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June 2, 2004

The Navadarshanam Search for Technology Alternatives

Ever since Navadarshanam began to function at this location near Ganganahally in Tamil Nadu in 1991, we have been questing for a sensible way of living on the land, a way which is simpler and more sustainable than what we have so far been used to. We have drawn much inspiration from the work done by E.F.Shumacher and Laurie Baker and also treasure our association with Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and the Centre for Science & Technology, Auroville, particularly in the fields of mud block housing and solar energy.

In Oct. – Nov. 1990, Swami Sahajananda constructed for us a tiny 10 ft. x 10 ft. hut with local stone and thatch. We named it Sampige. This was our first abode at the site and it accommodated up to five of us. In Jan. – Feb. 1991 Partapji built a 6 ½ ft. dia open well some 300 meters away at a lower level in the valley from which we lifted water—by rope and pulley in the traditional manner—and carried it up in pitchers for our washing and cooking needs. For lighting we used kerosene lamps and candles and for cooking a kerosene stove and an energy saving hay-box.

Around the same time, Sunny built Tulasi, a 30 ft. x 15 ft. hut, with local skills and materials; for several years it served as our kitchen, dining room, meeting hall and dormitory for up to ten persons—all in one. It too had a thatched roof supported on wooden rafters and reapers. To keep white ants at bay, we used a simple cow’s urine drip at the upper end of the stone columns, but the ants soon started relishing it and we had a tough time maintaining the thatched roof.

In 1992, Mallige was built and a simple solar cooker was acquired to supplement LPG cooking. The smokeless chullah followed. Efficient though it was, the absence of smoke made it easier for insects to feed on the thatch. Ultimately, with much reluctance, we had to remove thatch from the roofs of all three dwelling units in favour of Managalore tiles.

In 1994, we sunk a bore well nearer to the forest as a source of water for the villagers’ cattle and another one next to Tulasi primarily for the kitchen. The India-Mark II hand-pump was modified to pump water into two drums perched atop stone pillars. All able-bodied visitors were encouraged to pump for a while before the meals would be served and this gave us water on tap for the first time. We also put a hand pump at the open well with an auto-shower device: as you cranked the handle, water would pour over you from an overhead shower. This was a great hit with residents as well as guests.

Our first compressed mud-block house, Parijat, was built in 1995. Gitanjali, the youngest member of our original team, an architect deeply committed to ecology, got us the design, know-how and a hand-operated press with moulds from IISc. She also trained our men and women in making the mud-blocks from local soil along with river sand and 5% cement and roof panels in ferro-concrete. This unit cost us around Rs. 125 per square foot. The roof panels, however, took much care and skill; in later construction we gave up this design and went for the traditional Mangalore tiles. A solar water heater was installed next to Parijat to provide hot water for bathing.

Partapji built the simple and elegant Chandan in 1997 and Om constructed Manjari in 1999. This time we had the benefit of Chitra Vishwanath’s jack-arch design of roof panels—lower in cost and easier to build than an RCC roof. This also enabled us to build a mezzanine room at the rear end of the house, which is the most sought-after accommodation at Nd, better known as Hawa Mahal. The last of the houses, Pankaja, was built in 2000. With Ramu Kattakam’s spacious design, the masons’ enhanced skills and Swami’s greater confidence, it has come to be the best crafted. Its red oxide flooring and paneled doors add special charm to Pankaja, one room of which also houses the Navadarshanam Library. Partapji went for a cheap old-fashioned brass water heater whilst at the other two houses solar water heaters were put up.

We have found the stabilized mud-block technology cost effective, using mostly local skills and materials, relatively biodegradable, and requiring less power to build and to live in. It offers an attractive option in suburban locations but it remains out of reach for the villagers.

As for electrical energy, we deliberately opted to stay away from the State power grid because it is highly centralized, wasteful, ecologically destructive and breeds corruption. In stead we went for solar panels and are now working on other options too.

