Lives no longer interrupted by the setting sun…
We were walking towards the small bridge over the canal. The sun had already set and dusk was gradually fading into darkness. The winter air was quiet and still. Approaching the highest point of the bridge, I could sense the excitement in our quickening footsteps – we were almost there.
The project officials had told us that we could see it all, if we stood and looked out from the highest point of the bridge. So we leaned over the railings and waited, straining to see. But there was nothing – just the fuzzy darkness, gradually thickening and settling quietly on the land. I was left wondering whether we were just on a wild goose chase.
Then down below, a faint light suddenly flickered to life. A bulb was turned on in the darkness. Then another glowed – and yet another! In a few minutes, the area lying below us was glimmering with the tiny dots of faint white light bulbs. And from our high vantage point we could clearly see that the sleepy little rural marketplace – Garjon Bunia Bazaar – had woken up; ready for another evening.
At present, only about 30% of the rural households in Bangladesh have access to grid electricity. For the rest of the areas not connected to the grid, life comes to almost a standstill after sun-set. But Garjon Bunia Bazaar at Naltona Union of Barguna district is one of the many villages now enjoying electricity generated by solar panels. Located down at the very southern tip of Bangladesh and overlooking the Bay of Bengal, the coastal district of Barguna is isolated and includes remote, hard-to-reach villages where grid electricity is not feasible.
The Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development (RERED) Project, supported by The World Bank, is promoting renewable energy options to provide electricity to these remote areas. Implemented by IDCOL, the project has made solar home systems available to households and village markets. IDCOL partners with NGOs and private sector companies to implement this project.
More than 750,000 remote households and rural shops have already been connected to Solar Home Systems. Every month, 30,000 systems are being installed. Access to electricity is changing people’s lives and transforming places like Garjon Bunia Bazaar into thriving centers. Under the program, NGOs and partner organizations (POs) procure and install the systems in rural households as per the standards set by IDCOL. The households pay 10% of the down payment, while 90% is repaid in installments over a period of 3-5 years.
After the systems are installed, the POs apply for re-financing from IDCOL. This refinancing provides the POs with funds to install more systems. The program is in the process of being registered under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to receive carbon revenues.
We entered a tea stall cum small restaurant at the Bazaar. Rows of tables occupied one corner, a crowd of men talked animatedly about their day, exchanging news, while the owner of the small restaurant, Mussarat Farida Begum worked along with her husband to make tea and serve local snacks to her patrons. Over them all, hung two white bulbs, powered by the electricity generated by Farida’s solar panels.
Farida told us how NGOs participating in the RERED project extend micro-credit for consumers in her village to buy solar home systems. She had bought her solar home system for Taka 32,000 (approx USD $457), initially paying an amount of Taka 4000 (approx USD $57). The rest is being paid through weekly installments of Taka 700, equivalent to USD 10. She moved aside the curtains hanging on one corner of the room and showed me the battery for the solar home system, which stores the electricity generated by the panels during the day.
“I take really good care of this battery; it is the apple of my eye! I can use three bulbs at my small restaurant and home from the electricity generated by the panel and the battery” said Farida. Now I can keep my small restaurant open even during the evenings and till late at night. My business is booming and my family lives much more comfortably with our increased income. But most importantly I now have electricity at home and my children can study at night. They are doing much better at school.”
Farida’s family lives right behind the small restaurant. Invited inside, we found her daughter Shati and son Towhid, doing their homework by the light of a solitary bulb. A stern tutor sat marking yesterday’s homework and overseeing their studies.
We spent the rest of our evening in Garjon Bunia Bazaar, enjoying the vibrancy of the place and visiting the myriad shops lining the main walk-way: tailoring shops, grocery shops with colorful packets of biscuits and candies hanging around, the local barbershop with posters of celebrities lining the walls, a tiny one-room health care center selling generic medicines and many more interesting enterprises.
A man came forward – he wanted us to visit his motorcycle repair shop. Having electricity at his shop now allows him to carry on repair work during the evening, increasing the number of jobs he can take on. At another tea-stall, men and boys huddled around a small black and white TV run by the solar home system, engrossed in the drama playing out on the flickering screen. Men played chess under the light of a bulb; some debated life and politics, trading local gossip and relaxing after a hard day’s labor. The evening was on in full swing at Garjon Bunia Bazaar.
An old man standing slightly apart from the crowd, aptly summarized it all when he whispered softly: “Life in Garjon Bunia Bazaar now goes on even after dark – our lives no longer interrupted by the setting sun…”