Electricity is a celebrated utility in India. No one I know takes it lightly. Power cuts occur almost everyday and in cities people steal electricity without guilt. Many Indians will remember when lights first came to their town; I remember when lights came to my home in Kerala! It was 1985 and I was about 11 years old. Even then we got electricity because my family was better off and they pulled some strings. In a sense, in my country, what holds good for Thiruvilwamala holds well for Dogwala, but with a little difference. In this little village - Dogwala up in the mountains, there was no rich man pulling strings and the locals didn’t turn cynical and scowl. The homes in Dogwala are located roughly around a small canal that runs right through the middle. A few families that live around here own traditional water mills or gharats.

A traditional gharat (water mill) for grinding grains

A year ago, by word of mouth, the incredible story of a faster gharat (water mill) model reached this village. It was heard that this new wheel increases the output of flour grinding. Tempted, three water millers here installed the new system. This turbine was so fast that where earlier they were grinding about 15 kg of grains an hour their output had increased to nearly 40 kg per hour. What was even more astounding was the fact that now they were also producing their own electricity. Each water mill had started generating 1 KW (kilowatt) of power. The children of Dogwala no longer had to study by the light of kerosene lamps. The run down water mills of the mountains were beginning to light up homes here.

10 km away from Dehradun, a dusty drive brought me to village Mehuwala. I never had a chance to get lost as almost everyone I met pointed me towards a red brick building that housed HESCO or Himalayan Environment Studies and Conservation Organisation. I was here to meet Dr. Anil Joshi, who is now well known in India for his work to revive the traditional water mills. A research paper brought me to here and I was curious to see how water mills can produce electricity.

Within five minutes of meeting Dr Joshi I realized that here was a man who didn’t care if I was the last fool alive. He pointedly told me that there was no room for cynicism; only believers can truly change the course of our history. A botanist by training, Dr Joshi on his numerous field trips, realized that there was much to be done in the villages and along with a handful of his students he started working in the many dotting Uttaranchal. He aimed to bring technology and science to the Indian village. One of the first areas they intervened in was the water mill.

The water mill is a centuries old technology, they say that it started somewhere around the 7th century A.D. This technology is still widespread all over the hill territories of Uttaranchal, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and North East India. The water mill or the gharat, its local name, was traditionally used to harness waterpower to grind grains. According to Dr. Joshi, "In the absence of appropriate technology, water mills were never used for any purpose other than grinding, the basic principle on which they run is the same as that of a large hydro-electric project to produce power. Any stream coming down a hill from a height comes with a force. This water is tapped, and directed through a chute that is attached to a turbine, the water hits the turbine, which is in turn attached to a stone wheel. The force of the water hitting the turbine propels the stone wheels to rotate, enabling grinding of grains."

There is also this quaint folk tale about how the gharats came about. The story goes back to the times when the king would take flour as a form of tax. The men folk on the mountains soon realized that grinding grain was a tough job, one that they would rather leave to their wives. So, on the pretext of doing more important work like fighting battles and so on, they handed over this exerting drill of flour grinding to the women. Tedious household chores now compounded with grinding grains, was slowly taking its toll on their health. One day, while on her daily tour, the water goddess came across these toiling women. She felt sorry for their pathetic plight and granted them a boon - A water mill! Saying, “…O women of the hills, this is my gift to you, go harness my energy and grind your flour.”

That apart, over the years it was the men who took up the reigns of operating these water powered mills. Eventually with passage of time, no thought was given to see how the efficiency of this technology could be upgraded, and in fact with the arrival of diesel operated mills, many of these gharats were rendered defunct and were abandoned.

Dr. Joshi told me, “Even socially many important issues concerning the lives of the millers were being ignored because the mill and the mill worker were not considered very important, neither politically nor socially. So we did two things, firstly, we developed intermediate technology. This is not highly efficient or prohibitively expensive technology. Very high efficiency technology may not really work in the villages because there are pre and post installation services that may be required and may not be easily available to those in the village. We went ahead and developed a technology that a local community can maintain and have access to. Secondly, we organized water millers and set up a Water Millers Association. As an organized group we put forward our demand to the Uttaranchal govt. that water mills be a part of their plan, right from district to state plan.”

