- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

KAMMEGUDA, India — Deep in the tropical forests of southern India, the Kolam people were untouched by telephones, cars or television, and they went to bed at dusk because there was no electricity.

Their village is still far from a road or a power line. Yet, for the past year, dozens of 40-watt light bulbs have begun to glow in the mud-and-bamboo huts after the sun sets.

The villagers have found that electricity grows on trees — specifically, the seeds of the karanji trees in the nearby forest, which they’re turning into diesel fuel to power a generator.

Instead of going to sleep at sunset, children are now busy practicing their alphabet in the community center each evening, writing their names on black slates and showing them to proud village elders, who never went to school.

“Our place has changed a lot,” said Kammeguda’s oldest man, Aathram Maru Patel, who does not recall his age and has never been away from the village.

The Kolams gather the seeds from the surrounding forest and take a few hours to extract the oil, using a mill powered by the generator that provides the electricity. There is substantially less pollution than from petroleum-based diesel — and no power bill.

“With lights, we can chase away snakes and animals that stray into our village in the night. We can catch the occasional thief, also,” said Lakshmi Bai, chosen by her community to manage the tiny power station.

“Earlier, we used to put our children to sleep early, but now we make them study under the lights,” she said.

Udupi Shrinivasa, a gray-haired, bespectacled mechanical engineering professor at the Indian Institute of Science, walked into the village just over a year ago and lit up the Kolams’ lives.

For years, he had been teaching the institute’s students about the mechanics of the diesel engine and the plan of its German inventor, Rudolph Diesel, for it to run on vegetable oils as a source of cheap energy.

Researchers around the world are working on replacing oil-based diesel with biodiesel fuels, which can be made from a variety of agricultural products — from animal fat to soybeans. Mr. Shrinivasa decided to apply that idea to help power-starved Indians.

“All we did was to take this rudimentary technology to people who had no means of getting all the energy they needed,” he said at his office in Bangalore, 560 miles south of this village in Andhra Pradesh state.

Until about 10 years ago, the Kolams hunted animals for food and lived in isolation. The state government then weaned the tribe away from hunting, and they now raise poultry and cattle.

The electrical system has brought further change, and people from other villages in the forest are coming to see the lights of Kammeguda.

At sunset, the generator starts up and lights about 60 bulbs in 35 households, the 100-square-foot community center with bamboo walls and the village’s single lane.

Mr. Shrinivasa said the experiment in Kammeguda points to a possible solution of the power shortages that hinder economic expansion in India, which has a billion people. Biodiesel generators could also help cut India’s annual $18 billion bill for oil imports, he added.

Fifty-five percent of all rural households — 77 million village homes — lack electricity. Even in the cities, only 87 percent of people have connections, and there are frequent power outages.

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