on in some of his neighbours' homes on Ghoramara island, in the Sunderbans archipelago. Meanwhile, his children do their homework by the flickering glow of kerosene lamps and his wife speaks wistfully of tv soaps that she can't watch.

Perched atop the cabin of a packed trawler on its way to Ghoramara from the mainland, Jena wonders why, when the government had promised them subsidised solar units, solar power companies are charging such high prices. "We are poor people, how can we afford to pay so much?" he asks.

At Sagar and Ghoramara islands, panchayat officials, too, are flummoxed by the steep price hike.Back in 2005, they had received letters from the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency (wbreda) saying they would get a 90 per cent discount on solar units, which come in three capacities--18 w, 37 w and 75 w. But since last year, suppliers have been charging more, because rising demand has driven up prices.

Convinced that local agents were overcharging, Ghoramara panchayat pradhan Ajay Patra visited the head offices of two energy companies--Surya Bandhan and Sunshine--in Kolkata. "They refused to talk to me," he says. "They said I could only communicate with their local agents." Patra then approached wbreda director S P Gon Choudhury, who arranged for the companies to send their representatives over. But they turned out to be the same local agents. "Of the 989 families on Ghoramara only about 150 have managed to buy solar units," says Patra. "Most people here are below the poverty line. They survive on fishing and growing paan (betel) leaves, paddy and green chillies. It's hardly possible for them to afford the solar units."
Stingy state For over a decade, wbreda has been working to address the problem of power supply in the Sunderbans, a difficult job in a region cut off from the mainland, hard to access and not connected to power grids. Since 1996, it has set up 21 small solar photovoltaic plants in four blocks, which produce more than 1 mw of power and cater to the needs of about 5,000 families. Each plant has its own mini-grid that distributes power to surrounding villages for six hours after nightfall. wbreda has set a target of providing solar power to 31 of the 54 inhabited islands by 2008. So far it has covered only five.

Apart from these plants, 40,000 families have 18 w, 37 w or 75 w capacity standalone home systems. These are supposed to be provided at a subsidised cost by 22 solar energy companies that wbreda has tie-ups with. The home systems are a quick and easy way of electrifying remote areas because they are financially and logistically easier for the state to put up than solar power plants and are ideal for small islands like Ghoramara, says Gon Choudhury.

But this option is not quite working out. With the West switching to clean and renewable technologies and domestic demand increasing, Indian solar power companies have found their products are fetching higher prices. "The companies we have tie-ups with have begun exporting their products, especially to Germany," says Gon Choudhury. "Now they have increased their prices and many don't want to continue working with us."K C Tripathy, a scientist with the Union ministry for new and renewable energy's (mnre's) solar energy programme, says growth in the electronics sector has increased the price of silicon, a component of solar panels.

In the open market today the home systems cost significantly more than they did in 2004-05. An 18 w unit which runs one light and one fan for six hours a day costs about Rs 8,000; the 37 w unit which can run two lights and a fan for the same time comes for around Rs 12,000; and the 75 w unit which can run four lights, a fan and a television for six hours costs about Rs 27,000. The prices differ, by a few thousands, from company to company. But though market prices have increased, the government subsidy has fallen. mnre has allotted a Rs 2,500 subsidy for the 18 w unit and Rs 4,800 for the other two. The state chips in 20 per cent of the cost for Scheduled Castes and Tribes and other backward classes.

So for the average Sunderbans villager, what was once a 75 to 80 per cent subsidy (not 90 per cent as claimed by the government, which put out a figure without mentioning that the subsidy did not cover taxes, and transportation and installation charges) is now down to between 17 per cent to 30 per cent. Which means a family is expected to shell out about Rs 7,200 for a 37 w unit or Rs 22,200 for a 75 w unit. There are few takers for the 18 w unit, which would cost Rs 5,500.

The average annual income of families in the Sunderbans is Rs. 10,000, while hooking up with one of the mini solar plant grids costs each household Rs 75 to Rs 130 a month. This is closer to what they spend on kerosene.

Gon Chowdhury rues that the Centre and state aren't upping the subsidies to reflect the hike in prices. "The thing is, sitting in New Delhi, they can't visualise what life's like for the common man in these areas," he says. "They fail to see how much they can save by subsidising renewable energy." It's simple mathematics, he says. If a house is powered by solar energy, then it won't need kerosene, which is a finite and polluting fuel, for lighting. The government, which provides kerosene at a subsidised Rs 13 per litre, would save up to Rs 800 per year per household. Now multiply that with say, 100,000 families: you save up to Rs 800 crore per year, he adds. The Sunderbans supports a population of 39 lakh people.

Back on the trawler, Jena repeats the same words over and over again, hoping he can get his message across: "The best thing for us would be to get a power project, then every one will benefit. Tell them that's what we need. If 10 houses are lit and the remaining 100 are in darkness, what's the point?"

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