All posts by sswade

Sustainable Development

Last Friday the India Team traveled to a village near Poonamallee called Kuthambakkam. It is a neat little village, tucked into the land surrounding the greater Chennai area. We had the privilege of speaking to one of the village’s prominent members, R. Elango. Elango is an older man and as such has the standing to call us his children. He is a well-kept, proud but humble man. While we were there he told us about his experience as Panchayat President. A Panchayat is a form of local government. It is a committee with the leader being the Panchayat President. As the President, he managed to eradicate the illegal distilling and sale of alcohol in the village and helped erase caste discrimination. He did not end poverty completely, but he was able to make sure that nobody in the village is starving, and the upper-and-lower-classes are no longer at war with each other.

He also gave us a presentation on the vision for his village. He is a chemical engineer by training, but as the Panchayat President wore many hats of a civil engineer, an electrical engineer, etc. He helped bring technology such as compressed bricks that don’t require firing. They can be made with the local resources to the village allowing everyone to build a house. Some of the houses are less extravagant than others, but everyone in the village has a sturdy house that will not be destroyed in the event of a flood or monsoon season. This simple task was not easy, but gave the lower-classes a sense of pride.

We learned about Elango’s plan to set up a network of villages where 30 or so villages will get together and each one will specialize in one area. Each village isn’t large enough to have a specialist in all fields so by specializing by village the network can rely on itself and keep the local economy strong. That way the wealth doesn’t leave the village to the city leaving the village poor. This also helps the landless people by giving them jobs and making them “local producers” as Elango calls them.

Elango is very focused on sustainable social and economic development. He has made it his mission in life to help people by demystifying technology and is going through a process that he calls “unlearning”. We are very thankful for his help since he is helping us develop the solar system we are implementing in the village closer to KVCET in the village of Kunnankulathur.

When we arrived to the school in Kunnakulathur, the headmaster, Gajapathi told us that they were not as interested in solar street lights as they were solar panels. So, we switched our plan from solar street lights to panels. Gajapathi wanted us to be able to put the panels on top of one of the new school buildings, but because the buildings are still undergoing construction, we won’t be able to do that. Instead we will be placing them on top of an academic building to power their computer lab.

This past Wednesday and Thursday we spent our time in Elango’s village of Kuthambakkam helping to build the stand for the solar panels and also helping his intern, Jonas, solder the new LED lights that we will be putting into the school.

I actually really like this one
Julian, hard at work soldering low power LED lights. The lights will be put into the Kunnankulathur Government High School. From left to right we have Vishal, our guide; Julian, teammate; and Jonas, Elango’s Electrical Engineering Intern. Jonas helped us quite a bit with the solar project. And is going to help us some more in the days to come.
Ow! HOT!
Sarah Soldering an LED to the low power lights. The lights each have 4 PCBs with 3 LEDs each. This makes for a total of 12 LEDs per light. Each LED consumes 1W of power for a total of 12W per light. This is a huge improvement from the conventional 40W tube lights. The LEDs are first coated in the brown stuff in the circular tin in front of me, flux (this was new to me since all the solder I’ve used before had flux inside the solder itself); then the stuff in the green tube, a thermally conducting but electrically insulating paste, is applied to the back; finally the LEDs are placed on the PCB and soldered into place.

The energy saving lights use only 12 watts (W) each. This is a hefty improvement from the conventional tube lights that consume 40W each. In addition to energy saving lights we are providing energy efficient fans that consume a maximum of 28-30W which is an improvement on the 60W that conventional fans use. We are providing eight LED lights and two Brushless DC fans. This along with four 100W panels and six 80 amp hours (AH) batteries will be used to run the lights and the fans along with a computer in their computer lab. The lights and the fan will always be able to use just the solar power, but the computer will use the solar mainly as a backup power supply in the event of a power outage (which are fairly common here, in fact we had one today).

This week we also assessed what needed to be done with the water filter in order to make it work properly again. Due to some clogging (maybe from our new frog friend, Frances, that we found hanging out in a pipe?) and other small maintenance issues, the filter hasn’t been working properly. However, we have diagnosed the issue and are making a plan to work on returning the filter to its former glory.

