The return of the lantern age in Bihar is unlikely to end soon since it is India's only large state that produces virtually no electricity, with one of its two power plants generating power intermittently and the other scheduled to restart generation only in April this year.
The coal-based power plant at Barauni in Begusarai district is unable to produce power on a daily basis. "Some day it produces 40-50 MW and on some days, nothing," said an official source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Barauni plant was made operational last year after a yearlong renovation and maintenance shutdown.
The other power plant at Kanti in Muzaffarpur remains sick. Power utility NTPC Ltd, in a joint venture with the Bihar State Electricity Board, has been working to revive the plant since 2005.
"It is still non-operational. It was scheduled to generate power in March 2006. Later, the deadline was postponed to October 2007. Now it was scheduled to start operations in March-April this year," the source added.
Plans to establish three new super thermal power stations at Nabinagar in Aurangabad, Pirpainti in Bhagalpur, and in Katihar are still in the initial stages.
"All the proposed plants will take at least five to six years before they start generating power," a senior official said.
State Energy Minister Bijendra Prasad Yadav blamed the previous Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) government led by Rabri Devi for not doing anything to generate power following the state's bifurcation in 2000.
The massive power cuts have forced people to the streets, leading to violent protests and deaths by police firing.
Five people were killed and over 12 injured in two days in Kahalgaon of Bhagalpur district, as police fired on a crowd protesting acute power shortages outside power utility NTPC Ltd's plant.
The government has ordered a judicial probe into the incidents on Friday and Saturday last week, officials said in Patna.
Power shortages have also sparked protests in other parts of the state. Electricity offices have been ransacked in at least 12 districts in the last few weeks. People in over a dozen districts have observed shutdowns and staged protest marches.
Unscheduled power cuts have become a common feature even in state capital Patna. Outside the city, the situation is more alarming.
It is not unusual to experience daylong power cuts in most of Bihar's 38 districts. People living in small towns and district headquarters are considered lucky because they have electricity for four to six hours in a day.
"We have lost hope for power. It is our fate to regularly clean lanterns and purchase costly kerosene oil in the black market, which has become a hot item for minting money thanks to uncertain supply of power," said Dhananjay Singh, a schoolteacher in Gaya, some 100 km from here.
The dark days in Bihar show no signs of letting up in the near future because state's power generation is virtually non-existent.
"It is zero or nil," said a senior official of the state energy department.
Bihar is totally dependent on the central grid for power. The state needs 1,600 to 1,800 MW of power but gets about 700 to 800 MW from the central pool.
"We are supposed to get 1,170 MW from the central grid, the state has so far received 700-800 MW only. NTPC never allotted us our share and hardly bothered to compensate us for the shortage from other plants," Swapan Mukherjee, chairman of Bihar State Electricity Board, told IANS here.
"Taking transmission losses into account, the demand-supply gap in Bihar is nearly 900 to 1,000 MW," he pointed out.