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The race to light up the last village

The arrival of electricity in areas that were off the grid has fuelled new life choices, even when power is erratic, find Samarth Bansal and Anuradha Raman

August 27, 2016 01:44 am | Updated February 27, 2017 05:34 pm IST

An LED bulb, a switchboard and an electricity meter, all part of the kit installed under the rural electrification project, in Anandpur, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

An LED bulb, a switchboard and an electricity meter, all part of the kit installed under the rural electrification project, in Anandpur, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Jalan Singh, 30, has not removed the cardboard carton that protects the sides of his new Godrej refrigerator. You cannot miss the striking red cooling machine in the room. Having spent Rs.12,000 on it, Singh is proud of his acquisition. Sixty-nine years is a short time in an independent country’s life but it has been a long time for power to reach Singh’s village, Tanwarpura, an hour’s drive from Barmer city in Rajasthan. Power that arrived in the village two months ago, although erratic, nudged Singh to buy a refrigerator. He opens it to show it to us, but it’s empty. “The rains may have tripped some lines,” a government official offers an explanation. Rains did lash the village a few days ago. Having been consistent this year, they promise good harvest and some extra income. Singh’s spirits are not dampened by the temporary absence of electricity; he reels off his wish list: a fan, a cooler, and an atta chakki (flour mill).

Rukh Singh, his neighbour, has beaten him to procuring an atta chakki . The flour mill means two extra hours of sleep for his wife. In the early hours before dawn, Tanwarpura wakes up to the sounds of the chakki as women work it to pound flour. “With the manual mill, it took my wife four hours to prepare the flour for our daily meals. The electric one takes an hour,” Rukh Singh says. His wife smiles behind her veil, allowing Rukh Singh to speak on her behalf.

The Singhs got an electricity connection under the Modi government’s flagship scheme of rural electrification launched in July 2015, the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY). The government’s goal is 100 per cent electrification by 2019. Official estimates peg the number of un-electrified villages in India at 18,452. Of this, the government claims to have electrified 10,097 villages till date, a figure that doesn’t go uncontested.

The lifelines of a village “At least there is light,” says 34-year-old Chagan Kanwar, a mother of two. Two weeks ago, for the first time, solar energy lit up houses in Salam Singh Ki Basti in Barmer district where she lives. Designated as a ‘Desert National Park’ area and situated almost at the farthest edge of the State, a few kilometres before the border with Pakistan, the village has around a hundred households. Power for Kanwar means less pollution. “The kerosene lamp affected my children’s health as they studied under its light. Now I don’t have to worry as the lights don’t go off when it is windy or when it’s raining,” she says. The inhabitants of this basti were accustomed to travelling 25 km to Gadra village to charge their mobile phones. A shopkeeper there would ask for Rs.10 to charge each phone. “We used to take 10 phones once a week to get them charged,” says Pan Singh. Mobile phones, lifelines for the villagers and the only connection to the outside world, when powered ran for a week.

Their main lifeline, however, is the sun. Under the off-grid scheme of DDUGJY, houses in Salam Singh Ki Basti have been provided with a 100W solar panel which can light five LED bulbs, one standing 12W fan, and a socket to charge a mobile phone. These three utilities come as part of the solar kit, a one-time investment of Rs.1,029 which works out to 5 per cent of the total cost incurred to install the kit in every home. There is no burden of electricity bills.

The villagers have become so accustomed to the absence of power that even its presence does not prompt them to switch on the fan. The two villages, Tanwarpura and Salam Singh Ki Basti, are examples of the grid and off-grid programmes of the Centre, which are committed to providing electricity in every village. Explaining the decision for this, the Executive Director of Rural Electrification Corporation, Dinesh Arora, says: “States have generally preferred and adopted grid connectivity for most of the villages except in areas where connectivity is either not feasible or cost-effective.”

In Rajasthan, as at the Centre, a Bharatiya Janata Party government is at the helm. Both Central and State officials are racing to power villages, but they are also wary as the media has turned its gaze to the claims made by the government in rural electrification. Officials everywhere are now tutoring villagers on the art of communicating with the media. With a spate of critical reports on the app-based claims of electrification on GARV making the government more watchful, even the hint of a journalist in the remotest of villages sends officials into a tizzy.

