Lighting up lives: How this IIT Guwahati prof's solar light-powered bags are helping kids in hilly areas study

Charu Monga's Jugnu backpacks help children from hilly and remote regions study and commute in places where there is no electricity. We find out more  
Children with the jugnu backpack | Pic: Charu Monga
Children with the jugnu backpack | Pic: Charu Monga

Imagine a child carrying a school bag. What's the first image that pops into your head? Whatever it is, I bet it is mostly saddening. Now, imagine what it's like for kids who live in remote, hilly areas that are often without electricity. But thanks to an IIT Guwahati professor, this image is about to get a whole lot different. Kids will be carrying school bags that are their guiding light while returning home from school in the evening, while studying at night or even while playing with friends after sunset. 

Prof Charu Monga calls these bags Jugnu (firefly). She has designed over 200 backpacks, each fitted with solar panels connected to a circular LED light, for children in hilly, remote and unelectrified parts of the nation. These bags are made from recycled plastic, they are waterproof and the light integrated into them retains power for several hours. The Jugnu backpack helps children from the Northeast travel along the hilly terrain, walk-on dangerous and high altitude roads while returning home and even study or play after sunset in areas where there is no electricity at all or with infrequent power supply. 

"The idea began in 2014 when I travelled for workshops with students in the village communities in the Northeast to understand their needs and then develop a solution around it. They shared how they have early sunsets and due to the lack of electricity, they often return home in the dark or meet their friends in the evening when there is no light. The idea of these backpacks came up then as it was not possible to get lights set up in every street corner. We made a tiny detachable pocket in the bag, even if kids play and roll around in the ground, jump or run, it won't fall off. We kept in mind to keep the colours bright so that people can identify others at night. Whenever exposed to sunlight, the LED light charges itself and can be used anytime," explains Charu, who is a professor in the Department of Design and Visual Communication. 

The name Jugnu wasn't planned at all, adds Charu. "When I gave the backpack to one of the kids, he said that he looked like a jugnu (Hindi for firefly). That's how we decided on the name," she says. The bag also comes with a tiny lab kit for kids to come up with their own innovations. "I wanted children to experience creativity and innovation early on in life. This way, they can provide solutions to their own communities in the future. Our lab kits consist of DIY material, VR headsets, team building material, educational games and more. We keep evolving the kits but they are mostly related to STEM, design and innovation education," she shares.

Charu conducts workshops in and around Guwahati with children to help them develop an innovative mindset. Charu believes that every child should be given an opportunity to contribute their best to humanity. The IIT-G professor and one of her colleagues have also come up with small innovation hubs in and around Guwahati to enable local youth to have space where they can brainstorm and create new things. "These hubs connect local youth and communities with global experts. We conduct regular sessions and workshops and if anyone has an idea, they can come here and develop it," she adds. Charu hopes to do similar work in Himachal Pradesh in the near future.

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