Fifty solar charkha projects in the pipeline but pilot project lies defunct since May 2019

The solar charkha, or domestic spinning-wheel, is powered by solar energy and each charkha has 10 spindles. It is usually used to spin yarn made from cotton and other locally sourced fibres. In 2016, the Narendra Modi government launched a pilot project under the Mission Solar Charkha, which envisaged providing sustainable employment opportunities to rural women and youth. Umesh Kumar Ray
19 November, 2020

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.

As a part of the pilot project at Khanwan, the centre gave local women at least one solar charkha each, on loan, and they were trained to run it. A press release by the PIB on 5 March 2020 said that in total 1180 women of Khanwan panchayat were given charkhas from this centre. The centre provided cotton, which was converted into thread by the women and given back to the centre, which would process it on looms and sell it further. According to the women I spoke to, they were paid a rate of Rs 200 for one kilogram of yarn.

Khanwan is birthplace of Krishna Singh, the first chief minister of Bihar. The Khanwan village is predominantly comprised of Bhumihars, a dominant upper-caste in Bihar. The population of the rest of the villages in the panchayat, however, are mostly from the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes. The area has a chequered political demography. Nawada’s sitting member of parliament is Chandan Singh from the Lok Janshakti Party—the LJP won just one seat in the 243-member assembly in the recently concluded Bihar state elections. The current member of legislative assembly is Vibha Devi from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, while the previous MLA was also from the RJD. However, it was Giriraj Singh, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who brought the solar charkha centre to the panchayat. Giriraj was Nawada’s MP from 2014 to 2019, and currently represents Begusarai, another constituency in Bihar. He is the union minister of fisheries, animal husbandry and dairying.

Local residents told me that Giriraj, a Bhumihar, adopted Khanwan village in 2015 under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana. The yojna is a rural-development programme launched by the Modi government in 2014 under which all MPs from all parties would take the responsibility of creating physical and institutional infrastructure in a chosen village and convert it into an adarsh gram or model village, by utilising funds from existing schemes. The first target date for such development was 2019. Giriraj was then the union minister of micro, small and medium enterprises and got the Solar Charkha Centre established in Khanwan. Pandey confirmed this. “Khanwan village was adopted by MP Giriraj Singh in the year 2015,” he said. “Only two-three months after that, I started working on the solar charkha project here. Earlier, an NGO of Gaya was working, but it could not succeed. Then I took charge.” Curiously, Pandey had no prior experience of working with this technology or running solar charkha projects. He said that he formed BHKGS “in 2016 with the inspiration and blessings of Giriraj Singhji.”

Arvind Singh, Sadhna’s husband, told me that during the recent elections he had asked the villagers to vote for BJP in the hope that if the BJP came to power in Nawada, the centre might restart. When I visited Khanwan village on 2 November, there were BJP flags everywhere. Pandey, while referring to Giriraj as “dada,” said, “Dada’s ministry changed. If he had continued, the centre would have recovered. Nobody showed passion like Dada.”

While it’s unclear if Giriraj’s transfer from power has anything to do with the centre’s subsequent fortunes, what is undisputed, according to the people employed by the centre, is the fact that the centre stopped after May 2019. A series of issues cropped up in the months following, all of which point towards the centre being an absolute failure.

Apart from the fact that the centre had shut down, one of the biggest complaints among the women and other workers was that they had not been paid for work already done. Pandey, the owner of BHKGS, flatly denied this allegation. The residents told me that around five hundred locals had worked as employees of the centre doing jobs such as running the loom and selling the yarn. Several of these employees have accused BHKGS of not paying their salaries. Arvind told me that he used to work at a salary of Rs 7,000 a month and had not been paid for almost a year. Sitaram Rajwanshi, a resident of Hasanpura village, which comes under the Khanwan panchayat and is about two kilometres from the centre, said that he had not been paid for seven months.

Shankar Rajak, the mukhiya, or chief, of the Khanwan panchayat, told me, “Many women from SCs and OBCs were given solar charkha. Their financial situation has deteriorated with the closure of the centre in May 2019. They have not got the money for the work they have done before that.” Rajak’s wife was one of the beneficiaries who worked with a charkha for the centre.

Hasanpura is comprised predominantly of Scheduled Caste families. According to Rajak, there are 170 families in this village, half of whom were provided solar charkhas. Kari Devi, a 55-year-old resident of Hasanpura, was one of them. She said that she was given a charkha in 2016 and told that she would get regular orders to spin yarn. “I thought this will help me be financially independent.” She added, “I used to earn two to three thousand rupees a month. We do not have land. My husband works in agricultural fields, where he earns two to three hundred rupees a day. But he gets work during sowing and harvesting season only. I found the weaving helpful as even after completing household work, I used to weave the charkha and earn money.”

