Engineers Reach Inaccessible Indian Villages to Provide Solar Electricity During Pandemic

By Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.
June 8, 2021 Updated: June 9, 2021

NEW DELHI—A group of seven engineers in India is working to solve a problem that people in the high-altitude, inaccessible Himalayan region of Ladakh encountered during the pandemic—washing one’s hands frequently when every drop of water freezes.

More generally, the people of Ladakh have been confronted with the problem of managing life amid a pandemic without an electric power supply.

Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), a social enterprise run by seven engineers, has set up 150 solar water heaters in 45 of Ladakh’s villages and solar electricity in 13 villages in the past six months, after India reopened following the first wave of the pandemic. The group leverages tourism as a force for development.

“The idea was to look at an area where we can do adventure and, at the same time, [make] an impact on the community,” GHE founder Paras Loomba told The Epoch Times. Ninety percent of the villages they reached were inaccessible until 2019, he said, as people had to trek for days just to reach them.

Over the past 10 years, GHE has set up solar electricity in 105 villages in Ladakh, including eight secluded Buddhist monasteries that had witnessed many long years of historical change but had never had electricity until the GHE reached their door.

“The area is a cold desert—it’s very, very harsh, it’s minus 30 degrees. It even goes to minus 40 sometimes. People in the rural areas do not have heating systems as such, so you can’t expect them to take baths every day. It’s probably once in a week, once in a month,” Loomba said.

Epoch Times Photo
Villagers gather as solar electric panels reach their village Dungti on the de facto India–China border on Feb. 14, 2021. The panels were installed by the engineers of the Global Himalayan Expedition. (Pic courtesy GHE)

“There’s also not enough water in the winters. The only water … [is] frozen,” he said, adding that people also need to conserve water for summer.

Ladakh, which before 2019 was a province in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, became a federally governed area called a union territory (UT) after India approved a constitutional amendment. The trans-Himalayan region, where villages are located at elevations between 9,000 feet and 14,500 feet above sea level, has seen the least development, according to Loomba.

“Now, of course, the schemes are coming and the government is trying to do their best, once it became a UT a few years back. But still, most of the rural areas, especially the area of Zanskar, which is sandwiched between Leh and Kargil, has hardly [seen] any development,” he said.

The government of the UT of Ladakh signed a memo of understanding with Convergence Energy Services Ltd., a state-owned enterprise, on June 5 to set up a solar mini-grid.

Epoch Times Photo
A Ladakhi woman with her newly installed solar water heater in the village of Chalak in the Ladakh region of India in April 2021. The installation was done by the engineers of the Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), an Indian social enterprise. (Picture courtesy GHE)

Tourism as a Force for Good

Loomba started GHE in 2013 as an enterprise that took travelers from around the globe to such remote places, and in the process, electrified those same villages.

“A group of 40 people will come from all over the globe. We’ll use their money as part of the expedition, and part of the money will be used to electrify a remote village,” he said, noting that in addition to individuals, many international development organizations have started to work with GHE.

The team of engineers, which doesn’t have any background in tourism, relies on simple solutions to solve pressing problems.

“The idea was if we can design a solution that is very simple to install by the travelers and also easy to maintain by the villagers, it should at least transform or transcend them from just using kerosene oil or small CFLs [compact fluorescent lights] to LED lighting and good television with communication,” Loomba said.

When lockdowns were enforced around the world, travelers stopped coming to Ladakh, and GHE started to seek corporate social responsibility financing to help their work focused on improving health care systems and other critical infrastructure in the region.

Loomba said the infrastructure they are setting up during the lockdowns will be helpful for tourism once the pandemic stops.

“So any village where there are people who want to set up homestays or guest houses, they should [be able to] use this water heater later on as part of the tourism facilities for the guests so that the guests feel safe and secure, that this area also has good hot water, they wash your hands and stuff like that,” he said. He pointed out that setting up water heaters and solar electricity in remote villages will go a long way toward creating a sustainable income for the people.

The water heaters aren’t entirely donated; the families are required to contribute toward their installation.

“Let’s say it costs X amount of rupees, let’s say $200 or 14,000 rupees, they would want to contribute 5,000 rupees for every water heater. That means they value the product,” he said. “So that becomes a very collaborative model.”

Loomba has seen that the products can quickly make a difference in people’s lives, as they are able to use their solar water heaters, instead of firewood, to boil water for bathing, for tea, or for cooking.

Epoch Times Photo
Village ofDungti of Tibetan refugees on the de facto India-China border in Ladakh (Pic courtesy GHE)

Traveling to the Farthest Villages

GHE has electrified many Indian villages along the disputed border with China in Ladakh. These villages are of strategic significance for India.

“In February this year, we electrified a village on the LAC [Line of Actual Control, the de facto border with China],” Loomba said, referring to Dungti, a Tibetan refugee village that is home to 54 families and a monastery.

People in this village migrated there during the 1962 war between India and China and lived without electricity until this year. It took the team that consisted of two Ladakhi woman engineers three days of trekking in minus 25-degree temperatures to reach the village.

“We went back in April, and we set up 15 water heaters for 28 families. So there are two families sharing one water heater,” Loomba said.

Loomba’s father and most of his team members’ fathers served in the Indian army. As children, they traveled with their families to some of the most remote regions where the army was stationed. He said this helped them early on to develop the “tenacity” to do something for these areas.

The GHE team starts with identifying and locating the villages that need help and then mobilizes the community to support them with logistics.

“Most of the villages are not on Google Maps, I’d say 70 to 80 percent. Even the villages that are there are tagged wrong because there’s no road. How would you know the exact location?” Loomba said.

The team starts by talking with the councilors of the area, who connect them with local guides. With no roads, the team often must use horses provided by locals to transport materials. In this way, the team has been able to reach even the remotest health care centers on India’s de facto border with China.

Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.