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.
The village of Kenwasia is typical. It shows on the statistics as having electricity, but few homes are connected to the grid, and those that are get very little power.
“The power goes out four times every night,” said Pawan, who drives a motorized rickshaw converted into a goods carrier. “In the daytime, we hardly get three hours of electricity, and when we do, it is such a low voltage we can’t run any appliances at home. Our refrigerator and television are in comas. The fan moves but doesn’t throw any breeze at us. All we can do is charge our mobile phones.”
The situation is worse in the poor part of the village, inhabited by the dalits, or untouchables, who represent the lowest rung in India’s rigid caste system. There, no homes have power. Jai Chand, who fought for Kenwasia to be connected to the grid, says the poor can’t afford to enjoy it.
“They have to pay money to the engineers and the linemen,” he said. “There are separate bribe rates for setting up a pole, a transformer, a wire and a connection.”
The electricity is so intermittent, the paperwork involved in getting a line so cumbersome, the bribes so great, that most people just don’t bother.
Those who can, steal it. Young men stand on roofs or street corners at sunset using long bamboo poles to tug at the overhead power lines. Once they hook their wires to the cable, they can light a bulb or a fan in their homes.
By morning, the illegal hookups have been removed so police officers don’t spot them. Even middle-class people tap the power lines to run an extra air conditioner, television or fridge.
“I’m not stealing from my neighbors. I am just taking it from the government line,” said Rashid Ahmed, the soft-spoken owner of a small roadside stall. “I am poor. For me, this is not stealing, this is survival. One wire of mine is not going to bankrupt the country.”
The country may not be bankrupt, but the power distribution companies that sell electricity here virtually are. Required to sell electricity at below-cost rates, losing between a quarter and third of what they supply to theft, they are deeply in debt.
So low are the rates that each unit of electricity a company sells to villages raises its debt by nearly four rupees, according to research by the Prayas Energy Group.
“For electricity companies, it is a losing proposition,” said N. Sreekumar of Prayas. “What happens is electricity companies find it better to supply only a few hours to the villages, so the loss is kept to a minimum.”
One local power official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he had been given orders to prioritize urban areas. He acknowledged avoiding many villages because, he said, screaming people surround him demanding electricity.
A decentralized model
Despite the obstacles, experts say India’s rural power problems are not insurmountable. China, Brazil and South Africa managed to raise their electrification rates to 99, 98 and 75 percent, respectively, by 2009, compared with India’s 65 percent. Prayas calculates that India would need to raise its total generation capacity by only 15 percent to provide “lifeline” power to those remaining households.
Neighboring Bangladesh provides a powerful template of how renewable energy sources such as solar power, biogas and micro-size hydroelectric projects could be harnessed to supply villages in India without having to connect them to the national grid.
Incomes, as well as the number of hours children spend studying and years they remain in school, have risen significantly in Bangladesh as a result of the program’s success. Solar power companies are eagerly anticipating the prospect of a similar rural electrification revolution in India in the years ahead.
But in India, out of more than $6 billion spent on rural electrification since 2005, less than $10 million has gone toward that kind of decentralized generation and distribution, says Khanna, describing it as “the really big missing piece in access to electricity.”
In Kenwasia, 66-year-old Raja Ram says he is sick of watching children “play in the mud and waste their time” because they don’t have light to study by. “My life has been spent in darkness,” he said. “At least my grandchildren’s lives should have all the good things that electricity brings.”