In 2005 the government of India set up ambitious plans to bring electricity to about 1,25,000 villages through the Rajiv Gandhi Rural Electrification Scheme. In the ten years since, the crores of rupees spent to bring basic infrastructure to rural areas has had an impact. However 44.7% rural household in India still don’t have access to electricity. Low-level corruption and the lack of decentralised electricity grids are among the most common bottlenecks in the implementation of this scheme. Through a video made in June 2014, Correspondent Shanti Baraik uncovered a case of corruption in Ichagutu, a village in the Naxal insurgency affected district of Gumla, Jharkhand. Her efforts resulted in the village getting electricity and in cancelling fake bills they had been receiving till then.
In 2012, electricity poles and some wires were installed in the village, which until now had seen the night through the eyes of kerosene lamps. The anticipation of the village’s 50 households eventually came to naught, as the contractor never supplied a transformer. A 2014 evaluation report of the scheme points out that this incident was a regular one, that in many villages, wires were installed but were never connected to a grid. In this case, there was something more in the mix.
The contractor had asked people to pay INR 10,000 for the transformer and villagers even started collecting the money for it. People were willing to contribute up to INR 200, as they were unaware of their own rights. It was a matter of chance that someone contacted Shanti to confirm whether or not they should pay. “Absolutely not,” was the answer Shanti gave.
The infrastructure under the rural electrification scheme is provided entirely free of cost. While families that live above the poverty line have to pay a nominal fee (usually INR 400) to get a meter, those living below the poverty line have to pay no money. The bills for the latter are further subsidised.
The problems for Ichagutu’s residents, where a majority live below the poverty line, had only started with the installation of electricity poles. AlmiSurin, a septuagenarian was one of the first people to receive a bill of INR 857. The delivery of more bills left the residents of the area baffled and angry.
A report by the Planning Commission that seeks to understand the impact of the Naxalinsurgency on communities suggests that the unavailability of basic infrastructure is one of the key issues to be addressed by policy makers. “The directional shift in Government policies towards modernisation and mechanisation, export orientation, diversification to produce for the market, withdrawal of various subsidy regimes and exposure to global trade has been an important factor in hurting the poor in several ways,” says the report. It goes on to say, “In this situation it should not cause surprise that a large section of the people are angry and feel alienated from the polity.”
Only 45 per cent of Jharkhand’s rural households rely on electricity as a primary source of lighting. While this is a jump of about 20 per cent from 2001, it has to be seen in the context that Jharkhand provides a majority of the country’s coal used to fuel thermal power plants. Even with several electrification schemes in place, Jharkhand has one of the highest numbers of hours of scheduled power cuts. In Ichagutu, the most immediate problem was that no one actually had the money to pay thefaulty bills they had been given. After trying various things to get their problems heard, they asked Shanti for help again.
“Once we found out that we had to meet the Sub District Officer to get the bills cancelled, I repeatedly tried to call him and visit him at his office. We were successful only after several attempts. On our first meeting when I asked him to speak on camera about why the project was stalled and what he planned to do to fix it, he declined. ‘Let’s keep this private, I don’t want to get a bad reputation in the department and besides I am a contractor not the government,’he said. But he did promise to help immediately.”
The SDO kept his word, tracing down those responsible for executing the scheme on the ground. The contractor had already reported to the electricity board that the work in Ichagutuwas complete, which is apparently how residents were getting bills.After an initial refusal to complete the electrification, the contractor was forced to open up the project on the SDO’s insistence.
After a few weeks of continued pressure, the contractor supplied the wires and transformer but then refused to bring in people to set it all up. The villagers, exasperated by this time, sensed that this was the moment to take charge of things. It was a collective decision that the men would themselves carry out all the required labour work. Poles were mounted; reams of wire were strung and connected to the homes. That elusive transformer was finally installed and the bills were waived.
“Officials do often say that they are scared to come here because of the conflict and do their work. But why should they be? If they did actually come here when they are needed there’d be less of a conflict to worry about. With my work I try to make up for this gap, a runner who relays information between the government and people. And cases like this, where we collectively manage to resolve a situation, increase my belief that what I do makes a difference,” says Shanti.