Will mini-micro solar remain a toy for the middle-class and rich in India?

Cheap locally fabricated solar cookers are stolen and seized in rural India, where the long arms of mis-governance reaches out and does anything to see that rural people do not emerge from their centuries old subjugations

 

I am one of the few persons I know who use a solar cooker regularly for cooking rice, lentils, vegetables and some meats. In addition, making marmalade as well as re-heating food in addition to bakery products and egg variations, come naturally. The most natural default usage is thawing frozen foods. We get sun from sunrise till about two-three hours before sunset on our balcony.
 
Within Delhi conditions, I estimate that we are able to use the solar cooker for about 250- 280 days a year. At a very modest estimate of saving Rs15-20 per day in energy costs, the solar cooker that we purchased for a bit below Rs5,000 bought online and delivered at home, has paid for itself in a year. In addition, I have become famous for presenting people with homemade marmalades using orange cuts, orange peel, jaggery, lime, splash of cheap gin and random fruits, including bananas that may be going over-ripe. Sometimes I also add the "heads" of vegetables, which have been cut and would otherwise be thrown away to add "body" to the preserves. My raw material cost per bottle of 500 grams is between Rs12 to Rs15, solar energy free.
 
The solar cooker is also very useful for quick drying wet clothes and sneakers.
 
Locally manufactured micro-mini solar cooker variants cost about Rs2,500 to Rs3,000 all across India now. What we own is a branded option, which can be left out in all weather conditions, and has some good technology used in terms of double glazed glass as well as a better quality rubber for making the vacuum tighter. The solar cooker we use was initially designed for the export market, to work as a portable solar cooker for people in America who wanted something for reheating foods and minor barbeques in public spaces, where open flames and pollution were not permitted. The Indian Armed Forces subsequently picked this up as it could also be used on high altitudes, modified with a back-up electrical connection.
 
A variant of this product is now used by friends in remote parts of India, where a third option is incorporated by fitting a metal stand below the solar cooker - when there is no sun and no electricity, they can heat the base using twigs, wood or coal. When I asked for photographs, they said "no", and that got me thinking, why?
 
The sociological feedback I get from users of a solar cooker presented to a family in what is called "Maoist India", where they have successfully replicated it using local materials salvaged from scrap, is as follows - most rural families do not have the wherewithal to save up for more than a day or two of fresh produce. When they do, a lot of it goes bad, and has to be wasted because nothing can be done with it. The solar cooker permits them to use the skin of fresh produce as well as over-ripe fresh produce with free solar energy to convert food going bad into jams, marmalades, or other preserves which can be used as foods they can carry out into the fields and jungles.
 
In addition, they buy the fresh produce last thing in the evening, when prices are lowest. Then they cut the vegetables, "set" the cooking dish for next morning (cooking medium, masalas, spices, salt at the bottom, then the water and then the chopped vegetables on top), put it inside the cooker "oven" so that the food is ready to start cooking with the first rays of sun. Goes without saying, amount of cooking medium used is also down to 20%-25% of what is used in conventional open flame cooking.
 
This is for the solar cooker at home, where they are worried that it will be stolen, or seized. Why seized, I ask, and they look at me as though I am daft.
 
Cheap locally fabricated solar cookers secured in deep forests help them re-heat or cook food without giving away location as there is no smoke. In addition, certain jungle berries and leaves, which cannot be eaten raw but are extremely nutritious when cooked for 2-3 days along with certain jungle insects and other high-protein easy to cook animal meats, can also be left to slow cook in the solar heaters and recovered later when cooked.
 
Why do they have to hide the solar cookers is the next obvious question? Why would anybody seize their solar cookers, is the question again? This is met with a laugh and an answer that insinuates that I know nothing about rural India, where the long arms of mis-governance will reach out and do anything to see that rural people do not emerge from their centuries old subjugations. Incidentally, the location where these mini-micro locally made solar cookers are used, is less than 24 hours by a combination of foot, cycle, bus and then train to New Delhi.
 
The scrap material they use includes metal sheets from old automobiles, headlamp reflectors for focused heat if beverages have to also be heated, mirrors from all over and a reflective paint that can be applied on almost any surface - the insides of old suitcases lined with tin sheets are a favourite.
 
