Rajiv Rathod and Merwyn Coutinho have a lifestyle that's right out of a youthful, summery film – ditching a conventional lifestyle and education, live out of a car and meet lots of people. They are also the founders of the Batti Project, which has brought light (not electricity) to some of the remotest villages in Arunachal Pradesh.
The duo has been using solar panels to bring light to over 280 households since 2012.
This video provides a glimpse of what they do:
"We didn't want to bring electricity to them because we think they're best left untouched, the way they are. But we did want to introduce to them habits of a sustainable urban lifestyle," says Rajiv. He thinks this is important because even though the first village he and Merwyn went to could only be reached through a seven-day trek, the town will eventually come to the remotest places. "So when it reaches them, they would actually have some sense of sustainability prevailing. We never had any. We took things like light for granted and assumed that anything that's generating it would automatically be good," Rajiv says.
But this is not the case in the North-East, and the villages they have been to in Arunachal Pradesh, he observes. Though Merwyn and Rajiv think that the actual impact of the solar lamps and lights will only be seen in the villages after seven to nine years, the preliminary findings are quite interesting.
"We went back to some villages we had given solar-powered lighting too. Some people had packed them up and would only bring them out on special occasions and festivities. Some had taken them to their houses in nearby towns, saying that they did not like light after sunset in the village," informs Rajiv.
However, there were many others who were so awed by the bulbs that they wouldn't turn it off. "They have seen electricity as a far off thing and they can't believe that it is in their homes now. Many of them hadn't even seen a switch! They sometimes use it to gather for community meetings in the evening and take decisions about farming. They no longer have to sit around the narrow periphery of the fire after sunset," says Rajiv.
Despite everything they have achieved, The Batti Project was never planned. Merwyn and Rajiv traveled to Gandhigram, a village in Arunachal Pradesh for the first time in 2011 and found the people very welcoming. So the next year, they decided to return, bearing Christmas gifts.
Rajiv and Merwyn bought 240 solar lamps and distributed them in Gandhigram and taught the villagers how to use them. When they left the village and went to a nearby town after their 20-day stay, people from other villages approached them asking for solar lamps too. That's how The Batti Project was born.
While Merwyn usually takes care of surveying each village, identifying households as well as young trainable people in the village, Rajiv handles the funding, logistics and back-end.
The duo want to light up more villages in the Arunachal Pradesh and move to other states in the North-East, like Nagaland and Meghalaya. But when it comes to funding, things aren't always easy. However, they have come up with two initiatives to help make steady revenue to fund their operations in the North East.
The first is the collection of electronic waste for recycling and disposal in Bengaluru. The Batti Project has partnered with an e-waste disposal processor, ER3 Solutions. Rajiv collects e-waste from around the city like old laptops, chargers, phones and so on, and sells them to ER3 solutions, which segregates and recycles this waste.
They also have similar initiatives in Delhi and Mumbai. But Bengaluru remains their mainstay for e-waste collection. Rajiv says that in the one year since they have began this funding initiative, they have collected five tonnes of e-waste which will give them enough revenue to light up 30 houses, or roughly one more village.
The second initiative is fund-raising cycling experiences in Arunachal Pradesh. Cyclists will be guided through a 300km-trail of untouched beauty in the state, in exchange for raising funds to light up five households.
Rajiv says he and Merwyn never believed in the "corporate definition of progress and development", which is why they love doing what they do. Their belief in sustainable development and desire to bring change is what keeps them going.
Here are some photographs of the families The Batti Project has helped: