Light! What does it mean at the base of the pyramid?

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…”

– R.N. Tagore

Surprisingly beautiful answers one gets when one tries to understand what essentially the above means to the 1.5 billion people with no access to electricity. These people have dreams and they include the world in it. They dream of a better world for their children and for their loved ones. They want to be at harmony and peace with another. And they are not just dreamers, they are doers as well.

So, what does light means to these people? How the absence of light impacts at the base of the pyramid whose output represents one-third of the world’s economy, one may wonder! To give you an idea, majority of the roughly 1.6 billion people who live on $1-3 a day are poorly educated and low skilled with unsteady earnings. The need for improved sanitation, health care, and education gawks at them. And to add to it, they are limited further by poor lighting for their work hours, all economic activities need to be shut down and the children struggle to continue their studies with kerosene lamps, posing them further to health hazards. In pursuit of their dreams, around 1.3 million of them spend half of their income on alternate lighting to light up their homes at night.

Daylight impact. Credits: Shashank Bhosale

Daylight impact. Credits: Shashank Bhosale

Without bank accounts or access to formal credit, most of them are vulnerable to exploitation by the middlemen. Like in one of the urban slums in heart of Bangalore city in India, the entire populace was forced to buy substandard lighting devices by the landlord. The slum dwellers have to pay through their nose every month to be able to have their shanties, even poorly lit. This is the same story almost everywhere. People either cannot afford electricity or they do not have access to it. The energy poverty is so extreme that more often than not, there is rampant stealing of electricity off grid-poles to light up the houses. In fact this has proliferated the rise of illegal agents, forcing the people into irregular transactions in lieu of a $2-3 a monthly fee. As a result, the residents are in constant fear of being discovered and being accounted for the usage and theft. On a psychological level, they always want to be under the wraps, hiding their identity and not taking enough steps to raise their living standards which they could have otherwise done;  had it not been for their economic and hence energy poverty. The precariousness of their daily existence in absence of even streetlights further contributes to limited education, lack of appropriate skill development atmosphere and ultimately their ability to lift their families out of this vicious cycle.

We at Liter of Light Bangalore interact with such communities’ day in and out asking one simple question, “What will you do if light comes to you?” And the responses are overwhelming and ever so encouraging. The intensity of impact can be gauged from the fact they are ever ready to contribute their bit howsoever they can, in welcoming the change they perceive the presence of light will bring about. Be it spreading the word by the students of a school in their own communities or be it the residents themselves ready to learn how they can enable their own neighborhood. The personal stories are equally enchanting.

Extending out the hand. Credits: Bhagyashree Wattal

Extending out the hand. Credits: Bhagyashree Wattal

In the very early stages of the chapter’s operations, we enquired about the impact from Ruby, in whose kitchen a bottle light was installed about a month ago in one of the slums. Very convincingly, we had already believed it to be an impact on general ease and children’s education. The moment of truth came when she spoke that with light, in addition to what we expected, the family has started to spend time together, the younger son is no longer playing mindlessly out on the streets, and the elder daughter feels safer even when alone in the house. Many such accounts of better family cohesiveness, community bonding, increase in safety from pests and animals are luxuries the privileged world takes for granted. Light certainly has a major role to play here. The changes taking place under the Ruby’s roof are symbolic of a quiet revolution sweeping the world and such will be the seminal moments in the history of illumination.

In one of the schools, the students now concentrate better with no headaches, the attendance rates, and the level of interest have considerably gone higher. Not only are they more aware and amazed by the first hand practical applications of what is taught to them, the backbenchers too are now in spotlight for once. Having these firsthand glimpses of life off-the-grid reinforces the belief that this is the right thing to happen in right place at any time. It is the key to socio-economic empowerment. Bringing light into a home not only enhances life, it also brings opportunities. This implies demand for cheap, efficient lighting is only going to grow as population growth outpaces electrification. The rate of innovation in delivery models, technology and design indicates a bright future for the under-electrified strata with subsequent dimming of kerosene’s toxic flame.

John Dudley, President of the European Physical Society while addressing in his keynote at United Nations IYL 2015 opening ceremony emphasized

“LIGHT.  EDUCATION.  PEACE.

Now It’s up to US to ENGAGE!”

With so much conviction and action happening on the ground and everywhere, the day isn’t far when the not only billions at the base of the pyramid but each one of us would live Tagore’s dream.

“.. Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake!”

Notes

Through Liter of Light open source global movement, 53 chapters across the globe are doing their bit in being the harbingers of slow and steady change to these communities. The movement was started in 2011 by Illac Diaz taking the inspiration from bottle bulb invention by Alfredo Moser. The movement aims to bring simple, clean, easy and innovative lighting bottle solutions to off-grid dark households and areas using discarded waste material, keeping it low cost and further enabling the communities to learn and implement the solutions themselves.

Liter of Light Bangalore is a representative of the global movement in India and has been in inception since over a year. The Bangalore chapter has an upcoming project in the offing to light up six tribal villages over the course of next few months and is currently crowdfunding for the same, one step at a time.


Tripti AggarwalTripti Aggarwal has been a volunteer since long in the community work space. She co-founded the Liter of Light Bangalore chapter in India and is voluntarily and actively involved in it. She dreams of a world where the need of community work would phase out and eventually the social issues would become non-issues. She is a full-time working ERP professional with an IT major and loves reading, writing and de-stressing over random long walks. When not volunteering, she can be found vociferously advocating the cause of gender equality.

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