Mini-micro locally fabricated solar cookers are revolutionising life in the deep jungles of India, to pun on words, and in an ultimate tribute to how consumerism impacts them, are also used to make instant noodles.
 
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    'Hamara Bajaj' making comeback in Scooters!
    As expected, Bajaj Auto is re-entering the scooter segment after five long years. According to reports, the company is making a comeback with its iconic ‘Chetak’ in a new, modern avatar
     
    Bajaj Auto Ltd, the company famous for its 'Priya', 'Chetak' and ‘Super’ brands of scooters until last decade, which in 2009 decided to call it quits for scooters, is now making a comeback in the segment. According to Autocar India, Bajaj is working towards making a reentry into the scooter market with the 'Chetak' brand.
     
    "It’s still early days, and no details are presently available about the upcoming new Chetak, which we guess should be seen by around the Indian Auto Expo 2016. We expect Bajaj will power the new Chetak with a four-stroke, single-cylinder and air-cooled engine, displacing somewhere in the region of 125-150cc. The new Bajaj powerplant can be expected to offer gearless ease, unlike old Chetak scooters," the report says.
     
    This was bound to happen. In 2009, Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of the company, announced the company’s plans to exit the scooter segment by end of the fiscal year to focus exclusively on motorcycles in the two-wheeler category, as part of Bajaj Auto’s goal to become the world's biggest motorcycle maker in the future.
     
     
    His father, Rahul Bajaj, who made the scooters popular with its 'Hamara Bajaj' campaign, was also saddened by his son's decision to exit from this segment. “I feel bad, I feel hurt," Rahul Bajaj had said at that time, but son Rajiv insisted that solutions should be drawn from logic more than emotions. "I care less for a solution from emotions, I believe more in the magic of logic," Rajiv Bajaj had said at that time.
     
    "I can't say harm the company and its shareholders by doing something you should not do. But I am still not convinced. He (Rajiv) has tried to explain it (the move) to me," Rahul Bajaj said in a TV interview at that time.
     
    The company that by and large created the scooter market in the country through its popular 'Hamara Bajaj' campaigns in 1980s and 90s, was selling just one scooter category—the 100-cc gearless ‘Crystal’ when it decided to exit the segment.
     
    Rajiv Bajaj, while launching its 135-cc Pulsar bike in December 2009 had said, "We will exit the scooter market because we don't see much sense in it. If we are to be a motorcycle specialist, we cannot make scooters. Scooters did not sell according to our expectations. We are making hardly 1,000 scooters a month now and mostly for exports. Now our focus is on motorcycles."
     
     
    At that time, I had said that one day the company will make a re-entry into the scooter segment, which was its bread and butter before it launched the Pulsar range of bikes. Near the end December 2009, I wrote, "In effect, the scooter segment of Bajaj seems to have died an unnatural and untimely death mainly due to lack of support from the family. But looking at the company's—especially Mr Rajiv Bajaj's stance in the past—I wonder if it will start making and selling scooters again. After all, not so long ago, Bajaj did an about-turn on its decision to exit from the 100-cc motorcycle segment after failing to catch up with market leader Hero Honda, after the success of Bajaj's higher-end models like the ‘Pulsar’. In July 2009, Bajaj re-entered the 100cc motorcycle segment with a better product in its 'Discover'."
     
    India's market is divided roughly into two categories, urban and rural, depending on the needs and resources of consumers in these areas. For example, pricing and fuel efficiency matters most for rural consumers whereas the urban consumer would prefer more power and style in a motorcycle.
     
    In an effort to capture the younger, tech-savvy urban consumer market, Bajaj ignored the rural market and had not launched any new variant in the 100-cc motorcycle segment since 2007 till its re-entry in July 2009. These 100-cc motorcycles offer a better mileage at a lower cost compared with motorcycles in the above 100-cc categories and are therefore preferred in rural areas. 
     
    Not to forget, after shifting focus to the Pulsar range, and thus ignoring entry-level bikes, Bajaj in January this year, re-launched its new Platina in 100-cc category with better mileage. This time, the company claims that the new Platina ES (electric start) gives a mileage of 96.9km per litre, the world's highest in this category. 
     
