Lighting Lives

IVLP alumna Palak Aggarwal’s Batti Ghar Foundation aims to provide sustainable development opportunities to rural communities in Odisha.

Palak Aggarwal is the co-founder of Batti Ghar, an organization working to use solar power and other modern technologies to improve the lives of tribal people in Odisha. But several years ago, Aggarwal was undecided about whether to go to Odisha or stay in the comfort of her native city, New Delhi. It took a chance encounter with Mohandas K. Gandhi’s famous “Talisman” to convince her to make the move. “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt...Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her].”

Aggarwal knew she wanted to be part of efforts to improve the lives of the poor. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Delhi, she earned a Master of Arts in Sustainable Development Practice from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) University in 2012. For her master’s thesis, Aggarwal had done research on the socioeconomic impact of micro-electric power generation in the Kalahandi district of Odisha. She fell in love with the forested region and its Kandha tribal people.

Opting to live among the people she wanted to serve, Aggarwal moved into a small hut in the village of Balisarai in 2013, a remote community of over 100 households without electricity or plumbing, located within a wildlife preserve. There, she learned the local dialect while working with SELCO Foundation, a Bengaluru-based nonprofit foundation, on bringing in solar lighting.

Later, Aggarwal opened a solar-powered center in her hut, providing photocopy, photography and video services to the community, earning her affectionate nickname, “solar didi.” At least one other enterprising individual in another village followed in her footsteps. “That’s what I wanted, to inspire replication,” says Aggarwal.

Aggarwal recalls villagers asking her if she can do something with solar power for an air compressor tire pump or develop a solar sugarcane juicer. In 2015, she left SELCO Foundation and joined hands with Prasanta Biswal, a sustainable energy expert and social entrepreneur, to establish the Batti Ghar Foundation, where she serves as the chief operation officer.

The organization has built several working models of the two devices that villagers initially asked for. The solar-powered air compressor allows small entrepreneurs to run puncture shops anywhere along Odisha’s roads, even where there is no electricity supply. The solar-powered sugarcane juicer, solarcane, offers mobile vendors environment-friendly juice machines for their pushcarts in place of the polluting diesel-powered ones.

The organization is already looking at developing devices to meet other local needs. These include a portable mill to grind millet, an incinerator for used sanitary napkin and a cold storage room for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Batti Ghar has received small financial support from The Small-Scale Sustainable Infrastructure Development Fund, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Bengaluru. But the organization subsists mostly on the money its two co-founders earn from international consulting. Aggarwal says Batti Ghar has recently been re-registered as a private, limited company, which will allow it to sell its products and use the profits to continue developing new ones.

In May, Aggarwal spent three weeks touring the United States as a participant of the International Visitor Leadership Program of the U.S. Department of State. She was part of a group invited to study social entrepreneurship in the United States. Aggarwal was particularly fascinated by a visit to the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab in San Diego, a center designed to help spark the interest of schoolchildren in science and technology.

Inspired in part by that center, says Aggarwal, Batti Ghar is keen on creating an innovation lab in Odisha, where rural people and dedicated experts like herself can interact to explore new solutions to help meet the needs of the local population.

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.