Every year there are people who migrate in flocks from villages to big cities in hopes of a better life. From 1951 to 2011, the urban population of India has increased from 17% to 31%. Migration from rural to urban has become so common that hardly anyone would bat an eyelid upon hearing people moving from villages to cities.
But Palak Aggarwal, a woman from Delhi, broke the norm by moving from a city to a village. She migrated from Delhi to Kalahandi, Odisha. Palak dared to dream big by making a contribution to the village by providing it technology solutions based on Solar Energy.
Who is Palak Aggarwal?
Palak was born and brought up in Delhi. She did her graduation from Delhi in Economics and went on to do a Masters in Sustainable Development from TERI University in the same city.
The first time she went to Kalahandi was for one month in 2011 when she went for fieldwork for her thesis on ‘Understanding Socio-Economic Impact of Renewable Energy’.
“Jab main wahan gayi, main wahin reh gayi,” says Palak. (When I went there, a part of my soul was left there)
In 2012, Palak was awarded the Swecha Fellowship on Green Influence. With the money she was granted under the Swecha Fellowship, Palak used it to electrify the vegetable market using Solar LED bulbs. For her outstanding contribution, she got featured by CNN International in 2012 on the programme ‘Road to Rio’.
Whenever Palak went to stay in Kalahandi, she had to take a 3-hour bus from Bhubaneshwar where she used to speak to the co-passengers. She realized that for every small facility that city people take for granted like photocopy, passport size pictures, printouts, the Kalahandi villagers were required to travel 30-40 km one side and waste one full day to get these things done.
This untold suffering of the villagers acted as a springboard for Palak to leave the comfortable city life and finally move to Kalahandi in 2013.
“We want to make a platform to innovate and create products and services which will help small-scale entrepreneurs to incubate these products and services at a very small scale,” says Palak.
She further adds; “Solar Energy is stuck at lighting and mobile charging when we think about the needs of the rural citizens. The urban elites have pre-determined their needs. We hardly think about solutions that generate livelihood for villagers.”
Palak believes that technology solutions should have an ecosystem like that of cycles. It serves both the urban needs (lifestyle and fashion) and rural needs (distance). The spare parts and mechanic for a cycle are available in every corner of the country be it village or cities.
The problem that Palak is trying to solve is gargantuan and Brobdingnagian in nature. At one end is a world of bitcoins, hyperloop, ardeno, 3D printers, drones and at the other end is a world where farmers face a post-harvest loss, their produce is wasted, there is no access to cold storage and people need to travel 30 km for basics like rice milling, oilseeds milling. She endeavours to create a bridge between the two worlds with technology, starting with Solar Energy and at the same time generate livelihood.
Every initiative that Palak has taken, she makes sure that the need comes directly from the villagers and the common people.
The first initiative that Palak took upon moving to Kalahandi was to start a Jan Samadhan Kendra in the middle of the village with a local youth on Solar Energy. The Kendra was equipped with a small laptop, digital camera and a printer. The aim of starting the Jan Samadhan Kendra was to create a simple model that could be started with anyone who wanted to take such initiatives.
In another instance, she used Solar Energy for playing music at the marriage of a local tribal colleague which was held near Karlapat Wild Life Sanctuary in the Kalahandi District Forest. She wanted to use it to showcase to people that they can use solar technology in the deepest of the interiors if given the opportunity.
The second initiative was Solar Puncture Wallah. It was an amalgamation of solar technology and air compressor for fixing the tyre puncture. The intent of the solar puncture wallah initiative was to save labour by using this machine. The V1 (Version 1) of this product was for fixing punctures of cycles and motorbikes and the V2 (Version 2) was for four wheelers.
The third initiative was Solar Cane. Odisha has a lot of sugarcane vendors. The sugarcane machines run on diesel which creates carbon footprints and an offset. In partnership with Centurion University, she developed the Solar Cane and later on, urged the small-scale entrepreneurs to take and spread it to places where the diesel was being used.
The fourth initiative was Solar Cold Storage built in partnership with Cool Crop. It was the first hybrid decentralised cold storage in Odisha. Currently, it is under pilot testing to understand the viability, business model and consumer behaviour. The intent of developing the solar cold storage is to reduce post-harvest loss.
The latest project that they are coming up with is a Solar Kabariwallah. “The solar waste lasts for 10-15 years and to meet one goal, we cannot create waste and obstacles for other goals (in reference to the SDGs by the UN). Under this project, they aspire to convert the plastic waste of the panels into educational toys.
Since 2013, since the year Palak moved to Kalahandi has been a series of transformations in her personal journey. One of the very special stories that Palak shares which became a part of her personal transformation is the story of Durjodhan Maji. She met Durjodhan in 2013 when he was suffering from leprosy. He was not taking medicines because it was having reactions on his body. Leprosy is considered a taboo and no one was meeting him.
When Palak met him, he asked her to bring light to his village and within no time, she fulfilled his wish. The joy of Durjodhan and people in his village was unparalleled when she handed out 1000 lights to the people there. They asked her to teach them to repair lights so that Palak needn’t come back again and again to the village to repair the lights in case the need arises.
Durjodhan Maji now wants to create a portable solar mill which he wants to take village to village to give people the comfort of grinding millets, ragi, rice etc.
“My journey has been through these people who keep pushing me to do more and more,” says Palak. It gives her immense joy and pleasure to see people earning a livelihood because of their projects.
The inspirational journey of Palak has not been one devoid of challenges. For the first two years, Palak did not have any accommodation in the village. Almost every single day, she had to ask different people to give her an accommodation for the night.
When Palak moved to Kalahandi, she took a leap of faith. She had no grants, no funds, no financial support from any organisation. She just went on pure belief to the village. The first year was the toughest for her because all the finances that she had were from her part-time consultancy which was just enough to pay for food and the travel that she had to undertake from one village to another. There were days when she used to have just one meal a day when the expenses of travel exceeded the budget.
For the first 3 years, she stayed at places where there was no electricity and therefore no light during the night. She lived all the stories that people usually hear from secondary sources. Right from having no house, no accommodation, open defecation, severe lack of finances, travelling for 50 km or climbing a hill to catch a signal on phone to talk to parents, she has seen all. Even as of now, Palak and her partner receive a Rs 30000 stipend each from an organisation which she puts it all in her house rent, office rent, salary for an employee.
All for the passion to give light to every person’s house in the village.
Palak feels that a healthy ecosystem in India does not exist for Non Profit organisations. She also feels that in addition to the other gargantuan challenges, people consider it to be undignified to work in Non Profit organisations.
“People like me who are working for social causes believe very passionately in what we do. We would like people to come forward and be a part of this beautiful, life-transforming journey.”
Palak and her partner are open to any sort of help, be it human resources, volunteering, creating web sites if they can be offered pro-bono.
The transformational journey of Palak will be ended with an interesting anecdote. While Palak was making up her mind on whether or not to move to Kalahandi, what inspired her to take the leap of faith was the Gandhi Talisman that a co-passenger shared with her during the journey on train – “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will it restore him to control over his life and destiny?
Then you will find your doubts and self melt away.”
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