Promise of power Meanwhile, in distant Uttar Pradesh, power is a touchy issue, especially as elections are set to take place next year. When the Centre claims credit for any development, the State is quick to point out loopholes.

In Anandpur, a village at the edge of Hathras district which is famed for asafoetida, a dried latex that is indispensable to curries and dals (lentil), power comes and goes. A gift from Delhi, an LED bulb, has brought light into the lives of 70-year-old Ram Prasad and 17-year-old Rahul. The electricity meter, wrapped in plastic, is a prized possession and is precariously mounted on the mud wall of the house that has a small porch, a room, and a tube well in the courtyard. There is a toilet too, Prasad points out, seemingly well-versed in the drill of showing to outsiders the trappings of modernity that have crept into the village. The toilet is pitch dark; light hasn’t travelled there yet.

For rural India, the DDUGJY brings not only the promise of power to every village, but its attendant trappings too. “Our ancestors will be happy. They never saw light,” says Savitri, a resident, as she begins cooking potatoes and chapattis under the light of a solitary bulb. The bulb has freed her from having to swat insects that she would have otherwise battled with under the light of a kerosene lamp or candle.

Glimpses of a fractious relationship Anandpur is an odd mix of upper castes (mostly Thakurs) and backward castes. Adversity and deprivation is the glue that holds these communities together. Most of the villagers wear a bemused look as officials from the electricity department come inquiring about the availability of power here. Mukesh Kumar from the State Electricity Board examines 18 meters installed in Anandpur and requests people to show their papers. He looks agitated. “We were not informed about the installation. What if the villagers refuse to pay for the power or their homes collapse in the rains?” he asks. The question hangs in the air, offering a glimpse of the fractious relationship between the Centre and State.

The Prime Minister claimed in his Independence Day address that Nagla Fatela, a village in Hathras, was electrified but the media found surprised villagers and a dark village when it reached there. The embarrassment caused by this episode has left everyone on edge here and the U.P. government is determined to keep a check on every connection by sending its officers to the field. Kumar is one of them. Other senior officials have been dispatched from Lucknow. Says Rakesh Verma wryly: “Ideally, the village should be getting 14 hours of power but that seldom happens. Let’s see what happens after the elections.” The officials wait patiently for Anandpur’s residents to show their cards. Others who also wait are the men who installed the meters, the Centre’s officials.

The scheme is premised on the Centre and the State working in tandem. The Centre provides the infrastructure; the State provides the power after working out its availability — 12-14 hours a day is what has been calculated. The reality plays out differently as power keeps tripping. Young Anshu whispers that she saw a snake first when the light came on some time at night in her thatched hut just two days ago. Snakes are common in the tiny village of Anandpur, which is ringed by paddy fields. The villagers could not steal power like other villages nearby — katiya , or the illegal tapping of power, is rampant there — as high tension wires made that impossible.

The power is erratic and the wait long and uncertain. We wait and watch; so do Savitri and Rahul. Everyone looks at the cooler fan installed upside down, a common jugaad in these parts, which works when the electricity comes. This is a welcome addition to their huts as it helps make the nights less muggy.

In Anandpur, the monthly income of a family of five rarely exceeds Rs.2,000. Electricity is a luxury. Agricultural holdings are small, and income is supplemented by selling milk. The villagers are worried; they ask as they wait for the power to come, “Do we have to pay the bill?” As per the plan, the village will get power from 12 p.m. to 6 a.m. Pointing out the absurdity of the schedule, an official on a visit to the village says, “We don’t draw the plan. We follow instructions from Delhi.” Contesting this, Mr. Arora says, “The responsibility of releasing electricity connections to individual households lies with the discoms chosen by the State.”

These villagers are the Antyodaya card holders. In other words, they are the poorest of the poor whose entitlements are a few kilograms of rice and two litres of kerosene a month. The supplies get exhausted quickly and they are forced to purchase these goods from the open market. The nearest school is 2 km away and the villagers are wary of sending their girls to school. Rahul is studying for an examination and he finds the light a godsend. “I can study now when the light comes; I don’t have to study under the lamp,” he says, wistful though for a regular supply.

