Concerned about the rapidly vanishing green cover of his state Bihar, a Christian priest has decided to fight the good fight with solar power. Trees disappear in India for many reasons, but one of the most prominent, and most overlooked, is the fact that poor people need wood for fuel. The 52 year old Father Mathew of St Mary’s Church, Phulwarisharif, Patna, is seeking to plug at least this reason for continuing to chop down trees with his solar initiative. His workshop assembles an eclectic range of solar powered appliances; his inspiration is the man regarded as the father of solar energy concentrate community cookers, the German scientist Wolfgang Scheffler.

The Solar Alternatives and Associated Programmes or SAAP was set up in 1996 on extremely modest scale. They had just one welder! The church provided much needed seed money as well as a plot to begin this initiative. Today SAAP turns out solar steam turbines, solar cookers, water heaters and sterilization units for hospitals – which are basically furnaces to dispose of dangerous hospital waste. He is even planning a solar crematorium, something that will be most welcome as both wood pyres and the electric ones are hugely wasteful of fuel. Plus the average cost of a wood pyre is 5000 rupees which is extremely expensive in the context of the place. Fortunately for Father Mathew interest in his initiatives is building rapidly. Institutions all over the country are seeking to reduce costs while going green. This is most true of hostels, hospitals and hotels. The orders are on an upward march. A small, but welcome, spin off to the initiative of SAAP is that it provides a few local jobs too.

It is not often that religious figures seek such practical solutions to major social problems; they are usually content to exert their considerable moral authority to exhort change. In this case, since the behavior that was sought to be changed was directly connected to survival, people need to cook after all, ‘sacrifice’ was not really a feasible option. In giving the most vulnerable users of firewood a reasonably cheap option, Father Mathew is performing yeoman service.

Note: This article was written in 2011.