    Therefore, it is not surprising that Bajaj wants to re-enter scooter segment. However, by focussing entirely on the motorcycle segment and thus ignoring scooter altogether Bajaj has lost a big opportunity. Remember, during all the slowdown, it is the scooter segment, especially variants from Honda Motorcycle & Scooter India Pvt Ltd (HMSI), the unit of Japanese Honda Motor Co Ltd had kept its volumes soaring. In fact, even today, there is a certain waiting period (varies from location to location and dealer to dealer, but about one month) for Honda Activa, which is now into its third generation mode.
     
    Not only that, scooters made by Hero MotoCorp (erstwhile Hero Honda), TVS Motor Co Ltd, Suzuki Motorcycle India Pvt Ltd, Mahindra Two Wheelers Ltd and Vespa are also selling like hot cakes. In fact, it was the delay in delivery by Honda that seems to have helped others, especially Suzuki, TVS Motors and Mahindra to capture a significant market share. Unfortunately, Bajaj, the once the 'king of scooters', was nowhere in the picture.
     
    So besides dwindling sales, what were the reasons for Bajaj to move away from the scooter segment? According to Veeresh Malik, consulting editor of Moneylife, one of the reasons could be inter-changeable spares between Bajaj scooters and its three-wheelers. Spares for Bajaj scooters were cheaper compared to its three-wheelers, and therefore often used by owners and mechanics. In addition, the spares for scooters, made by other manufacturers, were easily available across the markets thus depriving Bajaj the profit margin.
     
    Nevertheless, much has changed since Bajaj decided to quit the scooter segment. At present, almost all scooters in the market are gearless, unlike the ones sold by Bajaj before its exit. And considering the difference in mechanism of geared and gearless engines, it makes more sense for Bajaj to re-enter the scooter market with a gearless variant. This way, the company can also ensure that scooter spares are unusable for its three-wheelers.
     
    Coming back to number game, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), in February 2015 scooter volumes jumped 18.8% to 3.70 lakh units from 3.12 units, same month last year. At the same time, motorcycle volumes declined 8.22% to 7.77 lakh units.
     
    Even the cumulative figures between April 2014 and February 2015 are in favour of scooters. During the 11 months of FY2015, scooter volumes grew 26.6% to 41.1 lakh units, while motorcycle sales increased marginally 3.2% to 98.84 lakh units, data from SIAM shows.
     
    Another interesting takeout from the SIAM report is that except Bajaj, all other two-wheeler makers are present across categories, be it Honda, Hero MotoCorp, TVS Motors, Suzuki or Mahindra. In short, by balancing their offerings in both scooters and motorcycles, these manufacturers are making sure to survive unexpected setbacks from each category. Since Bajaj exited from scooters, it did not have the same benefit and had to depend solely on motorcycle sales.
     
    Hope the company had learned its lesson and would now make an effort to re-launch its iconic 'Chetak' by incorporating fresh R&D ideas and improved features like autogears, performance and better mileage. Remember, the absence of these factors had forced Bajaj to quit the scooter segment. One of the biggest factors in favour of the company is the Bajaj brand name and its ability to cater to customers across the country with its huge dealer network and service centres. In addition, Bajaj has the capability to surprise competitors with its ‘minimum margin, maximum volume’ strategy. In short, Bajaj needs to re-enter the market with a new ‘Chetak’ that has about 110cc engine, is spacious, gives a mileage of over 60kmpl and prices at around Rs45,000. This recipe can sure give Bajaj a foothold in the scooter market and help it regain market share. 
     
    Will Rajiv Bajaj's 'magic of logic' comeback into its once 'famed' scooter segment make his father Rahul Bajaj smile again?
     
    You may also want to read…
     
     
     
     
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    COMMENTS

    MOHAN

    5 years ago

    Bajaj must come out with scooters with gears. Market is flooded with low mileage gearless scooters. I think a modern scooter with gears can boost up Bajaj sales and it will make Rahul bajaj smile again.

