Microgrids light up these remote Maharashtra villages
“When darkness falls, our identity ends,” says Ankush Roz. The Warli adivasi waits in his village for Godot -- the Discom man who never comes. He might as well be echoing Beckett: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes. Nobody Goes. It’s awful!”
The 10 to 12 hamlets tucked into the forest are 8km uphill from Dahigaon beyond Khardi (in western Maharashtra, barely two hours from Mumbai). They are located uphill behind the reservoir of Vaitarna, and Tansa is just 30 minutes away as the crow flies. They live in the shadow of the source of Mumbai’s primary drinking water supply.
The adivasi population moved here when the Vaitarna and Tansa dams were being built in the late 1950s. They continue to live in mud-and-bamboo thatched homes, with coarse dirt for floors. Most of them survive on seasonal agriculture, which is impossible during the arid months. In the monsoons, roaring rivulets cut them off from the towns below and pregnant women must walk down to the medical centre at Khardi days before delivery.
Thanks to the proximity to Mumbai, manual labour gives them some regular income. In time, their settlement has acquired a notional permanence. Social workers make the rounds with polio vaccines. A primary school has come up in Shisauli. Allocations from the Rajiv Awas Yojana to build brick-and-mortar houses have just begun to trickle their way. External toilets bear plaques listing sponsorship by charitable organisations, but have no sewage outlets or water, and therefore lie unused.
Little wonder then that the villagers brought out a wedding band for the inauguration of the first streetlight atop a pole stuck in the centre of the village this January, when an official from Tata Capital came to flip the switch.
Gram Oorja, a Pune-based organisation liaises with corporates to acquire funding out of their Corporate Social Responsibility budgets and with NGOs to implement renewable energy models. It brought solar grids to six of these remote hamlets under the Dahigaon gram panchayat: Talavda, Shisauli, Manachamba, Vadpada, Tundepada and Tahandalpohi.
Together, these hamlets have an estimated 225 households, of which 85-90% have hooked up to the solar grid. They appoint a village committee.
It, in turn, appoints a manager to maintain records, clean and protect the grid, and collect tariff according to usage. This is then deposited into a committee-run bank account. The collections will go towards replacing the batteries in four years.
The neglect of such hamlets by the conventional grid system stems from administrative calculations of what constitutes a rural village. Several populations have been tucked into a larger village census count for different administrative purposes.
Dahigaon itself was linked to the conventional electricity grid 15 years ago. The extension of Dahigaon’s grid upwards into these tribal hamlets should have been a logical progression. But this is where electrification falls prey to social hierarchies and obstacles larger than mere generation and supply of power.
That’s why Debajit Palit, associate director of rural energy and livelihoods at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), calls the push for 100% electrification “a paradigm shift”.
Until 2004, the existence of a pole counted for an electrified village. When then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee changed the measure to 10% of households having connections, it reduced the count of government electrified villages but it was a bullet he was willing to bite.
The difference it made was that discoms were forced to count the outliers that fell under gram panchayats.
“Those with political power and clout and could influence the distribution company by gaining access to connections for themselves and those who sided with them. So it’s a definition that, while it was game-changing in its time, ought to have revisited been by now,” says the associate director.
“The good news is the push of the Soubhagya scheme is undeniable in correcting the complete isolation that existed, and even if 2019 March is optimistic as a goal, if it takes till 2020 March, it’s still a much-needed push,” he added.
The Soubhagya scheme is the BJP government’s push for 100 per cent electrification of household units.
For those denied access, the obstacles are multi-dimensional. Village electrification, Palit says, is a three-pronged process. The first hurdle is electrical infrastructure. In heavily forested zones, a Supreme Court ban applies on electric wires. Provisions can be made for underground wires, but that is about five times as expensive. Since adivasi populations are often sparse and poor, the revenue collection does not justify the cost.
The second is that not all homes choose to link to the grid. This is usually out of distrust of the electrification process. Rural dwellers do not understand or have the confidence to negotiate the discom processes.
