Aayush’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.
I have been here for almost a month now as an AIF Clinton Fellow. What am I doing here, in the remote Himalayas? Let me share some of my first impressions with you, and tell you how pine needles, energy and livelihoods are connected amidst this fragile ecosystem in rural Uttarakhand.
Energy: Necessity or Luxury?
An old man is squatting and smoking in the one-room stone house. The old woman, his wife, is making food using firewood on a mud cooking stove in a corner. He is telling me the tales of his kids who are now in Haldwani – the largest city of the Kumaon region – and she is making a variety of misri chai for me. It is close to 6:30 pm and there is no power. She brings the chai for me and asks me about my family and work. I am the youngest of two siblings, and I continue to tell her my sister is pregnant and my brother is getting married next year. In India, these questions are common: how is your family, what do you study, where did you study, where do you work, etc. As someone new to rural Uttarakhand, and not a native Kumaoni speaker, I indulged in this conversation. My work at Avani – my Fellowship host organisation – is mostly on the capacity building of the local team. Typically, it is conducting research and analysis, doing data analysis for the power plant data, making maintenance plans, and helping in the setting up of the power plants in the area. I have tea, get back to my place and am left bewildered about what energy means to different people, how I always had access to electricity in Delhi, and how the lifestyle of people here is not dependent on electricity.
Problem: Loss of Biodiversity
The Sub-Central Himalayas see the annual phenomenon of recurrent forest fires. These are caused by the large amount of pine needles, which fall during the dry summer months. These forest fires destroy not only the biodiversity in the region, but also decimate the already stressed resources available to the poor in the region. These fires also release a huge amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Coupled with problems like lack of jobs and low water retention, many people migrate towards the cities where they are employed at less than minimum wages, thus causing further distress to the lives of the people in the Kumaon region.
Organisation Profile: Avani
Avani employs the local people who collect the pine needles from the forest floor. These needles are purchased by Avani and fed into the gasification plant that uses pyrolysis to break down the carbon molecules of the complex carbon compounds into CO. This is then combusted to form energy. This energy is used to produce electricity which is fed to the local grid to give a clean source of energy. The char that comes out of the process is mixed with the corn starch and made into charcoal which is used in place of fuel-wood. The power plant located at the campus where I work is of 10 kW capacity, and there are three other operational plants of 28 kW in other areas of the mountains.
Promises and Benefits
Avani’s approach is complex and holistic to tackle these challenges. Majorly there are four big promises of this work. The first is the restoration of biodiversity in the area where the pine needles are collected from. The second is the clean energy which is fed into the grid. The third is the availability of charcoal which saves the local people from the drudgery of going to the forest and collecting firewood. The fourth is the employment generation and livelihoods options for the people.
In rural Uttarakhand, energy is looked at as a bonus. The people who live here do not revolve their lives around whether the power is on or off. They do not take breaks when the lights do not cut on. Instead, they continue about their day and work normally. Avani has created a clean power infrastructure that gives local alternative energy but the people are also empowered to contribute through economic initiatives. It has been almost a month since I am here. A lot of ups and downs in adjusting to a completely new environment, but overall, I look forward for an engaging journey for the next nine months here in Berinag, Uttarakhand.