We procured our first set of solar panels through CST, Auroville in 1995. They are capable of producing 1064 watts peak power; on an average, sunny day, in six hours, this would give us about 6 units of electricity, i.e. 2190 units per year. The panels—subsidised by IREDA—are primarily meant to run a highly efficient Grundfos submersible pump capable of delivering 17,600 liters of water per day to a head of 50 meters. Our miserly use of bore-well water meant that the pump was being run for just about 90 minutes per day. The rest of the solar energy available was stored in batteries and used, initially for 12 volt lights, but later on, through an inverter, to run a small pump and a grinding mill as well. In 1997, we had to shift the panels—because of excessive shade under the growing trees—to a higher perch and to build Suryamukhi next to them to house the batteries and other equipment. For the original equipment we paid a subsidized amount of Rs. 70,000.

In 1998, we installed our second solar powered system—a 72-volt DC vertical floating pump driven by energy harvested by an array of 20 Solarex panels—at the open well. The pump has a phenomenal capacity to pump up 66,000 liters of water per day to a head of 12 meters. The pump and panels cost us Rs. 65,000. Later on, we added a battery bank to this set of panels too and this enabled us to pump up water to the dwelling units.

Another interesting development in 1998 was the introduction of the Malik Cooker, a simple, efficient and eco-friendly charcoal fired steam cooker that is easy to use, needs little attention, and makes tasty and health promoting food. A size-8 cooker costs Rs. 650, and uses 25 paise worth of charcoal per person. We make our own charcoal from dry branches of lantana bushes and acacia trees virtually free of cost. A parabolic solar cooker was built and gifted to us by our German friend Helmut in 2001. The use of solar energy was extended to additional streetlights and to the computer as well.

In August 2002, skilled masons from Coimbatore built our first gobar gas plant. It is a 3 cubic meters per day Deenabandhu model unit that requires 65 kgs. of cow dung each day and produces enough gas to cook food for 10 persons. This ended our dependence on LPG, which saved us over Rs. 5,000 per year. As a precious bye-product, we now get some 10 tons of rich manure per year, which is worth well over Rs. 20,000 and which nourishes our highly depleted soil. The plant cost us Rs. 15,000 without a modest subsidy of Rs. 2,300, which has yet to reach us.

It may help understand the link between choice of a technical option and
available resources at a particular point in time if I were to clarify here that:
(i) wood stoves were built when the eco-restoration process yielded enough
deadwood, (ii) increase in dead wood allowed for charcoal
(iii) gobar gas plant became feasible when the land could take on higher
level of grazing - and so we increased the number of cows. The choice of technology employed has had as much to do with ecology as with economy, each time.

In 2003, we built our larger stone-lined open well to put to use for farming some of the water that was now being better harvested on our land by the grass, the tress and the earthen dams. The Solarex solar pumping system, along with the battery cubicle, was shifted to new well and we are now able to pump water right up to the kitchen.

In February this year, we acquired an 8 HP Kirloskar diesel engine coupled to a 7.5 KVA alternator, which we are running on a combination of gobar gas (80%) and hongey oil (20%). For this purpose, we have built a second gobar gas plant and are also taking better care of honge trees that are native to this place and are coming up all over our land. The seed is presently being crushed in Thally but we intend to put up an animal-driven ghani for this purpose. 5 kgs. seed produces 1 kg. of oil. We have bought the seed @ Rs. 7 per kg. And pay Rs. 3 per kg. as crushing charge. This way, the oil costs us Rs. 38 per kg. but we also get 4 kgs. honge cake, which is worth Rs. 16 and is nitrogen rich food for the plants. The net cost of this bio-fuel matches that of diesel; it is also good for the engine and the environment. This technology is well suited for our villages and is being promoted by scientists and engineers from Bangalore and some IISc alumni.

We have also set our sights on harnessing wind energy. With an average wind speed exceeding 5 meters per second, we can run a wind pump for most part of the year. It is likely to cost us Rs. 1,75,000, of which we expect to get Rs. 45,000 as subsidy from MNES. At an average wind speed of 5 meters/ second, it should lift 400 liters per hour (or 9600 liters per day) to a head of 30 meters. Aureka is manufacturing an efficient windpump, and we hope to have one working within this year. It might also be possible for us to install a small wind turbine, which can be cloned to the existing solar system to give us abundant power throughout the year.


Modern science and technology are coming up with the hydrogen cell and other exciting new inventions to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We will have to carefully evaluate them against the twin touchstones of ecology and economy before we dabble in them. The biggest challenge for us is to not become slaves of technology at the cost of inner development.

Posted by ananthu at 12:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack