Sun-driven Ladakh

Leh, Aug 5 (ANI): When I was visiting home for my summer break this time, it struck me how much sunshine this region received. Straddled by the Karakoram range of the Himalayas and adjacent to the Tibetan plateau, Ladakh is called the 'roof of the world'.

Here the air is crisp, clear, the mountains stark, mostly covered by snow for major part of the year. But what is brilliant during the summer months is the abundant, bright sunshine reflected from a sky that is spectacularly blue, an incandescent quality that is seen probably only at the heights in which Ladakh exists.

I was asking myself why all this sunshine cannot be used, to create energy which is always in short supply, to power projects, institutions, buildings and even small industries which can not only bring benefit to people, but take our region towards modernity, growth.

Just then, my eye caught attention by a small decorative prayer wheel (Mani) at the front of the taxi, I was riding, a religious symbol that in a sense defines the region and its traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. What was even more interesting was that the prayer wheel was powered by a small solar plate attached to it causing it to rotate.

In my mind's eye, a flood of images rushed past. Through my growing years in Ladakh, I have seen countless times people would spread their vegetables and fruit on rooftops to dry under the shining sun. People living in the plains of India would find this incredulous. Why on earth would one want to dry fresh produce?

In Ladakh, it is a different reality when months and months of icy winds and snow keep people home-bound and deter visitors venturing into the region. Nothing grows during the long winter months, nor do supplies from roads from Manali or Srinagar come in. It is then that these sun-dried vegetables and fruit are brought out from their storage and consumed.

Even though I have been part of this picture, coming back again to Ladakh after my session in college in Jammu, I looked at all the old familiar signs anew. "How astute and imaginative our ancestors were, using the sun to preserve their food in the most natural state for surviving the harsh winter months," I thought.

How easily this can now be converted through modern technology to meet the growing energy needs of the people in this region, which still remains cut-off from the rest of the country.

In earlier times, in far-flung villages where electricity had not reached, solar streetlights were in use. Even today when lighting facilities has improved manifold, this still continues. Locals use solar lamps and torches as well.

The days and months following the devastating cloudburst and ensuing mudslides which struck Leh and its adjoining villages in August last year were in many ways, the darkest in recent history. The recovery was slow, painful and I remember, the Department of Electricity was affected badly.

Solar lighting plates saved the situation bringing light and hope to homes and institutions and paved the way for normalcy to return. For weeks after the cloudburst, before operations normalised, it was the sun, which powered lighting!

Thankfully, there are several organisations that have woken up to the potential of solar energy and are promoting the concept and usage in their spheres of influence. Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency (LREDA) is involved in promoting solar cookers and providing solar water heaters at subsidised rates.

They have come up with a media strategy to popularise it, encouraging its usage amongst wide sections of society. What is interesting is that they have taken a leaf from the age-old practice of sun-dried vegetables and are promoting modern food processing techniques harnessing solar energy.

There is growing awareness about the solar energy and of how scientific and technological progress can converge to make it a wonderfully viable option for wide usage. Noted organisations like Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) have adopted solar lighting for their campuses, the Druk Pemma School being worth special mention.

NGO's like Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) working to promote ecologically sound development models have taken the initiative to harness solar energy, focusing on Solar Voltaic Power Plants, Solar Housing and promotion of a range of solar devices.

Ladakh being a strategically sensitive zone, the Army plays a very important role and is an integral part of the region's society and economy. Its outreach programmes into communities, into development programmes have created a niche for the Army amongst the people there.

Given this, the Army's demonstrated interest in harnessing and conserving solar energy has sent a powerful message. Usage of solar cookers, solar lightings and incorporating solar panels in buildings by the Army is indeed an effective medium of taking the message across the region.

Greenhouses that are coming up across the Ladakh landscape speak of the growing acceptance and popularity of this model of energy. They speak of an ingenious way of tapping the golden, warm light of the sun; 'trap' this in greenhouses and grow vegetables, herbs, plants which can feed a winter-bound region, meeting their nutritional needs with not sun-dried but sun-grown vegetables!

The world is going towards a massive energy crunch. Proven sources from fossil fuels are diminishing and in the face of huge demands from energy-starved regions, are coming under increasing pressure.

According to the Charkha Development Communication network, paucity of oil, coal leading to crunch in petrol, diesel, and kerosene will affect many more areas and sections of population in the coming years and decades.

We in Ladakh have stumbled upon Nature's gift, its answer to an energy-starved world wracked by depleting sources and high demands. We are indeed fortunate and in the sun, we see a renewable energy that can be harnessed with no great expenditure and no signs of depletion.

While my mind's eye was seeing all these immense potential working itself out, the prayer wheel fixed in my taxi again caught my eye. I smiled to myself, seeing it rotating on its axis driven by sunrays and could see the wheel of life in Ladakh driven by renewable energy resources. By Stanzin Kunzang Angmo (ANI)