LIGHTING UP INDIA

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Lighting up the world, one bottle of water at a time

March 18,
2013

 

Many Indian slums, like this one in the east of New Delhi, are hooked up to the power grid but prices are prohibitive and the power cuts out regularly.

By Doreen Fiedler

There’s no window in the tiny washroom Purshottam Devji Solanki shares with the other 11 members of his family. But, thanks to a water-filled plastic bottle poking through the roof, there’s enough light inside to find one’s soap and toothbrush and wash the dishes.
Indeed, the bottle does such a good job of catching the sunlight that the room feels like it is lit up by a 55-watt light bulb.
“Until now, we used a lamp. Now we don’t need one any more,” says Solanki.
The lack of a lamp wasn’t due to a lack of power. His home, in the Chinchpokli slum, is hooked up to the power grid. But the prices were prohibitive. Plus, the power cuts out regularly.
And then came a group of students from the Indian Institute of Technology with the project A Liter of Light. They stumbled upon the idea online, discovering a concept created 10 years ago by Brazilian Alfredo Moser that has since lit up 200,000 households.
“We all thought, we have to try that in India immediately,” said Vatsal Shah, a materials scientist.
It’s a simple concept, says the 22-year-old.
A plastic bottle is filled to the brim with the cleanest possible water and then mixed with some chlorine to remove contaminants and make sure they don’t come back. Then a hole is sawed in the roof, the bottle inserted and sealed in place. The clear water refracts sunlight throughout the room like a lightbulb, providing light, albeit, only when the sun is shining above.
The bottle will then provide light for five years — and much more brightly than a glass window or hole in the roof could do. That’s no small feat in the slums where the houses are pushed together so tightly that barely any sunbeams make it through.
The biggest problem was convincing people to try it, says Shah.
“At the beginning, they all said ‘No, no, we don’t want that.’”
But opinions changed once some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) intervened and got the first 12 households to try it out. They even got one put in for a prayer room in a church in Bandra West in Mumbai.
“The neighbours all saw the bottle and think it’s good. Now they want one as soon as possible,” says Solanki.
Demand is also growing, says Shah. “We’re organising workshops, where people can learn how it works and then do it themselves.”
Rene Eber, president of the Switzerland-based Liter of Light, says the project is picking up new supporters all the time.
“But it’s not a big organisation with a global strategy,” he said. “Instead, it’s a movement with a lot of small, independent organisations.”
He says each group contributes what it can. The offices in Switzerland do a lot of press work, schooling and money management. A team from Switzerland was just in Mumbai to show the students how to get sponsors and to help with technical details.
“We’ve flown to Colombia and Spain, and have had requests from Egypt, Paris, Argentina and Chile,” says the business management student. “The idea has been catching on for about a year and is starting to spread.”
A lot of that is due to Illac Diaz. The Filipino studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where he met Moser. Since then, he has used his MyShelter Foundation to light up tens of thousands of huts around Manila.
His group has also instructed some budding entrepreneurs who live in the slums and can now install bottles for a small sum.
“Everyone thinks that big ideas have to come from big people,” said Diaz at a TEDx event in Rio in October. But he said the idea is what is key.
He stresses that one doesn’t have to be a specialist to get light out of a bottle which would normally be seen as trash. As a bonus, it helps cut down on the generation of environmentally unfriendly carbon dioxide.
“This is green technology that belongs to the people. Anyone can own it.” — DPA