We are very proud of our work so far and thankful for the help we have received along the way. Next week we will work on installing the solar system as well as extensive water filtration maintenance.


First Impressions

I’ve heard it said that India is an assault on the senses. After spending just four days here I have to agree with whoever said that. The streets are crowded with cars lined bumper to bumper, motorcycles and scooters weaving in and out, somehow nimble enough to avoid collisions; the bright colors of sarees and billboards, even the buildings are brightly colored. There is a continuous cacophony of horns and people speaking loudly with one another. The smells change with each block, from the savory smells of the street vendors and the beautiful floral notes of the flower shops, to the pervasive smell of rotting garbage that permeates the air in the city. I have heard tales from the past years and read books about India but nothing really prepared me for everything that hit me as soon as I stepped out of the airport four nights ago.

The first thing that hit me was the heat. I could feel that as soon as I stepped off the plane. It took us a while to get through the immigration services and exchange money. We gather our bags and finally found Latha at the gate waiting with a man I assumed to be Magesh. We found our way to them, the airport was almost empty now; we took longer than most getting through it. We exchanged warm greetings with Latha and she introduced us to Magesh. We found our car, loaded the bags into the car and set off to the hotel.

The second thing that I noticed was how busy the city was. Even though it was 2:30 am the city was remarkably crowded. There were people everywhere and more cars on the road than there had been in Rome at 4:00 am. As we drove through the city I saw a lot of people, even more cars and motorcycles, and more string lights than I’ve seen anywhere so far from Christmas time. I sat in the car with Julian, the car was pretty quiet since we were all exhausted from the previous day’s events (I figured out later that since 6:30 am in Rome on Friday to 4:00 am in India on Sunday I had about 3 hours of sleep, 2 of which were on the plane and not very restful, i.e. 3 hours of sleep in ~48 hours). I tried to stay awake on the plane since I knew we’d be getting in late at night on Saturday and thought it would be easier to adjust to the time change if we just went straight to bed that night (maybe it was, but I’ve been here for four days now and I’m still exhausted, though I attribute some of that to the heat).

The third thing to hit me was the smells. The smell of the city ranges from a general hot smell, that smells vaguely of garbage, the smell of sweets at nearby food stalls, the warm smell of spices at restaurants, to the wonderful floral smells of the jasmine flowers sold by street vendors. Our hotel smelled of jasmine flowers and we found a small satchel of buds that we kept by our beds.

The lights and bright colors were also a shock to my eyes. I don’t think I’ve seen so many string lights so far from Christmas time. They adorn restaurants, churches, stores, and shops. The glow of the neon signs add to the brightness and the whole effect is rather shocking. To accompany the bright lights India is full of bright colors and vivid patterns. The buildings are all painted different hues and no two adjacent buildings are the same. When Latha took us clothes shopping it was like I’d stepped into a child’s story book. The multitude of colors and patterns were a lot to take in, and it didn’t help that the women who worked there had a habit of finding more and more things for you to try on.

The sound of the city is similar to others, though India has a certain flavor to it as well. The most notably distinct sound you’ll here is the constant blaring of horns. The roads here are fluid and at first seemed chaotic, but after spending some time here I actually feel just as safe on the roads in the city as I do when Julian is driving us around Houghton. The traffic is more congested for sure, and there seems to be a lack of direction, but everyone is more aware of their surroundings, the constant beeping of the horns isn’t out of anger but rather a friendly “I’m here.” The sound of the horns itself is different than on American cars. While Americans rarely use their horn to show anything other than displeasure and anger at another person and are as such loud and long, the horns here are used more to announce your presence and are relatively short and quiet comparatively.

India truly is a shock to the body, but after you spend some time here you start to get used to it. I look forward to learning more about the country where I’ll be spending the next month and getting to know the people here as well.

Busy city
The view from our hotel room in Chennai, the last morning we were there. It was the only time that the city felt quiet to me. High above the bustle of the streets is a nice sense of calm.