But this change did not take place overnight; it was a slow tedious process. First there was the matter of winning the trust of the millers themselves. “Our first goal was to match the efficiency of flour grinding through the water mill to that of a diesel or electric mill. When our flour mills were a success, it gave a lot of confidence to the water millers. They saw that a lot has been achieved by simply putting ball bearings in their turbines.” Hence by introducing appropriate technology to upgrade a traditional system a cost effective and efficient alternative was provided to the mountain folks.

“The next step was power generation. Inspite of over 50 years of independence, there are villages here with no electricity. Like I said, the principle behind a water mill is the same as hydro turbines in the country, even the Tehri dam. So today, these villages have been electrified because of these mills. The smallest water mill here is generating 1 KW of electricity.”

I was amazed at what he was telling me… it sounded like a school science project gone right and gone local. Smiling, Dr. Joshi held out a plate of cookies made of a recently revived local grain, and said, “Never ignore traditions and never deny new wisdom. And if you care for development in the true sense, let us begin to look at local resources, local upgraded technology and the local market. Unless you join the three, rural India will never change.”

Later I went down to Dogwala, the tiny hamlet just off the Simla Bypass road. Accompanying me was Manmohan Singh Negi - a technician from HESCO. The village itself is hidden behind a lantana forest. Just 12 km from Dehradun, the capital of Uttaranchal, this village has no road, water supply, telephone lines and up until now – no electricity. The village houses about 12 families; miniscule by all standards it is not even listed on local maps. I can see that almost all the villagers in Dogwala live below the poverty line. Most of them have no land except a small strip given to them by the government. They cultivate rice or wheat and some vegetables, just enough to meet their own requirements. I meet Lal Singh – a water miller. His wife Santosh Devi insists that we have tea at their place.

Lal Singh’s childhood was far from perfect. Poverty forced him to abandon school and he started working on the small bit of land his family owned. In time Lal Singh married and had children. He had hoped that their lives would be different - he wanted them to go to school. The children would work through the day and at night huddle together to study by the light of an oil lamp. Soon the eldest sons dropped out of school. As cracks started appearing in Lal Singh’s dreams, he realized it was futile to expect the politicians to find the way to his village. Around this time Lal Singh’s cousin told him about a miraculous contraption that could create electricity and increase the output of his flour mill. Tempted he tried it on the family run gharat. This faster gharat model was incredible. Their flour output per hour increased substantially. His cousin was right about the electricity! Each water mill had starting generating 1 KW power.

Today, Lal Singh’s children go to school and at night after a full meal they study under the bright light of a night lamp. They have dreams of their own now. And Lal Singh - he is a part time engineer and line man, when not working on his own machine he troubleshoots for others or is seen checking out electricity faults on the lines he supplies.

The homes in Dogwala are made of mud and bricks. I was told that just a year ago they lived in thatched houses, but now since they were better off, few of them have modified their homes. When I met Hira, he was busy installing his second turbine. He’s also a gharat swami or water miller. Hira told me his story.

“Our mill has been here since one hundred years. Since we have no land, this is the primary source of our income. People come to our mill to get their wheat, millet and corn crushed. When diesel mills came around, we lost a lot of our business; people preferred to go to the mechanized mills as they took less time and were cheaper. That is when I came across HESCO and the new turbine they were propagating. I was quite apprehensive at first, I thought it would be too expensive for me. Then they convinced me that they would take care of the finances. So I gave it a shot and I am happy that I tried it. Today my mill grinds about 80 kg of grains on a daily basis. And I charge only half the market rate, so a lot of my customers are returning. In fact because of this increased workload I am installing one more turbine as I can do with more help. My mill also generates 1 KW of electricity, so after 6 lights are on in every house in my village. I share my light with three other families and I don’t charge them anything, after all I am not paying anybody.”

Hira’s mill was busy grinding wheat when I checked it out. Manmohan Singh pointed out all the parts and explained to me how the mill works and how power is generated, “the ball bearing increases the rpm (revolutions per minute) of the pulley – thereby generating electricity. This system has been installed and designed by us. If at all anything goes wrong work need not stop – these ball bearings are ordinary and can be purchased from the local market, same is the case with the belt. If the belt tears a new belt can be arranged locally”.

I asked him if the location of these mills were any consideration. “Not really, the gharats, that we are working on now, have always existed. Some villages have two or three such gharat and in some cases two or three villages depend on one common gharat. So the real issue is availability of water. Dogwala here is a small village compared to what we will find up in the mountains. But yes, the mills on the mountains work better because the height gives them an advantage. There is more head, so there are better chances of power generation. In Dogwala the head has been created artificially. If the water here was falling from a height of 4 or 5 ft. then we could have generated nearly 5 KW power here.”

