The Optimist Citizen

How a renewable source of fuel made out of natural needles of Chir Pine trees is giving livelihood to hundreds in Kumaon

As one walks through pathways weaved in the hilly heartland of the remote mountain villages in Uttarakhand, there is much to behold. The towering mountains, the wind sweeping through the trees, the brisk mountain air and a picturesque serenity are striking features of this natural beauty. But, beyond this picturesque beauty, lies the quietness of abandoned houses and dullness at places of work. This might sounds odd for a place that sits proudly amongst the clouds, but sadly it is the truth.

In recent years, many families in the rural Himalayan region of Kumaon have found it impossible to sustain the lineal and simple livelihoods in wake of the increasing scope of industrialization. Farming has simply become insufficient to provide for families, and with few other options to survive, many leave for the cities in the plains. Urban centres in the plains are teeming with industries and a strong pull for a “modern” city life. Those who venture in the hopes of these gains, often find it hard to sustain themselves and are unable for fend for themselves or their families.

Rajnish Pant, belonging to the village of Bana in Pithoragarh district of Kumaon, recalls how just about 15 (out of about 50) families are left in his village. Most have migrated to towns in the plains such as Haldwani, Rudrapur, and as far as Delhi. In other villages nearby, most young men are working in the plains, with the women, children and the elderly left back. For some of the poor, migration is too risky and sometimes an expensive proposition. The only source of income they have is unpredictable daily wage labour work in and around their village. People just don’t have the option to live and work in the mountains, together, as a family.

This problem was noticed by Vidyut Mohan, a recent fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneur India. He found a solution to this problem in pine needles, an abundant commodity in the mountains.  Every year, the monocultures of chir pine trees drop tons of these needles on the forest floor, but they were rarely thought of a useful resource, primarily because of the hazard of forest fires. However, Pirool Energy, a small startup, started by Vidyut Mohan and Ryan Helmer, is working to take these small needles and turn them into a source of jobs by creating a sustainable fuel: charcoal. Pirool Energy is currently working with Avani Bioenergy to produce charcoal briquettes, through a chain of factories in the hilly regions of Kumaon, from carbonized pine needles and build a sustainable business from them.

“The goal is to generate conservation based livelihood opportunities for people that have been living in these mountains for generations. Using renewable energy as a tool, we want to challenge the centralized city-centric growth model that we have been witnessing in India over time,” says Vidyut Mohan. The idea, which started as a pilot for a master thesis at TU Delft, the Netherlands, is now being welcomed with open arms by the locals in Kumaon. Many families expressed their deep desire to remain in the mountains, away from the crowded life of the cities. The chance to find gainful employment near their home was alluring to the locals. Dhaba and restaurant owners, as well as local industries, showed interest in using the charcoal fuel for cooking & heating, wanting to save money by buying a local, sustainable alternative instead of importing costly fossil fuels from foreign sources which are often difficult to procure.

Pirool Energy plans to launch their first production plant near Berinag, Uttarakhand soon and hopefully expand to Uttar Pradesh in the future, tapping into the large need of fuel for cooking and heating. With the help of their mentors, their partners, and village communities, Pirool Energy is making something as inconsequential as pine needles, a source of livelihood for innumerable families and is helping them to fight the mighty mountains with their own innovative might.

The article has been written in collaboration with SSE INDIA supported by PWC INDIA. For more information visit HERE


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