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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Magsaysay Awardee, Harish Hande: Let there be light!

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Deepa Ganesh, The Hindu / August 25, 2011.

Magsaysay Award winner Harish Hande. Photo:V Sreenivasa Murthy
Magsaysay Award winner Harish Hande. Photo:V Sreenivasa Murthy - The Hindu.

Harish Hande, the Bangalorean who has won the Magsaysay Award for Right Livelihood, tells Deepa Ganesh that hope lies in rural India.

Walk into the IIT Kharagpur campus and in huge letters you find at the entrance: “To serve the nation”. Every day, during Dr. Harish Hande's student years, as he walked into the campus, these words troubled him. “Which nation?” he often wondered. “Our hostel fee was Rs. 10, and the annual fee was Rs. 25, and each student had three computers! Our education was completely subsidised by the government. Indian tax payers were funding our education, but at the end of it, most IITians go abroad to study further or on work. I used to feel very disturbed by this …,” recalls the 43-year-old Harish, the Bangalorean who is among the two Indians who have won the Magsaysay Award for Right Livelihood, 2011.

Recalling his schooling and growing up years at the Rourkela Steel Plant Township where his father worked, Harish says: “I got the best of education. It was nothing like the elitist upmarket International schools of today, yet top notch. Everyone, from the peon's children to the manager's kids went there, but the pressure to excel was very much there.” Harish says how even during a game of cricket, the wicket keeper and the batsman were often talking about how to solve a math problem. “If you don't make it to the IIT you are useless, that's how it was. Invariably, most of us did.” Much like his classmates, Harish went to Massachusetts to do his Master's and Ph.D. in Energy Engineering, and here he met Richard Hansen from Dominican Republic who had developed a sustainable energy model in and around his village, way back in 1984 itself. “I was very moved by what he had done. I decided that if I could in some way give back all that I had received from my country, it would be by changing the lives of the poor.”

Harish went straight to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, and lived in those villages for nearly six months working on a feasible sustainable energy model. “I wasn't sure if I would be accepted in the villages of India. I was educated, upper class and hence an outsider. Not knowing the language in Sri Lanka worked to my advantage, it was easier to integrate.” After the initial work, Harish lived and toured rural Karnataka for one and a half years, and by 1995, he got SELCO, a social venture to eradicate poverty by promoting sustainable technologies in rural India, registered. Headquartered in Bangalore, SELCO today has 24 branches in Karnataka and one in Gujarat. They have installed solar lighting units in more than 1,20,000 households in rural Karnataka.

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