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Indian villages lit up by off-grid power

Inside her mud and brick hut in the village of Purva in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Sukhrani is making a pot of lentils for dinner - in complete darkness.

The glow of a candle and the flame from a wood fire are the only sources of light for the woman who is in her 60s.

Her village has no electricity - it has never had any.

"I have never seen an electric bulb," she says, as she squats on the floor, wiping sweat off her face.

"The village I was born in had no electricity. I moved here after my marriage - and there was none here either."

Purva is just one of hundreds of thousands of Indian villages which are either not connected to the country's power grid, or lack uninterrupted power supply.

Sixty-five years after India's independence, it is estimated that more than half of the country's more than 1.2 billion people do not have access to electricity.

For many like Sukhrani, it is a reality they have come to accept.

"I've heard that some people have electricity but I've never experienced it, so I don't even know what it's used for," she says.

'Nice and bright'

But just five km (three miles) away, in the neighbouring village of Jangaon, it is a completely different picture.

Ashraf Ali, a bangle maker, lives inside a hut almost identical to Sukhrani but it is bathed in the white glow of a solar lamp.

An electrical fan is on next to him, also powered by solar energy.

All this costs him only a few dollars a month.

His wife and he work into the night, making brightly coloured lacquer bangles to sell in the local market, while his children play or read in the next room, which is equally brightly lit.

"Ever since we got solar power in our village, my life has become so much easier," Mr Ali says.

"This light is so nice and bright, it's easier to see. And business has improved because we can work longer hours."

A short distance away is the source of Mr Ali's electricity. A low-rise building with about 25 rectangular-shaped solar panels on its roof.

This one supports 30 villages, including Jangaon, powering up homes as well as schools, telecom towers and local businesses.

'Immense opportunities'

Rohit Chandra is the co-founder of the Omnigrid Micropower Company which owns this plant.

It is one of several hundred private companies that have set up solar power stations in some of India's poorest states bringing off-grid power to villages which otherwise remain cut-off.

"This area - the states of Assam, Bihar, north-east, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh - has about 400 million people, that's about 40% of the population.

"So the opportunities are immense," Mr Chandra says.

One reason why companies are now turning to solar energy is because the technology has become more accessible and economical. And, of course, India is blessed with plenty of sunshine through the year.

"The panels, mostly made in China, are much cheaper and compact," he adds.

"We have 10 plants at the moment - we are expanding to 100 by the end of the year and plan to increase to 5,000 in the next few years."

But is off-grid power the answer to India's energy needs?

"I think as a country, the sheer volume of energy deficit is such that the problem is never going to be solved in the next three decades by off-grid substituting bigger projects," says Vinayak Chatterjee, who advises the government on infrastructure, particularly in the field of energy.

But setting up these large projects is expensive and power distribution companies are often forced to keep their tariffs low by governments so as to make it cheaper for consumers.

"That's why off-grid power is certainly a solution and intervention that is warmly received in large parts of rural India which has never seen any action from the grid," says Mr Chatterjee.

Back in Jangaon, as the sun goes down the lights come on in the village's main street - from the grocery store to the doctor's clinic at the end of the lane to the street-food vendor at the corner, everyone it appears has a white solar lamp.

It is a small ray of hope which, if properly harnessed, could just change the face of rural India.

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