A group of women social entrepreneurs in Chowankhan village in Gujarat line up to demonstrate the use of clean cooking devices to potential buyers

The focus of the energy portfolio at Tata Trusts is on the critically important areas of livelihoods, health, education, environment and access to water. The energy programme looks at clean cooking for rural and tribal communities, solar energy for household electrification, and improvements in irrigation. That leads to affordable clean cooking devices, solutions that enable people in places without electricity to access power, and solar energy that allows farmers to irrigate fields.

“We realised that it’s fairly difficult to achieve improvements in livelihood, education or health unless we tackle the challenge of energy,” says Ganesh Neelam, who heads the energy programme at Tata Trusts. An important programme, in the context, is the clean cooking initiative, where rural and tribal households are provided with clean cooking devices, which are healthier by far than stoves that need wood or biomass and are used by millions of Indians, which fuel household air pollution that causes more than a million deaths every year.

‘Clean’ is the concern

Mr Neelam says that the need of the hour is for technologically improved clean cooking devices that offer fuel efficiency, reduce cooking time and, most importantly, lower the health hazards that women in particular have to put up with. “Tata Trusts has been promoting clean cooking programmes with community institutions over the last three years,” he says. “The programme looks at promotion and adoption of safer cookstoves, biogas, behavioural change communication, etc.”

Another thrust area is alternative energy, especially solar-based lift irrigation systems that can give farmers an alternative to expensive and polluting diesel gensets to draw water. Solar lifting systems are viable in areas without grid connectivity. This also helps expand the overall area under irrigation, which means better livelihood opportunity. “The initial expenditure is high but in the long term the solar-based system become more viable,” says Mr Neelam. About 50-60 such systems have been set up in different states and these cater to about 600 households.

In Odisha the concept of cycle-mounted solar irrigation systems have been tried, tested and made to work. The way it works, the farmer takes a cycle mounted with solar panels to the field and plugs in to irrigate his land. About 2,000 such systems have been deployed across the state.

Tata Trusts also implements a project where off-grid solar systems are employed to provide energy for an entire village or hamlet. This has been a boon for small businesses during the daylight hours and for previously unlit homes at night. “We have put up these systems in Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Maharashtra, in areas that are unlikely to get power for a number of years,” says Mr Neelam.

Tata Trusts has partnered the International Water Management Institute to set up a solar cooperative where farmers sell excess energy (which goes back into the grid) and use solar energy as a means to generate income. It has also used the collaborative approach to get quality solar lanterns and systems to households in Rajasthan and Odisha.

The solar energy space has been built on partnerships with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, nonprofits and social sector entities. The idea is to help bring some light and cheer to the lives of Indians without a reliable and continuous source of power supply.

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Sunny side rising

A farmer ploughs his field in Kailashnagar village in Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh, one of seven states — Odisha, Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra are the others — where the ‘Solar-based Irrigation’ project supported by Tata Trusts is being implemented by partner organisations. Using solar-powered pumps has enabled small and marginal farmers in Kailashnagar and several such villages reduce the dependence on polluting diesel pumps, improve availability of water and earn additional income from growing summer crops. Launched in 2014, the initiative draws on knowhow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and the International Water Management Institute, Colombo.

‘Cooking up’ better health

Sunitha, who lives in Nagala village of Rajasthan’s Dhaulpur district, is no longer cooking the old-fashioned way in her improvised kitchen. Sunitha is among the many now changing the way they prepare food, thanks to the ‘Clean Cooking Stove Project’, a Tata Trusts initiative that aims to deliver high-quality and ‘clean’ cooking devices to rural households. Operational in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the project promotes clean cooking appliances as a substitute for the traditional, and extremely harmful, mode of using biomass and firewood as cooking fuel. This initiative makes all the more sense when linked to a distressing truth: indoor air pollution and health-damaging rural kitchens are the reason for the ‘black roofs, black lungs’ blight that kills close to a million Indians every year.