One inflated or cumulative bill, asking for a thousand rupees even once in six months, is too intimidating to an adivasi daily wage labourer. Sometimes discoms collect load security deposits, which they are legally sanctioned to do, but do not communicate it to the consumer. Unable to pay, they are disconnected from the grid or declared defaulters. The only solution, says Palit, is for the Discoms to become more efficient in meter records, computation, ease of collection, and rapid grievance redressal.
The third is whether electricity can be provided in a sustainable fashion, with revenue that matches supply and use. The trust deficit between consumers and discoms plays a major role in that.
India produces surplus energy, so much so that Union power minister RK Singh recently announced that India would be looking to export power to Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.
India added 25GW of capacity in Financial Year 2017, of which 58 per cent was renewable. But according to the Soubhagya scheme statistics, 29,755,021 or 13 % households are yet to be electrified. Generation of power is no longer the issue. The obstacles now are social and procedural.
The wealthier farms in the Dahigaon stretch on the periphery of the forest do not see why they should allow government poles on their land. Power officials at the local office at Khardi are not tasked with making the push.
As per their records, Dahigaon was electrified 15 years ago -- the rest is in the gram panchayat’s hand. Extending the lines will involve a cost of ~25 lakh per kilometer, and nothing about 225 adivasis with no economic or vote bank value justifies that cost.
Lydia Powell, energy and climate change expert with the Observer Research Foundation says it’s a problem the government recognises. “Dalit areas don’t get access to electricity because upper-class communities force the pole to be set up in their areas. The change in definition of measuring units (from revenue villages to households) was done to address this. It is a good first step, however it is also true that the ground reality doesn’t always reflect the administrative change,” she said.
There have been studies that reflect this inequality of distribution -- notably Andreas Kemmler’s ‘Factors influencing household access to electricity’ in 2007, and Hisaya Oda and Yuko Tsujita in ‘The determinants of rural electrification’ in 2011 -- but none enumerates the decades of conscious distinction the socio-economically deprived have faced. Perhaps, Powell suggests, the government should place poles in Dalit and adivasi areas and ask the upper classes to draw their lines from there.
Independent microgrids do allow hamlets to bypass the politics of power. Each house gets four plug points and lights. One bulb replaces the kerosene mud lamp in the kitchen. Children play after dark and the time of sleep has shifted by an hour or two. Workers no longer hurry back from their day jobs in the towns. Mixer-grinders, fans and mobile phones are on wish lists.
Talavda has three DTH equipped televisions that everyone gathers around.
In Shisauli, Sanjay Chauhan, who ran the local kirana store, has bought a second-hand mini fridge. His meter records about 92 units in three months. He now stock cold drinks and ‘pepsi’ sticks – frozen flavoured juice water in a plastic tube. He won’t really know how profitable the investment has been until the first cumulative bill comes in a month.
In Vadpada, Sunil Ramchandar Karpal has taken on a loan of 1.5 lakh to buy a plate press machine to make plates out of palash leaves for weddings.
Two meters, one from commercial use and one for domestic use, are attached to his wall. But the machine sits in the corner waiting for the social worker to show him how to use it.
Sunanda Patwardhan, a social activist from Pragati Pristhan, says the permission won’t really come because commercial activity is discouraged in forest zones. When aspirations rise, the load on the grid will rise. The average grid here is 12.5KW and produces 50 units of electricity a day. This can supply up to 70 households, though fewer have taken connections.
“All power depends on equitable distribution and fair use,” said Sameer Nair, CEO of Gram Oorja. Nearby villagers who have not been electrified yet have enquired, they see the lights of these hamlets burning at night. They are visible now.
In Tandalpohi, Vilas and Pandit Valamba are sitting down to lunch with their family of 14. Their floor is coarse dirt. There is nothing in the house – the only clothes they own they are wearing – except two mobile phones charging through a plug point on the pole above them, and a large speaker on the rafters. They play songs for the village sometimes. There needs to be at least some celebration of the diminishing of the dark, after all.