19/03/2013 12:38 GMT | Updated 19/05/2013 06:12 BST

Can a Rickshaw Save a Tiger?

Solar power could be bringing brighter prospects for the people of the Sundarbans, and for its wildlife, too. Martin Wright reports from West Bengal.

A solar-powered rickshaw might sound like a quirky indulgence. But for the people living on the fringes of the vast Sundarbans Forest in West Bengal, it could just be the symbol of a better way of life. And one which, moreover, helps boost the chances of survival for India's most precious wildlife haven.

The Sundarbans is an area of thickly forested islands on the Bay of Bengal. Spanning the border between India and Bangladesh, it's famous as the last redoubt of the Royal Bengal Tiger. But there's more to it than that. Its richly complex ecosystem is home to a range of threatened species, from deer and birds to fish and flowers, many found nowhere else on the planet. And the thick mangrove belts which cloak the shoreline provide a life-saving defence against tropical storms. Without them, the devastation wreaked by hurricanes such as Aila, which struck in 2009, would be many times worse.

Foraging in the forest risks a fatal encounter with a tiger

The Indian Sundarbans alone are home to over 4 million people, making a living from farming, from gathering honey, nuts and other produce from the forest, and fishing in its rivers. (Although the core of the Sundarbans is a protected reserve, there's a 'buffer zone' which people are allowed to visit for work, but not make a home in.) It's a precarious way of life at the best of times, and it's one under threat. For the locals whose basic living depends on forest products, that threat can be all too immediate, in the form of a close and sometimes fatal encounter with a tiger.

But there are wider, less obvious dangers, which are threatening both the tiger and the islanders. Erosion and siltation are clogging the rivers, leading to growing salinity of the area's soils as the flow of freshwater is reduced - a problem compounded by rising sea levels as the effects of climate change kick in. As the soil gets more salty its productivity falls, forcing people to make greater demands on the forest for a living - and so expose themselves to more tiger attacks. One common recourse is to clear mangroves for ponds, which in turn opens up the surrounding areas to more severe flooding.

Reducing pressure on the forest is an essential first step to conserving the tiger and its habitat, and that means boosting prospects for local people to have a decent living. Now a new conservation NGO, Mlinda, is exploring ways of doing just that. Its focus is sustainable consumption and production, as a means of safeguarding threatened environments, while at the same time improving the quality of life of local people. The two are intricately linked, believes co-founder Liesl Eisenbeiss. "Environmental solutions will only be sustainable if local people have a real stake in them, and can see an improvement in their own livelihoods", she says.

After consulting widely, Mlinda hit on transport as a 'point of entry' to put its principles into practice.

For millions of people on these remote islands, reachable only by small ferries and with no tarmac roads, the only way to get around is on noisy, uncomfortable and highly polluting diesel boats and rickshaws. Unlike the 'autos' found in most Indian cities, these 'vans', as they're confusingly known, offer nothing more than a flatbed consisting of a few planks on which to sit, behind a motorbike engine with rudimentary steering.

So Mlinda started experimenting with an alternative: an electric rickshaw that would be clean, quiet and comfortable - and could be charged by solar power. This would help boost the market for clean rural electrification in an area which is still dependent on diesel and kerosene for basic energy needs.

They chose Brojobalavpur, a typical 'fringe' island close to the forest, as a testing ground, and Mlinda's local team, led by ex-army engineer Vijay Bhaskar and development specialist Sudeshna Mukherjee, set to work. They spent a lot of time with the local rickshaw drivers' association, finding out what would and wouldn't work for them and - crucially - how much they would pay for it. (This was a slow and delicate process: like cabbies everywhere, Brojo's rickshaw drivers are shrewd operators.)

Local people were consulted too, and designs shared and argued over. Given the chance to shape their daily transport, there was no shortage of suggestions: have proper seats - facing each other - and a roof; and a step up to make it easier for the elderly to get aboard. The drivers, for their part - like potential electric car owners the world over - had some 'range anxiety'. If they run out of diesel, they can call a boy to bring some more in a bottle. What happens if the battery suddenly dies on them?

"They asked a lot of very detailed questions: they thought of things that hadn't even occurred to us", admits Bhaskar.

People were asking if they could hire the solar rickshaw for weddings

The next stage was to build a prototype and test it in practice. Mlinda commissioned a concept model, and brought it to the island by boat. "At first it was a bit weird", says Ashish, one of the drivers who tested it out. "But after a while I loved it. It's so easy to handle, and it's quiet and smooth. My arms don't ache at the end of the day." The passengers loved it too: it rapidly became the rickshaw of choice, and people were soon asking if they could hire it out for weddings.

As a next step, Mlinda plans to commission a fleet of 30 'solar rickshaws', to carry out a thorough pilot programme. If all goes well, then they will be in a position to place an order for around 3,000 - and the transport infrastructure of the Sundarbans will be transformed.

Mlinda is clear that, ultimately, this has to be a self-sustaining operation, and is confident it can be so once economies of scale kick in. Islanders are so impressed with the electric vehicles that they're happy to pay around 20% more by way of fares. And with the price of diesel rising inexorably, the drivers can see the appeal of solar as 'fuel'. Now Mlinda is working with car companies and the government to come up with a pricing structure which will be viable for all concerned.

The rickshaws, of course, will need recharging. Which is where Mlinda's wider plans for the Sundarbans come in. Without mains electricity, most people depend on kerosene for lighting; the poorest make do with candles, or spend the evenings in darkness. So Mlinda is helping local schools set up 'Joint Liability Groups', effectively a form of government-recognised micro credit union, which allow them to access a mixture of loans and grants for solar power, via a state rural development bank. Already two schools have come on board, using the energy to light classrooms and boarding hostels, and the aim is for them to double up as rickshaw-recharging stations once the scheme's fully under way.

It's proving popular with pupils, too. One of them, Priti, told me: "It's tiring reading by kerosene; your eyes ache and you get smoke in them. This is much better. Whenever I want to read, I can just turn the light on!" Mlinda hope to expand the scheme to other schools, including the study centres where children come to do homework in the evenings. And they're looking to set up micro credit groups with some of the poorest islanders, so that they too can afford solar.

If all goes well with the rickshaws, the next step will be solar ferries. Meanwhile, the drivers are getting impatient, badgering Mlinda's team as to when they can expect the finished product.

"Is there anything you don't like about it?", I asked them. "Yes", replied Ashish, "sometimes it is too quiet. It needs a louder horn!" - MW