Plastic bottles have more uses than containing soft drinks; once recycled, they can be used as solar-powered light bulbs. Photo: iStock

Information-technology professional Arundhati Maitra always wanted to do something that would make a difference to other people’s lives. But she never imagined that with her relentless effort, in a matter of two years, she would bring sea changes to two villages in India’s Jharkhand state named Bandarberia and Astajora.

Arundhati wanted to do hands-on work in Bandarberia, so she got in touch with the Tagore Society, a non-governmental organization that has been working in the hinterland of West Bengal and Jharkhand for 50 years.

“I fixed up an appointment with the director of Tagore Society in July 2015, and on my first visit handed him a check for 25,000 rupees [US$390], requesting him to get me started off with some initiative. I was told that my contribution, though not huge, was good enough to start off a non-formal primary school in one of their operational areas, and run it for a whole year.

“I was allotted one of the remotest and poorest villages under the fold of Tagore Society – Bandarberia in Jamtara district of Jharkhand. It is inhabited by about 40 families belonging to the Paharia tribe – a marginalized and economically backward community. The village is plagued by illiteracy, acute water scarcity, harsh environmental conditions, [and a] complete lack of electricity and sanitation.

“On September 5, 2015, I inaugurated the primary education center in Bandarberia with 30 kids between the ages of six [and] 14.”

Arundhati started with the school but she took initiatives to provide the villagers with better drinking water and clean up the ponds, and finally she realized that the people only wanted one thing: light. Seventy years after India’s independence, the village had not been touched by electricity.

Arundhati made it her mission to ensure that Bandarberia and another neighboring village, Astajora, had electricity.

She partnered with the NGO Liter of Light and started working with its partners and donors trying to bring light to these villages.

Letter to Indra Nooyi

Liter of Light brings solar light to the grassroots level by creating bulbs from recyclable plastic bottles and solar energy. So Arundhati got down to looking for plastic bottles, mainly from soft drinks. But to her great surprise she did not find a single bottle among the traders in Kolkata who sell recycled bottles and paper.

She kept hunting but became exasperated because her project was getting delayed. Then finally she wrote a letter to PepsiCo chief executive officer Indra Nooyi telling her of her predicament.

“She never wrote back to me but she got the job done immediately. I got a call from Pepsi’s Gurgaon office inquiring about what I wanted. The very next day I was delivered 100 brand-new Pepsi bottles from their factory, which is around 6 kilometers from my home. They first delivered seven boxes and went back and brought back the rest. They gave me a lot of extra bottles of the mango drink Slice, too. I was overwhelmed.”

The bottles were put to use as bulbs and solar panels were installed, and now there are light and jubilation in both the villages. Now the villagers need not go off to sleep by 8pm, their children are able to study in the evening, and businesses and shops can stay open until late.

The journey so far

After education and electricity, next on the agenda is economic self-reliance, says Arundhati.

“I have a lot of plans for Bandarberia. I want to make them economically self-reliant, and for that I am exploring various avenues. I want to expand my work to cover more villages in the region, as I can clearly see the positive impact it has had so far.

“In all this my family has been extremely supportive. My daughter does not mind my going away on weekends every now and then and spending time in the village. In fact, my husband and daughter had a memorable visit there some time back. My work does not come in the way of my job either, as I am able to manage both. Rather, I feel more energized, as my work in the village actually works as a stress buster.”

Arundhati acknowledges that her development work would not have been possible without the support of reliable NGOs like the Tagore Society and Liter of Light.

“Though I personally drive all these initiatives, it would not have been possible but for the operational support I get from the field workers at Tagore Society Rajnagar branch, who look after my project on a day-to-day basis. I am constantly in touch with them and get updated on the smallest of developments that concern me and my village.

“I visit Bandarberia at least once in three months. Of late my visits have become more frequent, as I am taking up newer initiatives.

“The villagers have taken to me very positively. Initially they had been nonchalant and aloof. But with time they have warmed up to me in such a way that they demand I visit them every month. The children play with me, sing for me and greet me in English whenever I drop in, the womenfolk inquire about my family, my general well-being.

“And each time I come back from my visits with a bagful of goodies – fresh veggies plucked from their home-grown plants and trees, and a bagful of love that keeps me going until my next trip.”

Amrita Mukherjee

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist and author. She has worked in esteemed publications in India and Dubai and she blogs on women's issues at www.amritaspeaks.com.

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