31 January 2016 was a joyful day for 45-year-old Sadhna Devi, a resident of Khanwan village in south Bihar’s Nawada district. That day, the prime minister Narendra Modi talked about her on his radio show, Mann Ki Baat. Sadhna had written a letter to the prime minister in January, in which she praised and expressed gratitude to Modi for opening a Solar Charkha Centre in her village. The letter explained how she had been given a charkha—a domestic spinning-wheel—which helped her financially and enabled her to afford medical treatment for her husband. But, nearly five years later, the centre now lies defunct and Sadhna is once again trapped in penury.
The Solar Charkha Centre at Khanwan is run by a Lucknow-based NGO called Bharatiya Harit Khadi Gramodaya Sansthan, or BHKGS. The centre was officially inaugurated in the first week of January 2016, as a pilot project in the Khanwan panchayat, which includes eight villages, under the aegis of the Mission Solar Charkha. According to its website and several press releases by the Press Information Bureau, the mission is an “enterprise driven scheme” that aims to generate direct employment, especially for youth and women, so as to drive sustainable and inclusive growth in rural areas and arrest migration to urban areas. The mission comes under the union ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises.
The mission envisaged setting up of “Solar Charkha Clusters” across the country via an “individual or promoter agency.” It defined a cluster as “a focal village and other surrounding villages in a radius of 8 to 10 kilometers. Further, such a cluster will have 200 to 2042 beneficiaries (spinners, weavers, stitches and other skilled artisans).” Accordingly, based on the apparent success of the pilot project, on 17 September 2019, the ministry approved the setting up of 50 more solar charkha clusters, with an outlay of Rs 550 crore.
However, according to over a dozen women from the Khanwan panchayat, a few allied workers and the panchayat head, the centre has been shut since May 2019. They said the charkhas given to the women are lying unused and they no longer make any money. Their passbooks corroborated this claim—the last entry for most of them was from May 2019. In addition, all the women said that they had not been paid for months before the centre closed down. They also said that since the charkhas were given on loan, the Khanwan branch of Allahabad Bank has been pressurising the women, asking them to repay the loans or they would be served notices for loan repayment. The women said that they now used whatever money they make from other sources to pay back the loan, and some alleged that the bank sometimes deducted money without telling them. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown exacerbated their plight and all of them were in desperate financial trouble.
“The charkha centre has been closed for a year and a half,” Sadhna told me. “When the centre was working, we used to make a little money. Financially, there was a lot of relief. Now, our condition is the same as before the charkha centre opened.” Vijay Pandey, the founder of the BHKGS, admitted that “there were some shortcomings in the way the project started in Khanwan—some quality control issues, due to which this centre could not achieve the success that was expected.” But Pandey denied all the allegations and claimed that the centre had closed in “February 2020 due to COVID-19 as all employees went back to their houses” and would re-open after Diwali, which was on 14 November. The centre had not restarted as of 18 November. The ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises did not respond to an emailed questionnaire regarding the closure and other issues raised by the women and employees of the centre.