    REPLY

    Ganesh Johnson

    In Reply to MOHAN 5 years ago

    Totally flawed logic, that does not take into account the changed market demographics. Go to any scooter dealer today, and you see 16 and 17 year old boys and girls with stars in their eyes, who have dragged their mom and dad - to buy their FIRST scooter! This scooter has to be 100 (or so) CC, gearless, because thats all that a 16 year old is allowed to drive till he/she turns 18. That is the segment Honda captured perfectly, and Rajiv Bajaj was left watching helplessly. India's demographic is incredibly in favor of these 16 and 17 year olds who are being indulged by their doting parents who plonk 50 Thousand rupees and buy their boys and girls a trendy scooter. These kids won't accept another Bajaj clunker that needs heavy gear shifts. The market is for a smart, trendy, gearless scooter. Mr. Yogesh is perfectly correct about what the new Bajaj product should be!

    Driving Abroad?

    An international driving licence is easy to get but you need much more than that, to drive in foreign countries

     

    An international driving licence is fairly easy to get in India. Carry your valid Indian driving licence to the relevant regional transport office (RTO), have a spare passport-size photograph and your passport with a valid visa at hand with photocopies of everything; waltz your way through the paperwork including a ‘medical’; pay the required fees (and also maybe some facilitation charges); and pick up a document after a reasonable time.
     
    But does that really prepare you for driving in a foreign country? To start with, the Indian international driving licence is not valid in every country. This information is available online. Next comes the issue of left-hand drive, or driving on the right side of the road; this, again, takes some getting used to. This is also not for everybody because our reflexes are tuned to the right-hand style that we have in India. Following street signs and driving directions in a new city, that do not include stopping and asking people, can get fairly dangerous, especially when your body and mind are also fighting jet-lag simultaneously.
     
    And, finally, is the issue, lately, of liability carrying back to your home country, especially if your insurance does not really cover vicarious and other damages, and the fine print on your credit card entitles them to levy charges without referring back to you. That is the really big-ticket issue which people do not know about—until it is too late.
     
    One way out, other than using public transport, or depending on others, is to go online and not just research the subject but also try out the free simulators available online regarding driving in other countries. Read up on local customs as well. For example, did you know that, in many countries, flashing your headlights means that you are asking the other person to proceed?
     

    Preparing Your Car Aircon for Summer

     
    Now that the shorter winter we’ve had this year appears to have totally vanished, it’s time to get that air-conditioner working properly again, and think about cleaning up any fungal or bacterial material that may have parked itself inside. Or, generally, giving it a good once-over.
     
    First, take a physical look at the condenser’s fins; and, if they appear to be more than 25% bent in appearance, you may want to consider having them changed. Otherwise, just get them washed. In addition, a good air-pressure hose-down behind the dashboard will do the rest of the job.
     
    Next, don't fall for the ‘gas change’ racket. My cars, typically, stay with me for 8-12 years and I have never had to get the gas re-charged, also because I’ve been lucky enough not to physically damage the car. There are ways to check the amount of gas in the air-conditioning system which varies from car to car. This information will be available in the owner’s manual; so, please do check it. Finally, do not fall for the ‘air-conditioner disinfectant’ scam; this is another small job you can do yourself.
    1. Open out the windows, turn the air-conditioner on full heat with the fresh air vent OPEN, and run it like that for four-five minutes. That should kill pretty much everything that can be killed in the ducting and air-conditioner system.
    2. Buy the air-conditioner cleaner foam which you can then pump into the air-conditioner vents yourself. These are available online, cost a few hundred rupees and can be used dozens of times.
    3. Get into the habit of switching the air-conditioner off about two-three minutes before shutting down the engine and then leave the air vents OPEN when parking the car. This is the most important part.
    All the best! Breathe clean air in your air-conditioned car this summer!
     
    (Veeresh Malik started and sold a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing. He is also involved in helping small and midsize family-run businesses re-invent themselves.)
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    COMMENTS

    Mr Jitendra

    5 years ago

    IDP issued in India is a 'translation' of the Indian driving license with passport number and vehicle category.

    IDP was once quite easy to obtain which became as difficult as it could after 2004 and 2007. It is no longer that easy.

    One critical requirement at the RTO is that the address of the applicant on his passport should match with the address of his driving license.
    Why is this critical requirement to be met is still not clear.

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