Have the local people understood the technology or the science behind it?

“Usually one finds that the common man has no knowledge of machinery. What we’ve done is that, we’ve provided gharat training to the miller. We get him to the workshop and show him the system and explain to him the functioning of the ball bearings, the pulley and the alternator. We familiarize them with the things that can possibly go wrong and show them how it can be fixed. So they have not only understood the working of the system they can also trouble shoot. What is so amazing is that now these gharats have turned into a small industry in itself. The miller usually employs two others to work along with him, this ensures employment opportunities for the village youth. Sometimes a third boy is employed as an electrician, his job is to check the lines and ensure that the power supply is uninterrupted. The gharat has gone beyond the miller and is including everyone in the village.” I felt the impact of what Manmohan told me only when we reached Lachiwala to meet Ramgopal Verma.

Ramgopal's gharat operates a lathe machine

Wedged deep in the Himalayan Mountains are springs and glaciers that ensure steady flow of water perennially. Some of our holiest rivers have a home in Uttaranchal - Alaknanda, Mandakini, Yamuna, Ganga - all flow through the backyards here before they reach homes in the plains. The rivulet that runs through Ramgopal’s field is a forceful one, and it hosts three turbines. Once his mill used to grind grains, today it is being used almost exclusively to operate a lathe machine. His turbines not only produce 5 KW of electricity but also propel a lathe machine. The workshop is lined with metal wheels at all stages of development - turbines are being fabricated here. His unit also doubles up as a training centre for aspiring gharatis – from govt. officials to army men who want to use this technique in remote outposts on the mountains. His unit can be seen busy working on new turbines that need to be installed in more inaccessible parts of the mountains. They are happy, the last few months have been excellent; all the villages they visited are now producing 2 KW power.

Most homes have two to three lights – no one wants to use oil lamps any more. Ramgopal cannot believe the respect and admiration he has started getting! And that too for a home made product. He has found a novel way to share this prosperity with the rest of his village, with one more turbine he should be able to generate 10 KW power, he says, “…at night when my workshop is shut, the street lamps can be lit. Our village is near the highway, after nightfall the place is very dangerous for our children, so the street lamps would be really useful. I think the best service I can provide others is sharing my knowledge with them.”

Before I left he gave me one more bit to chew on, “I have seen that the govt. spends lakhs of Rupees and yet cannot provide electricity to all the remotest of places. If the govt. decides and spends small amounts like 1 to 1.5 lakh on newer and more efficient models like the gharat, our villages can produce their own electricity. Through simple technology and minimum investment, maximum benefit can be obtained.”

“Each and every person is dependent on a resource. Maybe he has land and is hence a farmer, or he might possess some technical skill and provides labour. So our definition of development starts here. How can his know how and skill be developed?"
My last stop was Bhogpur. The slope here is much more pronounced and the water current in the canal is quite strong. I saw bigger farmlands and prosperous homes here. The mills here were being used for cotton combing. Mukesh Kumar, a gharati has two turbines – one he uses for grinding grains and the other that provides him with the lion’s share of income, is used for cotton combing. In fact the strong water current allows him to operate one of mills without ball bearings. It moves just as fast. He told me how his income has doubled since the past. These voices that I heard in the backyards of Uttaranchal weren’t weak or feeble; these voices were socially and economically empowered. The water mills had changed the lifestyle of villages here. People here had begun to look at other sources for their income, like food processing, mushroom cultivation, bee keeping, fisheries, and just about every economic activity that was being fed by the gharat philosophy.

Dr. Joshi had said, “Each and every person is dependent on a resource. Maybe he has land and is hence a farmer, or he might possess some technical skill and provides labour. So our definition of development starts here. How can his know how and skill be developed? That’s where we come in. we help him grow technically. When there are about thousands like him – he becomes a political entity. This power that he now fields, technically, politically and socially, gets him his rightful due. Today even the Chief Minister of this state does not dare to ignore the voices of the water millers here. Afterall it’s a matter of 70,000 votes! I believe there’s nothing called political will. The definition of power comes through empowering the local community with skill and knowledge so that they can make their presence felt at any forum.”

Meeting people like Hira, Lal Singh, Dr. Joshi, gave me reasons to hope in the infiniteness of human enterprise and the indomitable resilience of the human spirit.