‘Only when bill arrives, we know there’s power’: What ails India’s rural electrification scheme?
Feroz Ahmad, 45, isn’t sure if electricity has reached Paraspur, a nondescript hamlet of Bhartha village in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district.
“When a crow dies and falls off the electric pole, we know there is some current in the wire,” he says. “Because, electricity doesn’t come to our homes.”
It is over a year since government workers set up poles and hang overhead wires under the Centre’s flagship rural electrification scheme, the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the programme will bring electricity to every village in the country by 2018, and every home by 2022.
Paraspur is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with India’s rural electrification programme, a grand scheme that guzzles thousands of crores of rupees annually but may not guarantee that power actually reaches the people. And when power actually comes, it is for a few hours—state-run power distribution agencies generally target rural areas for load shedding to make up for the generation shortfall.
For all its ambition, the program is undercut by a difficult reality: infrastructure alone doesn’t translate into energisation or access to electricity.
During the assembly election results in May, houses in Paraspur lit up with grid-powered electricity and that too for just two days, villagers say.
Sitapur is the worst district in the country in terms of household electrification coverage — just two in ten rural houses have an electricity connection, according to the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the most recent official survey capturing household electrification in India.
But data from the GARV app — the central government mobile application which tracks household electrification in Indian villages— show Bhartha as the only unelectrified village in the district as of April 2015.
Details in the definition
How can it be that only two in ten rural houses in the district have an electricity connection, yet every village in the entire district but one is electrified? The answer lies in how the government defines the terms ‘village’ and ‘electrified’.
In government parlance, even if a village’s ten percent of households and public places, such as schools and health centres, have access to power it is considered electrified.
Moreover, a village is divided into several hamlets or habitations. A possible explanation could be that while the village as a whole may be ‘electrified’ the constituent hamlets may not be.
Bhartha is a case in point. The village is divided into three hamlets. Barring Paraspur, the other two have had electricity connection for over a decade, residents say.
Who stole the oil
Around 40 kilometres from Bhartha, lies Maheshpur, a village officially counted as electrified. In Misranpurwa, a hamlet in Maheshpur, eight connections were recently given to families below the poverty line, residents say.
At the entrance to the hamlet, a street lamp hangs from a recently-installed electricity pole. But five months since the electrical infrastructure was set up, the bulb has never been lit. The reason: just a day after the installation, the oil that would power the transformer went missing.
“The contractor alleges that we (the villagers) stole the oil. He has even filed an FIR against anonymous people,” says Kaushal Kishore Mishra, 42.
“We didn’t take out the oil. The contractor is responsible. Now we don’t have money to fuel the transformer and so there is no electricity,” he adds.
An exasperated Mishra points out that the village in electrified only on paper.
Data on the GARV app says 32 of the 42 households have electricity—far from the ground reality.
This raises questions about the trustworthiness of the household level data in GARV, touted as one of the most transparent governance projects of the Modi government.
“GARV tells whether electrification has happened or not, which means whether a transformer has been set up in a village, wires have reached the households and an electricity connection has been provided,” said Arvind Rajvedi, managing director of Madhyanchal Vidyut Vitaran Nigam Ltd (MVVNL).
But if a transformer burns out or power is not distributed, Rajvedi says, that’s a separate issue and is not reflected in the app data.
MVVNL is a government of UP undertaking and is responsible for supplying electricity in various districts of UP, including Sitapur and Bahraich. Officials update data for their area in the GARV app.
Problems are not restricted to a single village or a district. In Bhakhrauli Mugespur village in Bahraich district, Rajendra Kumar Singh, 35, is furious. A 63KV transformer was approved in the budget and Rs 3.5 lakh allocated, Singh says.
“But the contractor installed it in another village. The official in charge was contesting for zila panchayat elections and so he did them a favour,” he says, as a dozen other villagers join in to express fear of speaking up and complain against the official.
“Sarkaar nahi kar payegi yahan vidyutikaran. Yojna chalu karna aur implement karne me fark hota hai (The government can’t electrify this village. There is a difference in announcing and implementing a scheme),” says 24-year-old Ashish Kumar Singh.
A year-and-a-half-ago, in the neighbouring village Kothar, an electricity pole that powered most of the houses fell down during a windstorm. The villagers have gone without power ever since. The remains of the broken pole are still visible in a swampy ground near the village well.
Rajvedi says there is an all-India four digit toll-free number “1912” for power-related consumer complaints, but villagers remain unaware.
“We don’t know where to complain. No one here is educated enough and has no idea about the processes,” says Ishtaq Ali, who, like most others, doesn’t know his age and identifies himself as twenty-something. Residents of Kothar work as daily wage labourers, earning Rs 100 per day.
