Amrita WNA Achieves Solar Electrification of Remote Tribal Village in the Wayanad

The Amrita Sphuranam project of Amrita Centre for Wireless Networks and Applications (AmritaWNA) has provided solar-powered electrification for the entire rural village of Valaramkunnu village near Modekkara in the Wayanad, and this model will soon be deployed in all the villages being transformed by Amrita SeRVe’s village rehabilitation project. Amrita Sphuranam grew out of Amrita University’s Live-in-LabsTM Program. The Chancellor of Amrita University, Sri. Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Amma), initiated the Live-in-LabsTM  Program to harness the idealism, brilliance and energy of young people to uplift society. As per Amma’s instructions, AmritaWNA integrated Live-in-LabTM programs into their curriculum, and students spend 2 hours a week performing activities relevant to societal transformation. The students also travel to rural villages far from the university, live in the villages for varying lengths of time, study the problems of the villagers and come up with practical, affordable solutions.

The students, researchers, and faculty from AmritaWNA visited the tribal village of  Valaramkunnu to see what they could do to improve the villagers’  lives. The village is situated in the middle of a natural forest and is spread out over two small mountains. Only jeeps can manage to reach the base of the village, as the road to it is narrow, bumpy and rutted and becomes slippery mire in the rain. The last hundreds of meters are negotiated by foot. The villagers have small, simple houses. Most of the villagers work for daily wages in the fields and few have more than a 1st or 2nd grade education. They are poor, but hospitable, and have a naturally sweet and open nature.  They live in a spectacularly beautiful environment of misty mornings and evenings, surrounded by the natural grandeur of the rain forest. The villagers were already aware of Amma and her charitable projects and many had attended her medical camps in the area.  The villagers were a bit reticent at first, but gradually opened up to the students and provided the needed information.

The students came back with a list of ten problems including: lack of electricity, lack of access to drinking water, improper nutrition, poor housing and lack of land. The lack of education also makes the villagers vulnerable to exploitation. The students prioritized the problems and found that  the most pressing problemwas the lack of electricity, which was the fundamental issue needing to be solved before tackling the other problems. Electrical connectivity was limited to a few houses and they were so poorly wired that the residents were in danger of electrical shock. Additionally, the people were too poor to pay their electric bills. This motivated the students to choose rural electrification as their Live-in-LabTM project for transforming the village.

The students believed that if they could provide the electricity, then the rest of the requirements of the village such as education, healthcare services and infrastructure development could be carried out in a better, faster and more efficient manner.Alternative energy sources were limited as there was no wind available due to many trees, water resource was available only few months a year, but there were clear areas for solar panels available in few places. Solar electrification was the clear choice. The 42 houses were grouped in 6 clusters spread over two small mountains, so AmritaWNA team decided to make the electrification by cluster. Each solar energy generation unit would cater to six to ten houses.

When the students presented the solar electrification plan to the faculty, they asked them to come up with a detailed proposal, including a budget. On the next visit, they worked on the design of the clusters, choosing the solar equipment: the type of inverters, solar panels and batteries, measuring the wiring requirements between houses and inside each house. They looked for areas free of shade close to the habitations and got permission from the land owner to install panels on their land.

The students all worked on this together and had the idea to submit the proposal for a grant from the government.  Before sending the proposal, they went to Amma as a group to show her what they were planning and told her about the cost. Amma said they should begin the work without  further delay and that they could use funding from the ashram, as well as use all ashram and university resources to complete the project as soon as possible. Amma was very happy to see the enthusiastic group and their motivation to serve the village. During this conversation Amma reiterated that the students should be involved in doing this work themselves and provide electricity to the village. They happily accepted Amma’s wish.

