A sense of self

 

RAJNISH AND RASHMI JAIN, FOUNDERS, AVANI

Kumaon Hills – part of the Himalayan mountain range and located in Uttarakhand – is picture postcard perfect. Unfortunately, life for the population here has been less so. In the 1990s, it was not even a part of the power grid. Water problems plagued the region despite abundant rainfall. And emigration to urban areas for seeking livelihood was a common phenomenon.

Rajnish and Rashmi Jain, a couple seeking a meaningful and fulfilling life in these tranquil surroundings, sought to find a solution that would address these persisting problems. The duo founded Avani, a voluntary organisation in Kumaon, in 1997 and over the years, have been able to make this district largely self-sufficient.

Finding a purpose

The Jains had spent three years at the Osho Ashram in Pune and wanted to live in the mountains, though back then, they did not know what they would do with their time. The couple, who had saved enough from management consulting and graphic design jobs they had done in Delhi before shifting base, joined a rural development organisation in the region. But due to differences, they moved on to another agency and did a stint in Odisha. “This experience brought us more clarity and also established that the poor wanted to pay for any services they consumed,” says Rajnish.

My father, who was against my moving realised we were stubborn about this and gave us the inverter and batteries for setting up the plant. The house we were initially given was atop a hill. People wondered why we were here, but they were also curious as ours was the only house with a light

But disillusionment set in here too, and as if by providence, they happened to meet Bunker Roy, founder of Barefoot College, a 40-year-old non-governmental organisation that provides basic services and solutions to rural communities to make them self-sufficient and sustainable. Avani was established as a Kumaon Chapter and it set up a power plant to generate solar energy in 1997. One of the first steps it took was to train technicians and focus on capacity building.

Rashmi’s artistic temperament also alerted her to the great potential of the weaving and craftsmanship of the predominantly artisan community of the Kumaon Hills. A year later, this resulted in the emergence of a textile project in which traditional spinning and weaving methods were used to create modern designs that could be sold in the urban markets.

Facing up to criticism

In the initial days, the couple met with much scepticism. They began by generating 1.2 kilowatts at the power plant, part of which was for their own use and the remaining for the village. “My father, who was against my moving realised we were stubborn about this and gave us the inverter and batteries for setting up the plant. The house we were initially given was atop a hill. People wondered why we were here, but they were also curious as ours was the only house with a light,” recalls Rajnish.

They started providing lamps on loan for people to use. Simultaneously, they also started training the youth who did not know what to do after completing school. They employed women and found rumours about their intentions being spread in the villages. It took the duo a year and a half to prove their worthiness.

Over the course of five years, they managed to electrify 25 villages. They were funded and supported by Barefoot College, which also raised money from the European Union and the Uttarakhand government, which was also looking to electrify villages and provided Avani with money as well as solar systems.

Today, several villages are connected to the power grid and the existing Avani solar power plants provide back-up support in case of power cuts. “We are helping train people in solar power generation where connecting to the grid is an issue. Also, there is a possibility of generating power from existing plants to supply to the grid. We are just waiting for the state government to announce its solar policy,” explains Jain.

But the team’s work is clearly not limited to any one area. Rainwater harvesting was another initiative that Avani introduced in this region where water gets washed down the hill. The latest experiment is to use the dug up earth to make building blocks.

Leveraging the arts

Meanwhile, the textile project became a cooperative in 2005 with three hundred artisans on-board. While handling the designing and marketing of the textile products, Rashmi has also been training the local people and roping in interns from National Institute of Design to help with design. The products are sold mostly in urban areas and abroad, where they fetch better value. Currently, the cooperative has started generating profits and clocked sales of Rs 51 lakh, last year.

Avani aims to scale up the cooperative in the next five years and plans include generating seven times the current turnover and adding as many people.

The organisation is also working with farmers to grow plants that produce natural dyes and develop associated products like crayons which will be supplied to schools and artists. “Today, environmental concerns are growing and natural pigments are in demand,” says Rajnish.

Delving deeper

Since 2007, Avani also started a project to use pine needles, abundantly available in the Himalayan tracts, as gasifier. It set up a 9 kW pine needle gasifier system after many years of research and installed a pilot at the Avani campus some time back. Of this, 1.5 KW is consumed for running the system and the remaining 7.5 KW for productive use such as welding and calendaring applications.

Encouraged by the success of this pilot, last year, Avani set up Avani Bioenergy Pvt. Ltd. with funds to the tune of US $190,000 (from Acumen Fund) for a capacity of 120 KW. The power generated is sold to the local power utility. The residual charcoal is sold for cooking purposes. The company employs 100 people and expects to employ 2,000 people in four years.


What Next?

Avani is waiting for the Uttarkhand government to announce its solar policy so that it can use its solar power utility to integrate with the grid and generate revenues

It continues to sell solar lanterns and back-up power

The textile cooperative is expected to scale up in the next five years, employing seven times the current number of artisans and generating seven times the turnover

Selling pigments will be another revenue generating businesses

Has started a pine needle gasifier company that also sells charcoal by-products for cooking. Currently employs 100 people, plans to scale up to 2,000 in four years.

The Impact, in brief:

According to Rajnish Jain, the greatest impact is that Avani has been able to demonstrate that it is possible to set up economically viable production systems in rural areas and facilitate capacity building. This, in turn, will enable the local population find sustainable employment in its native place without resorting to urban migration.