Somehow “electricity for all” still seems a distant dream.

They saw electric light for the first time since India became a free country. A curious news-item reported that Mohanlalganj, a village just 20 km away from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, was connected to the electricity grid for the first time in March this year. Why should we be surprised? After all, an estimated 400 million people in this country that boasts of generating electricity through nuclear power are not connected to the electricity grid. All they hold on to is the promise of light but the tunnel has remained dark and they certainly have seen no light at the end of it.

The lack of electricity apart, there is a tragic twist to the Mohanlalganj tale that speaks of callousness compounding indifference. When people in the village realised that they had finally got electricity, scores of them rushed to the electricity pole that was the source of the “current”. And in their excitement, they touched the electric pole that had finally made them an electrified village. In so doing, they did not expect to be shocked. But that is precisely what happened. The electric supply authority forgot to install insulators. As a result, anyone who touched the pole received an electric shock and many were injured. How can anyone overlook installing insulators? In this instance they did. And needless to say, no one has been hauled up or held accountable, nor have the injured been compensated.

Electric power is a basic component of development. No one will argue that without electricity, the backwardness we see in our villages will continue. Children suffer because they cannot study after dark. Everyone suffers because there is no electricity to pump up water, thereby forcing people, especially women, to walk miles searching for shallow sources of water. Yet even as all this is well known, somehow “electricity for all” still seems a distant dream.

Furthermore, even if on paper, villages are connected to the electricity grid, the reality is often somewhat different. At times, the electricity is only used for agricultural pumps and does not reach homes. At other times it reaches some homes, but each village has its area of darkness, consisting of the poorest who are also often Dalits. Scattered tribal hamlets will not see electricity for a long time. General statistics about the reach of electric power do not reveal these areas of exclusion.

There is another side to this story of electricity, or rather energy that has a specific women’s angle. The most crucial form of energy for rural India remains cooking energy. Yet, the reality in an India that is forging ahead on so many other fronts is that 83 per cent of rural households still continue to depend on firewood, wood chips and cow dung for cooking energy. The task of gathering the firewood and the cow dung falls principally on women. Even today, if you go to any village, you will see women bent double carrying head-loads of firewood.

The story does not end there. While the daily search for cooking fuel increases the amount of work women have to do every day, they come home and literally line their lungs with poison when they light their stoves. Women, children and the elderly sit in poorly ventilated rooms as traditional chulhas using firewood and cow dung belch out poisonous fumes. The chulhas are not just inefficient, in that they use more fuel to generate less energy, but are also dangerous because of the smoke they emit.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, there were many different efforts made to introduce smokeless chulhas into village homes. This effort was the result of growing awareness of the health impact of indoor pollution on women. But these campaigns slipped on to backburner. Surveys suggested that the smokeless chulhas were not being accepted. Instead of investigating why this was so, the efforts slowed down.

Of late, there has been a renewed push for smokeless chulhas. But this is being fuelled by the realisation that soot from millions of wood fires is contributing to global warming. So there are funds available now for introducing more efficient chulhas that can work on cleaner fuels.

I believe that the campaign for smokeless chulhas never found enough takers among policy makers because the issue concerned women. It is women who cook. It is women who collect fuel. Mostly they do it silently, without complaining, because they have been socialised to accept that this is their work. The men, for whom they do this day and night, also do not question because they too believe that this is “women’s work”.

As a result, the urgency of dealing with something so basic as cooking energy and clean fuel does not make its way into the air-conditioned rooms where energy policy is made. Even if it finds a voice, it is not put on the front burner, or backed by the funds and political will that could make a difference.

Mohanlalganj has got electricity, even if it is of the “shocking” variety. But no one has asked what is the source of energy that lights up the stoves in that village. The chances are that even today the women are out looking for fuel, while the men sit back and enjoy the “current”.

E-mail: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com