By Ramkumar S
It was the September of 2015. I was fresh out of my year-long probation as a new IAS officer, and was working in Delhi as an Assistant Secretary. I had recently been told that I was going to be posted to Sohra (aka Cherrapunjee) in Meghalaya as the Sub-Divisional Magistrate. I felt ready and prepared for the journey and had sent my luggage to a service provider to be couriered.
Almost at the last minute though, I got a call from Shillong saying that I wasn’t going to Sohra, but to Dadenggre in Garo Hills. Strange, I thought to myself when I first heard about it. Because even though I had spent two months training in Meghalaya during my probation, I hadn’t come across a place called Dadenggre!
Anyway, it meant that I had to change the delivery address for my luggage. But try as I might with variations of different spelling and keywords, even Google drew a blank for this mystery place. The closest it came was to asking me if I meant ‘Davangere’, a city in Karnataka. But no, that wasn’t it.
When I boarded that flight to Guwahati in December 2015, I still didn’t have much clue about where I was going. All I knew was that Dadenggre was a three-hour drive from the Guwahati airport.
Once the driver arrived to pick me up, I attempted to ask him in broken Hindi about the place. I asked if there were any restaurants around, any shopping centres, any big departmental stores. No, no, and no, he told me. Honestly, his answers were getting on my nerves, because according to him, the place didn’t even have a petrol pump.
Now, it was a winter evening that we arrived in Dadenggre, and the sun had set by 4pm. The winding roads leading to Dadenggre had no other vehicle, human or even animal movement. So, I went back to the internet, determined (despite the sketchy mobile network) to get some idea of the place I was venturing to. The first and only online reference I found after considerable research was that a kidnapping in Dadenggre a couple of years ago.
Meanwhile, my driver completely focused on the route so it was after a lot of hesitation that I brought up the topics of militancy in the area. I asked him if it was safe to drive down from here after dark. Although my vehicle had a beacon and he kept saying we should be fine, he didn’t sound very confident.
The winding roads were really starting to get to me when the driver suddenly announced, “We’re here!”
I sat up straighter, startled, and I asked, “Where?!”
“This. Right here.”
There were trees around, a few signs of habitation. But no lights on the road except a few dim ones I could see from a village. We went to the circuit house where I was supposed to stay temporarily before moving to my official quarters.
The place seemed so remote that the existence of the circuit house itself was a surprise to me. One of the first questions that came to my mind was, “Why so much darkness?” I had always seen streetlights in every place I grew up. Well lit streets were a big part of my social life. It was hard for me to digest that a place was completely helpless against the dark once the sun set.
Try as I might, the question of darkness would not leave my psyche. So by February, I pulled up a proposal submitted by the then Secretary to Govt of India, Shri Upendra Tripathy. It allowed for an automatic approval route for 500kwp power plants or street lights for any officer of 2013 batch, which was also the year I graduated.
I was super enthused about it. I found some people who could educate me about solar power, making proposals, submitting necessary documents etc. The sanction was accorded very swiftly by the Centre.
There were a few complications along the way – like the fact that for street lights, the expenditure is cut 60-30-10 percent between the centre, beneficiaries, and the state. This meant that about Rs 40 lakh had to come from the 60,000 odd residents of Dadenggre.
Now, Dadenggre is poor, but not how we, as people living in tier-1 and tier-2 cities understand ‘poor’. It is poor because it’s backward. There is no ATM; just a bank where you can withdraw money using a withdrawal slip. The area was known for militant activity until 3-4 years ago. And the driver wasn’t lying that day, there really isn’t a petrol pump here. The nearest one is about 30 kilometres away.
These people are backward and the last time they had something new was probably over a decade ago. So when I told them that there was a proposal to have their streets light up after the dark, it took six months, but they turned up to deposit money.
We also had to figure out a way to provide power without causing serious ecological damage to this quaint place. The solution was simple: going solar. After multiple meetings with various stakeholders, we were fortunate to receive the beneficiaries’ financial share from them too.
Photo via dadenggiri.gov.in
Photo by Ramkumar S
And about two months ago, Dadenggre’s streets shone with the light of brand new street lights.
A total of 700 solar panels are spread across the sub-division and 250 kilowatts of solar energy power many public buildings, including our office, residential quarters, police station, and the Community Health Centre.
What’s more, the solar power has ensured that the power outages and fluctuations we faced in the monsoon are a thing of the past too!
Photos via dadenggiri.gov.in
There is always ‘who waters the plant’ mentality at work when it comes to government matters. It is not possible for us to do it every time. Hence, we roped in many village level committees and trained them in some basic maintenance so that they aren’t completely dependent on technical persons.
It’s not always been easy. I do miss Tamil Nadu, and my home. Evenings have been very lonely until recently – my wife, baby and in-laws came here last month. Things have been slightly better but I do fear if the time comes when they have to go back.
Photos by Ramkumar S
I take casual walks in the evening to see what changes the lights have brought to the life of people. People are not very expressive here but they show their warmth by offering handshakes, tea, poori… anything they have when I walk by these days. My walks often get delayed due to these stops but I’m not complaining at all.
I find many young boys and girls sitting under the light chatting into the evening. My only wish is that someone who looks up the streetlight and wonders what is the science behind it, may come to redefine how we use energy in future.
(As told to Geetika Mantri)