The State government is working out a way to regulate the tariff so that people pay for the power they consume. From the headquarters in Lucknow, the chairperson of the State Electricity Regulatory Commission, Desh Deepak Verma, has been keeping a watch ever since false claims were made about electrification, by dispatching officials to the ground. He says the problem is with the definition of an electrified village. “One in 10 homes is all that a series of schemes have focussed on. What about the 9 others? And within the 10 per cent, only poles have reached some villages; last mile connectivity is still distant.”

It’s 6.30 p.m. when dusk falls to herald the night. Thirty hours have passed, but Tanwarpura has no power. Is it because of the rains? “Electricity is transformative, but only when it is available,” Rukh Singh says. “We get it for about two hours a day.” A tiny bulb dispels darkness in Jethmal Singh’s house. “I got my connection under the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government’s Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) before it was re-christened by the BJP government as DDUGJY. Only five connections have come in the last six months under the DDUGJY,” he says. Thirty of the 35 households which have electricity in this village were electrified under the RGGVY. A Tata Sky dish hangs at the back of Jethmal’s house. The TV, however, is missing.

“On August 12, the government’s field engineer encouraged us to purchase a television so that we could tune in to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address. We bought the set on the 13th,” he says. People gathered in Jethmal Singh’s house on August 15. But the TV conked off after the Prime Minister’s speech and has been sent for repair.

Bhiram, who lives ten minutes away from Jethmal’s house in the nearby village of Tirsingra, also listened to the Prime Minister speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort. “The field engineer told me that light would reach my village too,” he says. But there was a problem. In April 2015, the government identified 34 un-electrified villages in Barmer. Tirsingra was not one of them.

Un-electrified and not on the list A hundred kilometres away from Tirsingra, Mahadev Nagar has a similar story. There is no power in the village and it is not on the government’s radar. Surta Ram, 40, calls fellow villagers to gather on the lawns of the primary school to discuss the problems related to lack of power. Photographs of Indira Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar hang prominently in his house. He calls himself a samaaj sevi (social worker). “For the last five years, we have been contacting government officials at all levels: the Collector, the MLA, and others. Now they tell us that our name is not in the government survey,” he says. “Ten days ago, the MLA said that our village will see light this Diwali. Let’s see.”

Mahadev Nagar has a primary health centre, a facility that other villages mentioned as lacking here. But it is just a building. “There is no doctor here. No one wants to come here because there is no electricity,” Surta Ram says.

Adds 39-year-old Puga Ram: “Yesterday, three malaria patients had to travel for 5-10 km for injections. The ambulance also doesn’t come inside our village.” Puga Ram teaches in the village school and is concerned about the children’s education. “This is the age of computers. How will these kids get digital literacy if there is no electricity,” he asks, distressed. There are five classrooms in the school; one is under construction. The heat inside the room compels the teacher to take his classes on the sands outside under the trees. Misra Ram shows a receipt of Rs.200 dated November 2015. “For electricity connections, we had to apply in groups of five. A hundred such forms have been sent from our village. I have applied thrice. But there is no progress,” he says.

All conversations with the villagers start and end with electricity. Its announcement and presence have fuelled aspirations long bottled up.

Back in Salam Singh Ki Basti, Abdul Khan shakes his head, disgruntled with the government’s solar-powered electricity scheme that is oddly restrictive as well as liberating. “We wanted electricity powered by the grid. The current set-up limits us to a few predefined utilities. There is nothing more that we can do with this,” he says. The power limitation of the solar kit doesn’t allow them to use other appliances. Unlike in Tanwarpura, electricity in this village doesn’t match aspirations. Also, the government is advocating for one kit that fits all. This means that the village school in Salam Singh Ki Basti gets the same set kit as the houses. There are multiple classrooms, but only one fan.

In the summer heat in Anandpur, 70-year-old Prasad dreams. “Now that we have seen light, we have become a little greedy. Dil aur chahta hai (the heart desires more),” he says. That means a few hours more hours of light. And a fan that will make the summer more bearable.


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