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Living in darkness

The programme for solar electrification of villages is stagnating because of official apathy. In the process, the sufferers are the rural poor, writes BUNKER ROY.

Solar panels...When will the solar electrification of villages take off?

TWO very critical articles (in April and September 2001) were written on the casual, vision-less and irresponsible way the Government was implementing the solar electrification programme. I had blamed the officials in the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES) for the sorry state of affairs but it is obvious that the political and bureaucratic sickness is much deeper than that. If the challenge is far bigger than what the technocrats in the MNES can possibly handle one expects hard, sensible decisions to be taken at a higher level where one presumes there is some interest to see the rural poor benefit and that public money is not wasted. But it seems to be too much to expect.

After the article in September 2001, I was summoned by the Minister looking after MNES to explain how best to revitalise the solar section from within if the whole idea was to think big on a large scale. The technocrats in the MNES were absolving themselves on paper of any charges of possible corruption and incompetence. They refused to accept any responsibility for the total lack of transparency and public accountability especially while working with panchayats. The MNES is actually mocking the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution by avoiding the panchayats in the decision making process.

I told the minister that the real problem was that the thinking in the Solar Section was totally fossilised. The ability of the technocrats to understand and accept the critical role of the community and the actual beneficiaries in the demystification of solar technology was next to zero. New faces, new thinking, new ways of working, new partners and new ideas were required urgently. He said he would act on the suggestions. He sounded sincere then.

But there has not been a word from him for the last eight months. Subsidies are still being dished out to State Governments without any change in policy. There is no list of where the fixed solar units/solar lanterns have been installed in any State. So, no verification is possible. There is nothing so dangerous as collusion between the politician and the technocrat when it comes to concealing corrupt unethical practices where public money is involved. The Minister, by choosing to do nothing and remaining silent, is equally to blame.

After the Minister, I also spoke to the Member Planning Commission dealing with MNES — N.K. Singh. I told him what I had told the Minister and also gave him a copy of the article, which he had not read. He heard me briefly and bundled me out of his room as if it was all too trivial for him to give it time and attention. Again, I drew a blank.

They say the more things change, the more they remain the same. What a shame that people like the present Minister and the present Member, Planning Commission have been given the responsibility to decide the fate of such an important Ministry. If they have neither the courage nor the vision to take hard decisions based on physical evidence they cannot refute, then there is little hope for the solar electrification programme ever taking off.

Solar powered lantem...When will the solar electrification of villages take off?

Every member of the Parliamentary Committee overseeing the functioning of the MNES was sent a copy of the article to inform them of the critical questions that need to be asked. No one acknowledged it. They could not care less if the MNES is trashing the 73rd Amendment empowering the village panchayats to take decisions and responsibility on solar electrification of villages.

Over 300 crores every year is being handed over to 29 State Governments for solar electrification. Decisions are being taken at State capitals on behalf of the village panchayats without consulting them — in fact concealing information from them. Every year these State Governments on a rotation basis receive prizes, certificates and medals from the Minister for the work they have done on solar electrification — work that cannot be verified because it simply does not exist. Today no State Government can produce a genuine list. The MNES claims the list is ready with the State Governments and they can produce it when requested. This is a total fabrication. A massive fraud is being perpetuated every year in the name of solar electrification and no one cares.

From the top to the bottom — politician, technocrat, planner, manufacturer, state rural energy agencies and private contractors — all are guilty of suppressing information, making exaggerated claims and hiding the truth. The cover up is colossal.

The ones who suffer the most are the rural poor whose names are being misused because they are supposed to have received the non-existent fixed solar units or solar lanterns. The official list of the remaining non-electrified villages is a joke. Even if the elected representative (sarpanch) in a panchayat certifies that they have not received any electricity, their appeal will fall on deaf ears if the village name is on the official list of "electrified" produced by the States.

So much for the worth of the 73rd Amendment. So much for the numerous Parliamentary Committees being made fools of and led by their nose to sign on the dotted line without reading what they are endorsing. Do these elected politicians know that, under the prevailing scheme, no money can be sanctioned to install solar electricity in a village if its name is already on the official list? Which means the supposedly electrified village must use kerosene for the rest of their lives.

Why? Because, according to the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Power, it will be politically embarrassing to confess the figures and statistics are totally false. So the villages must continue to suffer. In actual fact more than 100,000 so-called electrified villages are living in darkness.

The report of a working group set up by the Planning Commission on options for rural electrification in remote and difficult areas (April 2002) is to be made public. The recommendations are far-reaching. Among the many that need to be highlighted are: a survey certified by the sarpanch needs to be carried out by the village panchayats of the status of electrification in the 600,000 villages. The responsibility of the choice of technology (wind, grid, solar, biogas) and source of energy must rest with the panchayat. The "barefoot approach" to training poor unemployed rural men and women to fabricate, install, repair and maintain solar units could provide 50,000 jobs in the rural areas as well as make non-electrified village-self-sufficient in management and maintenance needs. No new institution will be set up but an independent cell within IREDA would be established with the sole purpose of identifying organisations with the capacity and competence to identify the non-conventional energy option to reach power to the village. This requires a political decision and pressure from the panchayat to make sure the REC and State Electricity Boards are prevented from "electrifying" more villages and leaving more villages in absolute darkness.

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