Always on the move and living out of his car, Merwyn Coutinho has a lifestyle that could confound the best of us. "The idea is to constantly keep moving," Coutinho tells HuffPost India. It was during one such expedition in Arunachal Pradesh with Rajiv Rathod, that the duo came up with the idea for The Batti Project.
The idea was both simple and ambitious -- to light up villages in remote areas by installing solar lighting kits. "We never planned this project. It was an accidental outcome of our trip to Arunachal," Coutinho says.
They have begun with villages in Arunachal Pradesh. "It is about lighting and not electricity. Introducing them to electricity would be intervening too much in their lives," he explains.
So far, the Batti Project has brought light to over 250 houses.
Coutinho and Rathod began going to remote areas and villages in the border state and providing people with 'the Batti kit', that includes a 20-watt solar panel (20 watts), a 20 Ah lead battery, three 3-watt LED tubes, 3 holders and switches, 21 metres of fixed cabling (5, 7 and 9 m respectively), and a charge controller.
It speaks volumes about their efforts that people are now not only approaching them for the kits but also requesting them to build bridges and rope-ways. "Right now, we are looking at products which are simple to execute and can be efficiently used. We don't want to change their life but just assist them in what they do," Coutinho explains.
He saw little point in approaching the government to help those that he and Rathor are providing the kit to. "These places are so cut-off from the mainland that it is an arduous task for even the government to reach here," he says. "Logistics make grid connectivity difficult here and the government will have to spend a lot to get electricity to these places."
The scope of their work has been sharply defined. "We just wanted to give them a unit and enable them to generate as much power as required," Coutinho adds. "If we teach them the basics, they will be able to use and even upgrade the unit according to their need. We want them to get electricity for a couple of hours so that they can wrap up their work for the day easily."
The process of procuring and installing the kits is long. After identifying a village and the number of houses that need lighting, comes fundraising, which is probably the toughest part. "We are trying to come up with different ways of fundraising, like a charity challenge," Coutinho says. "We got people to cycle to these remote parts. One such ride enables 100 houses."
They are also looking at alternative money raising schemes, such as e-waste recycling. The idea is to collect e-waste such as used laptops, phones and other electronic goods, and then sell them to recyclers. "We have started an e-waste campaign in Bengaluru and we are in talks with people in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai," Coutinho says.
After sufficient funds are collected, they procure solar kits and then transport them to distribution points from where the kits are dispatched to villages and houses, and eventually installed. Villagers are then trained to use them.
"The first house we lit belonged to a 90-year-old woman," Coutinho recalls. "She had never seen a switch her entire life and was very hesitant. She told us that she has spent all her life in darkness."
Hesitation soon gave way to enthusiasm. "Her grandson came up to me and said that the unit is proving to be quite troublesome," he continues. "When he asks her to switch it off, she refuses, saying that she has been given this to bring light, so then why does she need to turn it off. So, now, they wait for her to sleep to switch it off."
The Batti Project hopes to light up another 22 houses in Arunachal in the first week of September. The larger plan is to cover 5,000 houses, which Coutinho believes could take up to two to three years. "Meanwhile, we want to venture into different technological products," he says. After Arunachal Pradesh, the Batti Project aims to light up remote areas of Assam.
"We are just the facilitator," Coutinho says. "Without people's support, it won't lead anywhere. As long as we have support, and as long as people contribute -- not only money, but intellectually or even pulling in man-hours -- we are good."