Seven decades after independence, thousands are yet to see what electricity looks like, while others are waiting for their defunct poles and wires to be more than ornamental.
“It has been 70 years since independence but we are still living in the dark.”
Rajendra Kumar believed, like many of us, that freedom from colonial powers would mean a better life for the country’s people. But seven decades after independence, Kumar’s village is still untouched by electricity, a prerequisite and a marker of progress. In Odisha’s Sundergarh district, fisherfolk are migrating due to the lack of electricity in their village.
At the time of independence, 1,500 villages had access to electricity. Over the years, as the population grew, demands for electricity grew and so did the country’s capacity to generate electricity. India is now the world’s third largest producer of electricity, and as of April 2018, according to PM Narendra Modi’s tweet, electricity reached the last Indian village, Leisang, a village in the north-eastern state of Manipur.
In a video interaction with the residents of Leisang, PM Modi remarked that the football-loving people there must have finally watched the FIFA World Cup live this year. Yes, electricity brought television to Leisang, amongst other facilities. As part of the same interaction, people from different states spoke about the benefits electricity had brought; all immensely grateful.
To verify PM Modi’s claims, Video Volunteers’ nationwide network of community correspondents spoke to the intended beneficiaries of the electrification schemes as well as crowdsourced testimonies, under #BattiGul, a campaign in which we monitor government claims against numerical targets and document the quality of electrification, especially in rural areas. Over 10 weeks, we gathered photo and video testimonies from 160 villages and settlements chronicling what electrification means to people and looks like on the ground. This could only be the tip of the iceberg.
A few days after PM Modi tweeted about all villages having access to electricity, the government clarified that it was referring to the 597,464 census villages and not every village or hamlet. This also means that since India does not have a count of the number of forest villages and/or unsurveyed villages, large populations are excluded from rural electrification schemes. Moreover, under the Deendayal Upadhyay Rural Electrification Scheme, a village is considered electrified if all public buildings and at least 10% of all households have electricity. Habitations with a population of below 100 persons are also not covered by the scheme, leaving millions in the dark.
In villages in Bhadohi and Ambedkar Nagar, Uttar Pradesh and in Morena and Panna, Madhya Pradesh, residents have been paying for an electricity connection that has been long dead. In Dindori, Madhya Pradesh, Sahibganj, Jharkhand, and several other places, electricity poles and meters are merely ornamental. All these villages are counted as electrified villages.
“Since I got married and came here, I have not seen electricity,” says Bistariya Bai Lobo, an elderly Adivasi woman from rural Madhya Pradesh.
While some say that generations in their community have not seen electricity, others refer to occasions from their own lives, like marriage, to count the number of years without electricity.
Shobha Bharti, a woman from Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, wants to know when she will know what electricity is like. “I have turned 22, and I still don’t know what electricity looks like,” she says.
Another young man from Uttar Pradesh is willing to attach the Prime Minister’s name to his village if the village is electrified. “I will ask for Habsaha to be re-christened as Modinagar Habsaha if the government gives us an electricity connection.” Such is the level of gratitude for a basic facility which should be seen as a right and not a favour, and definitely not a race for political gains.
In Karauli, Rajasthan, we found that 63 villages under three panchayats have never seen electricity. In Delwara, a village in the southern part of the state, we found that exposed live wires were making everyday life a nightmare for the residents. According to an external report, Adivasi communities living in another part of Rajsamand, the same district Delwara is in, are being forced to give up their electricity connection because of the high cost.
Is checking the box for each village and household enough? Brahampuri, a village of Mahadalit families in Sitamarhi, Bihar, got electricity connection five years ago. But instead of regular electricity poles, they were given bamboo poles to uphold the wires. One strong gush of wind and the electrification story of this village will be one only on paper.
While households are often missed by electrification schemes owing to their location in non-census villages or in isolated hamlets, what about the public buildings that must be electrified under the Deendayal Upadhyay Rural Electrification Scheme?
In Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir, a Sub-Health Centre that caters to villages under two panchayats does not have electricity. “How can we store crucial vaccines here if there is no power?” asks a resident. And in Kabirdham, Chhattisgarh, children in a rural anganwadi languish in the heat. “The anganwadi was established in 1998 and there has been no electricity since then,” says an anganwadi worker. In Arwal, Bihar, we found a government secondary school without electricity. The lack of electricity affecting children’s education and growth is a common concern across communities.
“They are playing with our children’s future,” says a resident of Kusumpura village in Panna, Madhya Pradesh. Kusumpura was established as a rehabilitation village after the Ken river flooded and destroyed the settlements on its banks. Rehabilitation sites, which already offer fewer facilities and opportunities to those uprooted from their homes because of natural disasters or development-induced displacement, fare worse when it comes to facilities like electricity. We also found testimonies on the lack of electricity in Bhadal, a similar village in the Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh, a district severely affected by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The impact of electricity on children’s education has been studied and it is estimated that households with electricity have higher literacy rates and higher enrolment rates, especially for girls; these children also perform better at school, academically.
Another problem we came across was the inconsistency in the government’s online records, names of villages that don’t match, names that come up more than once and names that are missing altogether. For example, the Deendayal Upadhyay Rural Electrification Scheme website does not list Varanasi, the PM’s constituency.
But more significantly, we found some claims of 100% household electrification that our ground reports couldn’t corroborate. For instance, the records for Kathai village in Umaria and Bhatodi village in Betul, both in Madhya Pradesh, claim that all households have been electrified, but our Correspondents have recorded testimonies stating the contrary. Nargi village, also in Madhya Pradesh, has had all its households electrified, according to the Saubhagya website, which may very well be a true claim. But village residents have reported that the electricity connection in the village does not actually work.
Studies suggest that it is not the mere existence of electricity connection but the hours of electricity supply that matter. In a November 2015 report by Fact Checker, it was found that only 2% of the electrified households were getting 20 or more hours of electricity per day and 60% had three days or more of total blackout every month. At present, India’s per capita power consumption, although growing, is still amongst the lowest in the world.
For all the hullabaloo over electricity reaching the last Indian village, it would do the incumbent government well to remember that of the 597,464 census villages in the country, 97% were electrified by 31 March 2015. The present government has electrified only the remaining 3% after that, around 18,374 villages. And now, it plans to electrify all households by March 2019, but estimates suggest that for the government to deliver on this promise, it would take another four years. Till then, millions of Indians will, reportedly, live in darkness.
Independence, an epoch that signified freedom and equal treatment, is the most commonly used reference point by those still waiting for freedom from darkness. It is also a reference point the Prime Minister himself often uses, followed by how previous governments did nothing in the decades that followed. Promising that his government will deliver on its electrification goals, Modi has said that “service to the country is for the people and not for political gain.” But for people to believe in his statement and in saaf niyat sahi vikas, the latest USP the ruling government is trying to push, histrionics will not be enough.
Photos and videos by Video Volunteers Community Correspondents
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the Video Volunteers Editorial Team