Amrita Sphuranam started long before the idea of deployment of a isolated solar system in a village came up. In fact, it started with an instruction from Amma to Dr. Maneesha Sudheer, director of AmritaWNA, four years ago.  She had just visited a smart grid lab in a well established university in the USA and told Amma about it.  Amma replied that, “India experiences a large wastage of electricity. We should devise a system that can minimize the energy wastage and utilize it for rural villagers who don’t have electricity.” Amma asked her to initiate such a research project at Amrita. A final year Master’s student of Wireless Networks and Applications took on the task of developing a smartgrid prototype capable of real-time monitoring, line fault detection, power theft, etc. Later, along with student, a small research group continued the work aiming to solve the problems of renewable energy integration, optimal usage of energy, scheduling of dynamic energy management, power theft, poor fault detection, manual billing and context aware systems for sustainable buildings, etc. The team also understood that the Indian electrical system was not inclusive of all areas and the electrification of rural villages, together with renewable energy, was the most suitable solution. The research efforts were then focused on renewable energy, self sustainable, microgrids for India.   Now the team had the green light to go ahead and put the theory into practice, to provide a solar electricity and ultimately, a microgrid, to a village of 300 people.

Students and faculty of AmritaWNA then started researching companies manufacturing the solar panels, inverters, batteries, etc., needed for the project. Some elements of the project were not available in the market, so the group designed the structure to hold the solar panels and initiated manufacturing the structures in an Amrita workshop.To complete the project as soon as possible, a third group of AmritaWNA students, researchers and faculty returned to the village and started rewiringthe houses.

The group needed to stay some distance away in Amma’s Amrita Vidyalayam in Manathawady, so daily they commuted 15 km to the site. They faced problems of procuring food and drinking water, as well as dealing with leeches and the threat of wild animals.  But nothing daunted the high spirits of the group.  They climbed up and down the mountain repeatedly to visit the houses and to pick up lunch, which was delivered at the bottom of the mountain. 

As the project continued, many students, on their own initiative, visited the houses, talking with the villagers and playing with the children. They got to know them and their problems very well.  They said, “We slowly realised that to uplift a village requires much more than a simple electrical connection. The local culture of these people should be preserved. Their innocence, open heartedness and inner connection with nature should not be injured by the process of laying outer wiring in their houses, linking them to a modern world.  But electricity would give light to their house, an opportunity for the children to study at night, and later to charge educational tablets. We want to continue helping them and using our technical skills to improve their lives.  We’ve also learned that we have some things to learn from them. They don’t take more than they need from nature, live in the present and generously share what little they have.”

The moment the solar panels arrived and the first two structures were ready, they were sent by lorry to Wayanad.  However, the lorry was not able to negotiate the steep track up the mountain, made even more challenging by rains turning the red clay into a slippery, sliding slush.  After a few unfruitful attempts, some of the students and staff gave a hand to push the truck. After several more attempts, the truck driver was ready to give up. At this moment, someone brought a strong rope and attached it to the front of the truck. Now 20 people were pulling and pushing the truck. Slowly the truck climbed the steep road, stopping now and then and sometimes moving backwards. The students and faculty of WNA, slipping and sliding, pulled the lorry as far up the mountain as they could, which was only one third of the way. Finally, they had to confess defeat to the mountain. Despite their best efforts, the truck could climb no further. But the group was determined, and started the slow process of unloading the lorry and hand carrying everything the rest of the way. All enthusiastically participated according to their ability. Water and snacks were brought to the top of the hill to fuel the effort.

Four structures had to be brought up one mountain and two on the other. The 45 kg batteries had to be carried by hand to the top of the mountains, along with the steel rods and heavy metal structures for the panels. In all, two tons of material needed to be carried up the mountains!  Most of the time, the students would climb up five steps and slide back two to three steps, yet their enthusiasm was not dampened by either mud, rain or physical exertion.  Seeing this, the villagers also joined in and the daunting work became like a party as spirits soared. About this experience, one student said, “A great feeling of satisfaction arose in me, I had really been giving of myself and we achieved our goal.” 

