[ Lijo Chacko, COO of the Head Held High Foundation and one of our own, in association with the Chirag Project helped organise light up the village of Kanol, a study in isolation, in the wake of the Uttarakhand disaster that ravaged the little village amongst a score of others. On his own volition, armed with a phone and sheer will, he helped organise humanitarian relief and practical solutions to its immediate problems for the long-term, banking on goodwill and friendship. This is his story. ]

June 2013 is not going to have much recall value in a normal Indian’s handbook, looking back from December 2014. It shouldn’t be, if you really knew how “a multi-day cloudburst centered on the North Indian state of Uttarakhand caused devastating floods and landslides becoming the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami.” By the time Nature finished with her shake-down, Uttarakhand was wreckage in its truest sense. And to compound matters, the extremity of the terrain made it equally difficult for relief and succor to those affected.

The popular media chose to focus on the “accessible” geographies and fawned over every minute of the rescue operations as it beamed relentlessly into our drawing rooms without a break. Inaccessible villages were simply “forgotten” in the whole media plan, with the affected villages condemned to fend and heal themselves. One of them was Kanol.

Reaching Kanol in Uttarakhand

To reach Kanol you have to travel first by a jeep for about 9 hours from Dehradun, then trek 3 hrs. Luggage is carried by horses and mules.

Lijo recalls, “Sudipto told me that there were neither funds, nor plans to help Kanol in C-PACT’s scheme of things now and asked whether I could try to help. A local NGO called Sanjivani Sanskritik Sanstha was ready to help too – contact man was a HS Rawat. I tried to get help from the NGO or foundation contacts that I had, but to no avail, because all of them had their own plans and agendas to focus on.

Then I started calling up random people till one day when I realised that one of the guys whom I was working in GAP had worked in the field of solar lanterns. And it’s not that I didn’t know it, I had just forgotten it completely. Sajju Jain, promised to use his network to get someone to give the lanterns at a discounted rate. That’s when hope flickered ( no pun intended ). He lead me to a social organisation run by youngsters called Chirag who agreed to subsidise the lights – all the way from Rs 2100 to Rs 500 per light !”


C-PACT, on whose behalf the effort had been initiated in the first place, gave their tacit blessings for Lijo as Sudipto Sengupta, Lijo’s contact at C-PACT had moved on to run a start-up venture in Kolkata. But his successor gave all the moral support that ‘Operation Kanol’ needed. The Naval network, the comfort zone of any sea-farer didn’t disappoint as he reached to his old acquaintances & colleagues, with a Senior Officer with whom Lijo had served in the IN volunteered to cover the cost of the lights.

The initiative to “gift power” in the hands of the villagers had to be paisa vasool in all respects, and was also crucial to the success of the project on ground. A long-term solution that packed ingenuity and affordability had to be the best solution. Lijo continues, “I asked the Chirag Project for 2 lights (in one set), else the children would have had to go into the kitchen to study as light would have been placed there to help the mother to cook. Most importantly, the idea was to move the kerosene lamps out of their houses, and their lives, to reduce the incidence of kerosene fumes’ related health issues. The price went up a little bit – from Rs 500 to Rs 650 per set. As I had already set a budget of 1 Lakh and had an in principle agreement with the prospective donor – Cdr Ranjan Bhattacharya – the cost still came within that.”

The old adage of the universe conspiring to make good things happen proved right here too. Soon, there were students from 2 colleges in Dehradun who volunteered to be trained on these lights and also go to Kanol once in a few months to check on the lights as well as carry out maintenance if required. Several emails, telephone calls, conference calls, Whatsapp group messages helped in communication and bringing together people as a team. This went on for a few months.

Focus & Perseverance pays in the end. Always.

It was also during this time that a new idea burst forth with jingling chimes and colored lights ! How about a mobile phone charging facility too in the electric lantern, as this would also ensure the village network and its communication to the outside world remains reasonably strong at all times ? Why not ? That also happened ! “It was amazing,” Lijo recalls, “the things you can get your hands around, when you ask really really hard.”


There were a lot of logistics issues which came up because of various reasons, more specific to this being India but the team plodded on. It was frustrating, nevertheless. The focus was clear, that the village of 150 families had to get their homes lit. And they had to be leading healthier, children should be able to study a little better than how they had so far been studying.

