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Indian Program Distributes Solar-Powered Lamps to Millions of Rural Residents


In India, an energy research institute has launched a program to use solar lanterns to bring electric light to millions of rural people. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, nearly 400 million people in India do not have access to power.

As dusk falls, life comes to a virtual standstill across thousands of villages in India. There is no electricity and most poor villagers cannot afford to use kerosene lamps for too long.

But this age-old pattern has changed in about 40 villages, where rural houses now have access to solar lamps developed by the New Delhi-based Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI). These villages hum with activity, even after darkness falls. Children study in the evening, shops remain open and women continue to do household work.

These lamps cost more than $100 and are too expensive for the villagers to buy. So, they rent them for about five cents a day. The solar lamps can light up a small village home for about four hours and can be recharged at a solar panel.

The project to take solar lamps across rural India is part of a TERI initiative called "Light One Billion Lives". An estimated 1.5 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity. One quarter of them live in India.

Environmentalist R.K. Pachauri, who heads TERI and the United Nations inter-governmental panel on climate change, says the project has huge potential to transform lives.

"A large number of them see nothing but darkness when the sun goes down," Pachauri said. "Now, we can wait to set up large thermal power plants, extend the grid to all the villages and I am not too sure with the level of poverty that exists, whether people will be able to afford getting connections in their homes. But, on the other hand, today's technology allows us to give these homes lighting, through the use of solar lanterns and solar torches. We believe that this is something human society must pursue with urgency. And, more than that, India should pursue with urgency."

Pachauri says TERI has only made a modest beginning and will need support to reach the 75 million households in India which do not have electricity.

Pachauri says solar lamps will also help tackle the world's latest priority, climate change. The carbon dioxide emitted by kerosene lamps not only harms the health of villagers, it also contributes to carbon emissions.

He suggests that part of the money spent by government to subsidize the price of kerosene could be used to give solar lamps to villages.

TERI is not first to develop solar lamps. The government has also built them, but their high cost kept them out of reach of poor people.

The Indian government says it wants to reduce dependence on conventional energy sources, such as coal and oil, and give a big push to solar energy in the country.

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