After the first two clusters were ready, the final materials arrived. The first batch left and a second group came, also needing to transport the materials under difficult conditions.The day before the team had to leave for the launch of the project on AmritaVarsham61, they decided to come at 5 in the morning to test the lights.  When the villagers found out that they had come so early, they were horrified and said it was only Grace that had saved them from being attacked by wild animals. That is the time the animals normally move about and villagers avoid being outdoors at that time of day and normally wait till 7 or 8 in the morning to leave their houses.

Now, all 6 clusters are functioning and 42 houses have electricity. Each house has 3 lights and a plug point. The houses were lit during Amritavarsham61, Amma’s 61st birthday celebrations as Kerala Chief Minister Shri Oommen Chandy officially launched Amrita Sphuranam, the solar electrification project. The project is ongoing, however, as the students are continuing to integrate the six clusters to develop a microgrid capable of energy exchange using innovative dynamic pricing models. This will eventually lead to a microgrid that could even generate income for the village families. On successful completion, the complete system will be able to be remotely monitored and controlled from Amrita University. The AmritaWNA research team at Amrita is also focusing on the design of a monitoring system to analyse generation and consumption data from the field. ETW now intends to deploy similar installations in all the villages being transformed by Amrita SeRVe’s village rehabilitation project

The team had discovered that in this village a solar installation had been provided few years ago, but technical failure of the system, the lack of local people qualified for maintenance and the absence of support from the original installer had lead the villagers to sell the system to better informed people. Learning from this experience, the group adopted a different and long term approach. The basic training of a few villagers was made a priority. Two local devotees who have the trust of the locals, and are part of the local Amrita SeRVe village rehabilitation team, are also keeping a constant connection with the villagers and reporting to the team.

Electrical engineer, Fabien Robert, a member of the AmritaWNA research team commented, “While working on this electrification project, I discovered the beauty of a piece of nature that is pure and untouched by humans. I was in contact with the tribal population of this village and became aware of how much the lack of basic necessities can be a heavy burden. I was moved by their innocence, the simplicity of their life style and the joy in all the children playing around.

I am glad that I could contribute to this project and am thanking Amma and all the people who gave of their time, money and energy for this project. They gave us the opportunity to provide light in the houses of this remote village and in this process the lights of our hearts became brighter.”   

One of the senior researchers and project coordinator of this rural electrification project, Mr. Ullas Ramanadhan, commented, “When Amma asked us to work for the rural electrification project, I had never seen such a village. All through my life, I have lived only in cities. When I got the opportunity to interact with the kids in this village, see their state, I felt like it’s a blessing from Amma to work in such a project. I thank Amma for providing such a chance to work on this project.”

Mr. Vijo, Semester 3, MTech in Wireless Networks and Application commented, “After leading a life of comfort in the cities, coming here and helping these tribals were an eye opener for us. This project enabled us to understand that with the knowledge that we gain through our lives, there is also so much responsibility to serve these people. A part of that duty seems fulfilled today. Thanks to Amma!”

Mr. Sooraj of Semester 3, Mtech in Wireless Networks and Applications commented, "We consider ourselves fortunate to be part of the Living Labs program under  Amma's vision. Through this project we came in touch with the tribal people struck with poverty and in need of help. By coming to this remote village in Wayand and interacting with the people here we have seen the difficult face of life. Even though we had to drip lot of sweat in the difficult environment here, we consider ourselves to be fortunate in bringing light to the underprivileged people here by installing the solar panels.”

Dr. Maneesha Sudheer, Director, WNA, summarized her vision of this Live-in-LabsTM project.  “With this project, Amma is bringing in a transformation in the whole society. She is creating a new genre of youngster who is keen to transform India’s rural villages using their technical knowledge. These were the young people, who earlier never had an idea of village life. They have never experienced any hardship in their lives. By seeing real life in these villages, the greatest transformation that has happened is in these youth , who are our nation’s future.  Let this lamp lit by Amma spread light all over the world.”

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