Finally, by the end of October 2014, the electronic lanterns were transported from Lucknow by the manufacturer, Chirag team went from Mumbai, Bhattacharya went from Delhi to Dehradun. Rawat & Sandhya who represented Sanjivani Sankrithik Sanstha received the lights and helped in transportation to Wan (the point till where you can go in a jeep) and from there by mules. Three college students also went up all the way to Kanol. The lights were installed in 2 days and they all came back.


“The best part is that I have not met any of the people who worked in this project even as on date (except my colleague from the Navy) and not a single document has been made or signed, no receipt, nothing. Money changed hands, things moved, people went, job got done. The paper work being done right now, is only to record it for posterity. I shall go probably in April 2015, to do an audit. And after another 6 months, Chirag will do an audit in the village. I even shouted at people over phone for not doing their work. And mind you they all still stayed with me! One has to be really lucky to get a good set of people and organisations to come together even though they knew that it was being done in a personal capacity and that there was no institutional backing for me,” says Lijo about how sheer willpower can light up villages.

So you see, it is not difficult. All you go to do is focus, and persevere. The Conspiracy of Goodness will follow.

All Images Rights & Credits : Project Chirag.

9 Responses

  1. Lijo’s story of connecting the dots and making something extraordinary happen does not end here. He is also the Program Director of GAP – Global Action on Poverty, where he has put together 3 set of people together – 10 Experts / Mentors, 100 Changemakers, 100 Catalysts – to enable first time Changemakers to connect the dots, be inspired, be mentored by the world’s best – and come up with 100 brilliant projects to alleviate poverty.

    And this is at the Sabarmati Ashram on 12th and 13 March 2015. People like Prof Mohd Yunus, Bunker Roy, Jean Dreze, Ela Bhatt and organisations like TISS, IRMA, Ashoka, Dalberg are partners to this simply marvelous event, where Lijo has decided to make permanent a structure in GAP – his harnessing multiple people, connecting the dots, and making something happen for those in distress.

    Great work, Lijo… my salute to you !

    Sunil Savara

  2. This is an inspiring story, Lijo and the rest of the project Kanol team. what impressed me was the focus on the purpose and execution without any attempt on behalf of anyone to claim the honours. That is what support and help is all about!

    Lijo, with your efforts now directed to Head-Held-High, I am sure we will see tremendous progress on the effort to alleviate rural poverty.

    Congratulations and all the best for your initiatives

  3. Chirag is an example of what Lijo can accomplish seemingly effortlessly. As the COO of Head Held High Foundation (HHHF) he is attempting another miracle.

    The Foundation trains illiterate and semi-literate rural youth to become job ready. After six months of intensive training boys and girls who can’t read English, sometimes no language at all, cannot do simple addition and subtraction change miraculously. They can not only read and write English, they can speak to large audiences in English, can do simple arithmetic and calculations, and work on a computer. The programme transforms their lives and that of their families.

    In the last eighteen months Lijo has been moving heaven and earth to raise scholarships for these deprived youngsters. Ask him and he will tell you more.

    May your tribe flourish, Lijo.

  4. Being from IT I always heard/talk about team work and processes, this too while sitting on well cushioned chair and in a AC room. All the facilities at my disposal and which are not the neccessity.

    You showed as all that, its the intent which matters, everything else is good in text books.

    Kudos to you and your team, feel proud to be your friend. You can always brig smile to your face but to others, you need honest efforts.

    You inspired all of us.

  5. Very inspiring.Shows each one of us can light a candle to make the world shine brighter .
    Congratulations friend for making the children of the village believe in people . Because no matter what there are always some people who are good at heart and willing to help without the glare of publicity.

  6. An inspiring real life account of the desire to effect change.

    Lijo’s perseverance and a grassroots level (read away from media glare) view of who really needed assistance from the Head Held High foundation are the reason “Hamara Bharat” has endured as a land of accomplished souls through the centuries.

    If one person per community could take on the baton of wanting to make a difference, we would add up to a significant impact in total. It is my hope that everyone reading this account will feel similarly motivated.

  7. Dear Lee,

    At times when I tend to wonder as to what have I really done to make this world a better place to all and more so have I done my best?

    People like you drive me to deliver what in any case is the purpose of life and remind us that it’s still not too late.

    Way to go buddy and come 2015 we will do something together with loads of fun and passion to touch people’s lives positively!

    Warm regards,

    Rajesh M Unni
    2002 / 1990 batch

  8. Dear Lijo, Alumnus like you make me proud to be called as an Old Boy of SSKZM. Keep up the good work. All the best. Louis George 642 / 1972

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