Amidst the gloom and cynicism that tends to pervade India at this particularly trying time in our history, meeting people at the grassroots who are doing extraordinary work brightens up life. When I came to Indore in early January, I was determined to discover such people in this part of the country. And, Indore has not disappointed on this count.
On a recent bright sunny day, I set out to meet Janak Palta McGilligan at her home, Giridarshan, in Sanawadiya, just outside Indore. I first met Janak at the Prestige Institute of Management conference a few weeks ago. At that time she mentioned that her home ran entirely on renewable energy. This immediately interested me for I had often thought of putting up solar panels on our Bangalore home. I never got around to it, but the interest remains, so I was really excited at the prospect of seeing a solar-powered home.
Janak’s home is self-sufficient on the energy front. She has a whole set of solar cookers ranging from the box type to different types of reflectors. The reflectors are foldable and light, and can hence be transported easily from one place to another. The entire tasty meal we had was cooked using these solar cookers. They have a bigger reflector as well that tracks the sun – it is really powerful, as demonstrated by a piece of paper that caught fire in no time. Solar power is also used for drying things and for power – Janak has a huge solar panel on top of her home. There’s also a windmill. Janak contributes her excess power to the neighbouring Adivasi settlement for lighting up the area.
What does Janak do on a rainy or cloudy day when there is no sun? Another reneweable source of energy is briquettes. Waste newspapers are converted into briquettes, dense cylinders that can be used to fuel a stove.
Janak uses solar energy in other ways as well including a solar powered transistor radio and solar lighting.
Janak is almost completely self-sufficient on the food front as well (except for a few things like salt and cooking oil) and grows her own vegetables and herbs. She is now working on developing a whole set of natural colours than can be used at Holi.
About Janak herself…
Not surprisingly, Janak has a colourful past. She is a Punjabi by birth (regional stereotypes can sometimes be misleading, but they are remarkably accurate in Janak’s case – she displays all the positivity, warmth and “can do” attitude that represents the best of Punjab!). She grew up in Chandigarh, underwent open heart surgery at a time when survival rates were quite low in India. Her own survival convinced Janak that she must use her life to serve others.
It took her some time to find out exactly how she wanted to do that. She went through a series of jobs in the provident fund office and as a translator in the High court; later she worked at the Centre for Rural Development on a variety of research projects, including one on communal violence. This latter work took her around the country, and to Indore. Here she met Jimmy McGilligan, an Irishman who was working on a project in Gwalior.
The Barli Institute
Janak’s tryst with renewable energy started at the Barli Institute, an organization that she and Jimmy set up to train young women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Jimmy was a very practical man who could use his hands to do a number of things – e.g. he built a good part of the house Janak now stays in with his own hands. Janak told me a fascinating story of how there were solar reflectors set up with the help of the Ministry of Renewable Energy at various locations across India. At one point of time, the only functional one was at the Barli Institute because of Jimmy’s ability to keep it going! Janak described Jimmy as a jugaadu, one who could make almost anything work, and was unfazed by lack of prior knowledge or exposure. Jimmy set up much of the infrastructure at Giridarshan.
Janak’s Holistic Approach
One thing I particularly liked about Janak’s approach to life is her holistic approach to sustainability. The Barli institute is today run by the next generation, and Janak is no longer involved in a day-to-day operational role. She has transition plans for her current home as well, and only reluctantly agreed to be the trustee of a trust set up in memory of Jimmy who passed away in a road accident a few years ago. At Giridarshan, Janak lives with Nanda and Rajendra Singh Chouhan, both trained at Barli, and both are closely involved with future plans of the Trust.
She seems to have this amazing capacity to just let go. I wonder whether this comes from her own life experiences – apart from the heart surgery I mentioned earlier, Janak is also a breast cancer survivor, and today one of her other activities is Sangini, an organization set up for the counseling of breast cancer patients. There is a spiritual influence as well – both Jimmy and Janak have been strongly influenced by the Bahai faith.
I haven’t seen the Barli Institute so far, but reading its website I can see that it trains rural women to be pillars of their own communities. That’s what the name itself signifies.
Janak is very open to having visitors, particularly youngsters. While I was there at Giridarshan, she also hosted a couple of young photographers who were making a video feature on the site.
As I mentioned, Sanawadiya is just a few kilometers away from Indore city, but Janak told me that it is very different in terms of people’s attitudes and approaches. It’s certainly very different in terms of road quality, and I really hope they are able to make a better road surface soon. Some road construction activity is visible, so I am hopeful!
What did catch my eye on the way back was some very visible construction of toilets in many homes alongside the road. The MP government was in the news some months ago for what some felt was an insensitive approach to promoting toilet construction. But the results seem to be positive, and this should benefit hygiene and public health in the state.
It’s been wonderful to meet amazing people like Janak. We need many thousands if not millions like her to transform India. And, for those of us fortunate enough to live in houses, we can start by emulating Janak Palta McGilligan on the energy front.
[The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.]