Kari said that one day in May 2019, the work suddenly stopped “without any prior information. I had prepared five kilogram yarn and went to the centre to find it closed. Some of the people who work there told me that currently the centre has stopped operation.” Kari said she had not been paid for about two to three months of work, in addition to the five kilogram. “We were not given money for our previous work, but we were sure that we will get the money sooner or later. But our hard-earned money was also drowned by the sudden closure.” She also said that the charkha is now rusted and “it has become absolutely useless.”

While I was talking to Kari, over a dozen women from the village approached me with their passbooks issued by the BHKGS. All of them had not been paid for at least two to three months of work. Among them was Gayatri Devi, who had not been paid for three months of work before May 2019. Another woman, Rukmani Devi, complained that after all the loan repayments, she could get only Rs 500.

The loan repayments were another major point of concern for all the locals I spoke to. Most of the women are uneducated and not very conversant with banking rules and regulations. According to the residents, when the centre handed out the charkhas, each woman was also given a new bank account at the Khanwan branch of Allahabad Bank. There seemed to be no clarity among the women about the details of their loan amount, their interest rates, if at all and how much were they given the charkhas for. Some of them erroneously claimed that the bank was secretly deducting money from their accounts.

For instance, Rajak told me that “women from backward communities were given the solar charkha on Rs 13,000 loan. Now, as the centre is closed, women are unable to repay the loan but the bank is forcing them to repay the rest of the money.” He said his wife, too, had to repay this loan and he “somehow managed to pay the rest part of loan and got no objection certificate from the bank.”

However, Sakina Devi, a middle-aged resident of Hasanpura, said that she was asked to pay Rs 27,000 by the bank. “We are landless; my husband works as a labourer. From where will I get Rs 27,000? When I got the spinning wheel, I felt that it would be a financial help. If I had any idea that it will become a bone in the throat, I would not have taken it.” Sakina also said that she had some money in her account from the yarn she spun “but the bank deducted it and ran a red pen on the passbook. I was told by the bank that the account will start only after repaying the entire loan.”

Parvati Devi, another resident of Hasanpura, is a widow and lives with her son and daughter-in-law. She told me that she had taken the charkha “in the hope that in old age I would not have to depend on others for food and other needs.” According to Parvati’s passbook, she started the thread-making work from 17 March 2017 and the last time she got work was on 8 May 2019. She was desperate when I spoke to her. “Twice it has happened that my widow pension and money from the toilet scheme was transferred to my bank account, but this money was deducted by the bank. Now, my account has been closed.” She did not know how much her loan amount was.

Pradeep Rajwanshi, the state president of Moolniwasi Samaj Party, and a resident of Hasanpura, told me, “My wife makes a mid-day meal at a school. If her salary as a cook comes in her account, the bank deducts the money. When I asked the bank officials why the money was being deducted, they said that loan money is due that is why money is being deducted.”

However, according to the BHKGS founder, Pandey, the women “were given charkha on Rs 8,000 loan and rest part was given as a subsidy.” As per the solar mission’s vision document, an implementing agency could incur a maximum cost of “Rs.45,000/- per charkha and a subsidy of Rs.15,750/- per charkha.” Pandey denied that loan money was being deducted from the women’s bank accounts. He also claimed that the NGO had not received any money from the government towards this subsidy. “Whatever money has been spent in this project is ours. No grant has been received.”  

I reached out to the Allahabad Bank branch at Khanwan and spoke to Suryabhushan Singh, who was the branch manager for 18 months. Suryabhushan was transferred to the bank’s branch at Silao, in Nalanda district, a week ago. He told me that around “500 people were given loans from the Khanwan branch for the charkha and 200 people’s loans are still pending.” He said that the bank was just the lender and if a loan was pending, the bank was bound to send a notice for payment. He denied the allegations that money was being deducted from accounts without informing the account holder. “Whenever any account holder received money, I would ask them that loan is pending, so do they want to pay some of it. We deducted the money only if they agreed.”

In fact, Suryabhushan said that “One or two women also complained to me that a loan has been taken on their name but they have not got any solar charkha.” He also told me that “Seven to eight women have not got the subsidy amount which was supposed to be paid through the implementing institution”—BHKGS. “They are extremely poor people. They get a few hundreds in old-age pension and maybe money from some other schemes, so why would I or the bank deduct this meagre amount? It hardly helps with the loan payment.” He added, “These women are in a lot of distress. If you can, please help them.”

Amidst all this, as I spoke to Sadhna, she said that she had “just one request from Modiji. Please reopen the solar charkha centre so that I and women like me can become self-reliant.”