Interview with Ramon Magsaysay recipient Harish Hande4 min read
Manipal: Dr. Harish Hande is the co-founder of SELCO (Solar Electric Light Company) India, a social venture started in 1994-95 that aims to provide affordable and environmentally sustainable solar energy services especially in the rural areas. He graduated from IIT Kharagpur in Energy Engineering and later specialized in the same by doing his Masters and PhD from University of Massachusetts. Dr. Harish recently won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011 for his pioneering work in taking solar energy to the poor through a sustainable business model.
Dr. Harish was here in Manipal for TAPMI’s Leadership Lecture Series 2011. In an exclusive interview with TMJ, he speaks about his company, the difficulties faced in rural areas, his social entrepreneurship venture and lots more.
Here are the excerpts:
Q: You happen to do BE in Energy Engineering from IIT Kharagpur. People haven’t really heard of this course. How popular is it in our country?
A: Energy Engineering started first in IIT Kharagpur in 1983 and mine was the third batch. It was definitely not a popular course. It was basically an amalgamation of nuclear, mechanical, chemical engineering, etc. But I don’t think it was a big factor because if we look, most of them joined the IT sectors and not the energy sector.
Q: You have worked extensively in foreign countries like Sri Lanka and the Dominican Republic. How different is it there compared to India?
A: Comparatively there is a much more awareness about energy resources in other countries and especially in the US and European countries. Also people there are much more serious about what they do. Here, people are more concerned about getting a ‘degree’ rather than this.
Q: There are about 80,000 villages without electricity and there is very little chance of them getting power through conventional means. But the government seems to be up for nuclear or thermal power plants rather than Solar. Why so?
A: The problem is the policy makers don’t have practitioners in the policy team. You won’t make an IT policy without consulting a Narayan Murthy or Nandan Nilekani. But for energy, people think they know everything and they know what to do for it. That’s how the policies are created in Delhi and that needs to change.
Q: Solar energy is known to be expensive as far as installation and infrastructural setup is concerned. For the same reason, a poor farmer can’t afford such energy resource.
A: That is not true. If you look at a farmer and his daily expenditure on existing energy services, it is much higher on an incremental delta basis. And then there is an emotional cost of not providing their kids with the right to educate. If you calculate these costs in economic terms and create a financing mechanism for them to buy it, the emotional delta cost is much higher compared to their household.
Q: So hasn’t it been difficult in rationalizing this whole thing in the rural areas?
A: See, that’s the difficulty. You buy a car or any other thing when you see someone else having it. So people will only buy a thing when they see a system in somebody’s house and that takes time. The corporate people have taken the poor people for a ride. So that needs to break and the trust needs to be created that this system will actually work.
Q: There are other forms of energy like wind energy or other forms which can be used for energy generation. Why solar energy in particular then?
A: Our expertise is solar energy and we don’t want to focus on other forms and we never push for solar form everywhere like say in upper hill areas where eco-hydro or biogas is more viable.
Q: Tell us more about your future initiatives. Do you intend to take SELCO to an entirely new level?
A: We don’t want to take SELCO to a new level and especially after winning the award (Ramon Magsaysay Award) we have made it clear the SELCO will go deeper into the economic setup. But the question is can we inspire youngsters from other states to take this up by not going through the pain we went through in 15 years and do the same like say in five years.
Q: So how is social entrepreneurship different from an NGO that is working in the same sector?
A: The difference between both is that social entrepreneurship has a much more financial transparency. The efficiency is missing in the NGO’s and what have they done in last 65 years. There is no financial viability and that is where a corporate sector makes a difference because we maintain a balance between both the financial status and the social service.
Sub-edited by Aditya Pillai