How a slum region in Islamabad G-8/4 area went solar

The people of Miskeen and Musharraf colonies in Islamabad’s G-8/4 area waste nothing. Not even a charpoy frame.

“I must show it to you, we have a solar panel installed on the roof,” says young Abdul Basit.

True to his promise, there is an old worn out charpoy on one of the rooftops in Basit’s house. There are panels fitted into its structure where the woven netting should have been. This solar panel is able to power around seven bulbs and three fans in Basit’s house.

While the middle class is yet to cosy up to the idea of solar power, what happened in these informal settlements that caused them to adopt a green source of energy?

Why the need to generate electricity?

Nestled between several different government apartments, this area is largely inhabited by Pakhtun and Punjabi families. Residents of the area have had their fair share of ups and downs, and yet, those who live here feel that the prominently Christian area has given them all that they need in life.

Till recently, Basit’s area had electricity, water and gas connections, some legal and others illegal. But they lost all basic utilities soon after government transition.

What happens when you lose basic utilities? In the case of the katchi abadis in the capital, people take matters into their own hands.

“Over a year ago, when the power was first cut by the government, a man introduced the idea to others there,” says Abdul Basit, a young man from the area. Slowly but surely, the Miskeen and Musharraf colonies began being lit by solar panels, each house boasting their own setup.

But who gave them the panels?

“No one gave them to us. They are not funded by any person or NGO. People in the area had to find them and assemble them on their own. We get them at the wholesale market,” he says.

We proceed to another room in the house. “This is a solar charge controller,” says Basit while pointing at a black box hanging on the wall. “The controller is connected to batteries that power everything in the house. And this is how I charge my phone with it!”

What happens when these systems break down? “We figure things out ourselves. We didn’t know what we were doing when we first got them and lost money trying to repair our systems. Our panels were even stolen once … toying with them has taught us what we need to know to fix them,” says Basit.

Basit’s father says, “These solar panels are better than the city’s electric supply.”

And he isn’t wrong. With the solar panels the people of the area never have to worry about the lights going out. They don’t have to pay heed to any power loadshedding schedules and, ironically, enjoy uninterrupted power at all times.

Earlier this month, the CDA introduced its plans to demolish more than 40 slums areas from Islamabad, with an Islamabad High Court (IHC) bench directing the Authority to start the razing process from Sector I-11, an area which is almost entirely made of mud and bricks. This area is built better than most other katchi abadis, with its concrete constructions a sharp contrast to the ones in I/11 settlements.

Take Riaz’s house, for example. Riaz is the son of Sardaro Bibi, an elder of the area, and works in masonry — something that is obvious in the way his house is structured. Of the many homes in the area, his is perhaps the only one that has a stone pathway and strong walls. His work fetches him a good amount of money and he is able to provide for his wife and two sons many things that most in the area cannot afford.

“Solar power is good for us. I spent Rs70,000 after saving money for a long while and now it supports our TV, fans, lights, everything — the only thing it can’t do is run the washing machine, and for that, I have bought a generator,” he explains.

A solar panel on the roof of a house
A solar panel on the roof of a house

Riaz’s setup is the most expensive in the area. The solar panels fitted on his roof are larger than anything else I’ve seen in the area. Downstairs, he shows us his TV and music system while his two young sons follow. His eight-year-old turns on the TV and says, “This is Charlie.” As an afterthought, the boy clarifies which Charlie: “Chaplin.”

While the elder son has long since quit education and has started helping his father with masonry work, Riaz is bent on ensuring his younger son stays in school. “They refuse to admit my elder son because of his age, I wanted him to study and get educated. But I do want to ensure that the younger one stays in, no matter what,” he says.

The solar panels are only part of the story, people of these informal settlements were also able to resolve their own water issues without anyone’s help.

“We have a lot of water pumps here and they are shared between families. Nine or 10 families will share one. There are more than 500 homes here so we can’t have separate pumps for everyone,” explains Sardaro Bibi.

The area has such religious and ethnic diversity that I was forced to wonder, are there any altercations? Sardaro Bibi shakes her head, “Why would we fight? We don’t have much else except each other. What is the point in fighting over water or anything else?” she asks.

It is that sense of community that helps the people there more than anything else.

Then there are shared worries: a common allegation levelled at slum dwellers is that all manners of thievery, terrorism and evil manifest from the slum areas alone. In reality, most women work as maids while the men take up different jobs. Some are labourers, others are fruit sellers, guards, drivers, masons, janitors, etc. Many work in nearby government apartments and offices.

“Two of my sons work at newspapers, they’re trained in printing work. They are also journalists,” boasts Basit’s father. There is an attempt to distance their community from crime, since they are the first victims of crime in the area.

“Some time ago, three solar panels were stolen from the colony in one night,” recalls Basit. “We had to scrimp and save before we could buy this again. It can cost a minimum of Rs25,000, which is a large amount.”

No worries about load-shedding
No worries about load-shedding

The writer tweets @luavut

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 2nd, 2015

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