And here again, the official data fails to reflect the ground reality: 35 of the 59 households in the village are electrified, official data says. Villagers dispute this.
But even if the government and villagers agree on whether these villages are electrified, getting power to the households will be just the first step. Ensuring uninterrupted electricity is another challenge.
Ramakant Pal, 35, of Haripur hamlet in Sitapur, refused to take power connection when government workers brought electricity poles a month ago.
Pal and his neighbours have heard discouraging stories from people Maheshpur, just a few kilometres to the east.
“Wahan jab bill aata hai, tabhi pata chalta hai ki gaon me bijli hai (Only when the bill arrives, do they get to know their village has electricity),” he says.
Villagers have their own stories to tell at Maheshpur, where 43 out of 63 households electricity connection, according to official data.
Radhe Shyam’s house is one of them, at least on paper. In reality, power has never reached his home, says his wife, who shies away from giving her name. She pulls out a pink plastic bag and takes out a dusty electric meter, covered with cobwebs and never used.
“When the engineer came, we didn’t have money to pay for installation,” she says. “So he left the meter and asked us to buy our own stuff for making the connections.”
The family never did so, she says, but an electricity bill lands at their house every month. The latest one is dated July 7th.
A few hundred meters from Radhey Sham’s house, down a narrow dirt road that winds through the village, Ramu Mishra, 40, does get power at his house.
But the bill amount is too high, he believes, given how little energy he uses. The bill is generally more than Rs two hundred per month, he says. Mishra has a relatively large house with a spacious verandah but there is hardly any electrical equipment: a couple of bulbs and one portable fan.
Several villagers in Maheshpur, like Mishra, have outstanding bills in amounts ranging from ten to thirty thousand rupees as they have not paid for months and years.
Fifty kilometres away, in Nioria Bank village, people share similar concerns. Mohammad Shabir’s is the first house at the village entrance. He got his power connection for Rs 1,350 under a scheme two years ago. But he hasn’t paid the bill yet. “It’s too much,” he says.
“Who will pay the outstanding electricity debt of Rs. 25-30,000?” asks his neighbour Mohammad Israil, who runs a primary school for Muslim kids.
“If we had money to pay this exaggerated bill amount, wouldn’t we first fix our houses?” Israil says, pointing to Shabir’s kachha house, as others burst into laughter.
Shabir also rues the electricity timing.
“We get power only around 9-10pm. The sun sets by 7 pm. We still have to use kerosene oil at the time we need electricity the most. By the time power arrives, we go to bed. What’s the point then?” Shabir asks.
Najbun Misha, another resident, says she doesn’t want the connection.
“Had we been aware that the bill amount would be such, we wouldn’t have taken the connection at all. The bill amounts to Rs 237 per month; we were told it would be Rs 50,” she says, referring to the fixed monthly amount charged from households without a meter.
The idea of inflated bill amount is a misnomer, says Rajvedi, the MD of MVVNL.
“People in urban areas as well have similar things to say,” Rajvedi says, explaining that people don’t realise where all electricity is being used or wasted. Meter readings can be an issue, but not a major one.
“If the meter, an electronic device, is not working fine, it will behave erratically. But it won’t be the case that the difference in the reading would be of the order of 10 to 25%,” Vedi adds.
Adding fuel to fire
The bill amount is not the only frustrating thing about the power around here. Back in Maheshpur, Mishra says he’s already paid two instalments of Rs 500, but the amount was not deducted from his most recent bill.
Rajvedi is aware of this problem. The billing system, even for rural areas, has been shifted from manual process to an online one. “There is a possibility that the bill amount paid by some individuals when the manual system was still in place is not reflected in the new system. We set up camps at the office of district’s chief development officer and junior engineer where this can be rectified. This is a one-time process. In future, everything will be online, which will eliminate the discrepancy.”
Economics aside, Ashok Kumar in Misranpurwa village has a completely different concern: fire.
“Mine is a kaccha house. What if a short circuit burns down my house? I can’t take that risk. I don’t want a connection.” Raju Mishra in Maheshpur expresses similar fears.
Lalli, an old woman in Bhartha village, mistakenly confuses this reporter for a power official and requests that I cut her connection right away.
“What if officials arrest me or my family for non-payment of the bill which may start arriving soon?” she asks. “What if the house is burnt down due to fire?”
Her son interrupts and asks me to ignore her plea, and they get into an argument. In any case, it’s unlikely that fire will be an issue: the poles are here, but the hamlet doesn’t have power.