It’s late afternoon when I arrive at Kolkata’s open-air flower market with my guide, Saurav.
This labyrinth of dusty footpaths flanked by fresh blooms—piles of orange marigolds, strings of China roses, bunches of green lotus buds—is a cacophony of color, sweet smells and haggling.
It’s also insanely hot and crowded, this being the last day of a five-day Hindu festival when people buy armloads of flowers as offerings to the goddess Durga.
We stop for a reviving cup of chai.
In Kolkata this sweet milky tea spiced with ginger and cardamom is served in espresso-sized terracotta cups called khuli.
When you finish your tea, you can throw the cups on the ground—it’s good luck if they break, says Saurav—where they return to the earth.
It’s a sustainable prelude to what comes next on this tour-with-a-difference.
From the darkness
When the sun sinks into the horizon haze, that’s our cue to leave the market, which takes us under the eastern end of Howrah Bridge.
One of the longest cantilever bridges in the world, it straddles the Ganges like a War of the Worlds alien and gives its name to the urban slum we’re about to visit.
‘This isn’t ‘slum tourism.’’
Howrah Bridge Community is basically a row of shacks built of thatch, plywood and plastic sheets facing an unsealed road.
It’s quiet after the buzz of the flower market and, despite the best efforts of a few streetlights, surprisingly dark—because the residents of this community, like an estimated 400 million people in India and 1.3 billion worldwide, have no access to electricity.
But there are dots of brightness, glimmers of hope: low-cost solar lights provided by Indian-Australian social enterprise Pollinate Energy.
A little backstory: Pollinate was set up by 28-year-old sustainable-energy specialist Katerina Kimmorley and five other Australians in Bangalore in late 2012 to improve the lives of India’s urban poor from the inside out.
The problem wasn’t just the lack of electricity, however. It was that those 400 million people were dependent on kerosene for their main source of light.
As well as being a health hazard—burning kerosene is like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and respiratory disease is the second-biggest killer of women and children in India—kerosene contributes to air pollution and climate change; burning one liter of kerosene gives off 2.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
The candle-like flames of kerosene ‘lamps’ also don’t give off much light, which means children can’t do their homework, adults can’t socialize and whole communities are affected.
Pollinate helps by sourcing portable solar lights and employing local people, called Pollinators, to sell them in the communities.
Each light, plus a 3.5-watt solar panel, costs 2,500 rupees (about US$35) and lasts for up to five years; a year’s worth of kerosene costs about US$50.
Why can’t the lights be free? Because people often don’t value, use or take care of things they haven’t paid for, says Saurav, who used to be a Pollinator.
And, as Kimmorley has said, ‘We decided that if we wanted to solve this huge problem, it had to be a business solution. You just can’t give away 400 million lights.’
Opening up the slums
In March 2015, there was a new development: Pollinate teamed up with Urban Adventures, a division of Intrepid Travel, to offer not-for-profit Solar Slum Tours in Kolkata, with all proceeds going to Pollinate. (Urban Adventures now offers Solar Slum Tours in Bangalore too.)
Tonight’s tour is an opportunity to visit a few residents of the Howrah Bridge Community to see how solar lights have affected their lives.
Our first stop is the home of Zalim Sheikh, who welcomes us inside the cubby-like shack he shares with his sister; she’s sitting on a makeshift deck outside, where it’s cooler.
‘A solar panel the size of a laptop rests on the roof above their heads; inside is the light that has brightened their lives’
The solar light Sheikh paid for in six weekly installments casts a soft white glow over everything: their sleeping platform, nails in the wooden walls for hanging clothes, a hole in the ground for waste water and a small fireplace in the earthen floor for cooking.
‘I used to wake up with black stuff coming out of my eyes and nose, and coughing,’ he says when I ask what life was like before the solar light.
‘The ceiling was black. And kerosene was expensive, so I couldn’t afford to use the light all night.’
Sheikh shows us his light, pointing out its mobile phone charging port; phones are essential in these communities, connecting people not just to loved ones in their home villages but to the wider community and the world.
This isn’t ‘slum tourism.’
These tours help Pollinate in a variety of ways. They raise funds that can be used to, say, buy more solar lights; Pollinators can supplement their income by working as guides and they introduce like-minded travelers to Pollinate’s work, inspiring a new batch of supporters and advocates for their projects.
Further down the dusty road, another white light beckons.
Naseema Busi and her younger sister Susmita Das are taking in the night air on a wooden cart outside their one-room shack, while their five daughters clamber around them.
Theirs is a sad tale. Busi lost her 9-year-old son in a road accident a few years ago; when she received an NGO grant as compensation, her husband took off with the money.
A year later, Das arrived with her four daughters after her husband went to jail for drug smuggling.
Now the two women work as a team: Busi works at a roadside restaurant, earning about 6000 rupees (about US$90) a month, while Das takes care of the children.
A solar panel the size of a laptop rests on the roof above their heads; inside is the light that has brightened their lives.
Busi initially bought it from Pollinate to help her daughter study at night, but she says the portable light has become essential to the family in other ways, keeping them safe and making it easier to cook at night and in the dark on early mornings.
As we leave the slum, Saurav and I walk along the railway track behind Busi and Das’ house and back in time, passing a few huts dimly lit by kerosene lamps.
Only about 20 percent of homes in the Howrah Bridge Community have solar lights, but that’s sure to increase as more people here and in other communities, all over the world, begin to see decentralized, off-grid renewable energy as the way of the future.
Footnote: At the time of writing, Pollinate Energy had sold 17,671 solar lights used by 80,477 people in 1,986 communities across Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Lucknow, saving 1.92 million liters of kerosene and reducing CO2 emissions by 4.63 million kilograms.
Their goal is to take solar lights to 20 cities by 2020. In 2017, to support the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, Urban Adventures is offering 30 percent off all its In Focus tours, including the Solar Slum Tours in Kolkata and Bangalore.
Would you take a solar slum tour? Tweet us @momentumtravels and visit urbanadventures.com for more details on the tour.
Photos: Louise Southern and Urban Adventures