Up to a third of India’s population, close to 400 million people, are not connected to the national grid, leaving them cut off from the development, progress and opportunity that electricity represents. Many of them live here, in the crowded northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on the plains of the Ganges River.
Lack of electricity is the perhaps the most obvious symbol of the inequality that still cripples this country and of the governance failure that is holding back its ambitions to be an economic powerhouse.
“Just on the economic side, access to electricity is probably the biggest growth barrier for India,” said Ashish Khanna, the World Bank’s senior energy specialist in India. World Bank studies show that India’s intermittent power supply is the top constraint to investment and job creation here.
Health-care clinics cannot operate effectively without power or refrigeration for medicines, and children cannot study in the dark. Lack of power helps explain India’s low standings on global human development rankings, as well as the smog that hangs over these northern plains — thought to be contributing to the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers — from the widespread use of firewood and dung for cooking.
While richer Indians find ways to cope with the grid’s shortcomings, running backup batteries or diesel generators, the poor are dependent on a government that routinely fails to deliver.
None of the 400 homes in the village of Kataiyan have electricity, a source of shame for 35-year-old Gulabi Amarikan when she visits relatives in villages that have power.
“I have three children, but will they do anything better in their lives?” she asks while preparing to cook lunch on a wood stove in her cramped, dingy kitchen. “They can’t watch TV to learn anything like other children do. They can’t read at home. We have to live in the dark and in ignorance.”
In a nearby house, 13-year-old Kamlesh Yadav struggles to read his schoolbooks in the light of a hurricane lamp. “My eyes hurt, and I get headaches,” he said. “The boys in class who come from villages with electricity fare better.”
Yadav’s attempts to study often take second place to his main role: keeping an eye on the few shops in the area that occasionally get power. “If I spot the lights in the distance, I have to run with my father’s mobile phone to one of the shops,” he said. “I get his phone charged there for five rupees,” or about 10 cents.
Seven years ago, the Indian government launched an ambitious plan to bring electricity to all of the country’s villages and homes by 2012. Officially, nearly 100,000 villages have been connected, and, although that target will not be met, the proportion of villages connected to the grid had risen from nearly 75 percent to just over 90 percent by last year.