Power to the People
In 2005 the Government of India launched a nation-wide scheme to ensure rural electricity infrastructure and electrification of all households with special provisions and subsidies for underprivileged households. In this interview, Arti Bai details how a little camera coupled with a lot of determination has successfully guaranteed these subsidies for over 1400 people from impoverished families in Batiagarh village of Madhya Pradesh.
Two years ago, the Gram Panchayat (Village Council) in Batiagarh, Damoh in Madhya Pradesh announcedthat their village would have complete access to electricity with a fully functional power set-up as well as subsidised electricity for families Below Poverty Line. Community Correspondent ArtiBai’s family was one such family. However, their happiness was shortlived when they soon realized that their electricity bills were far higher than they’d imagined. Initially confused, Arti Bai soon realized that the 30 units guaranteed free to every BPL household were not being adequately subsidised.
“In winter last yearafter I was billed a ridiculous amount money again I’d just about had enough. I’d been working very hard to juggle my time effectively between my daily work as a manual scavenger and making videos as a Community Correspondent. I figured it was time to challenge situations in my own community with the camera. The linesman had even come to my home to threaten to cut our connection [sic] and I was so enraged, I told him I’d chop him up before I paid a penny more than what I should.” To begin with, ArtiBai spoke to all the villagers and discovered that almost 150 other families were being affected by these exaggerated bills. “There were even some people who had migrated to different cities in search of jobs, and were incurring huge bills without even being in the village! Obviously someone, somewhere, was cheating us.”
She began with discussing with the Village Head on how she intended to create change in her community. He wholly supported her. She then began recording interviews. Despite the buzz about yet another ‘journalist’ who would ask endless questions but bring no results, ArtiBai never lost faith. She continued to cajole her community to support her. “It was a challenge to convince my own community, but it was a choice that helped me along later. ” When Arti Bai went to the Electricity Department, she was met with stoic silence. “The peon didn’t even entertain my requests to meet the officer. He made up some excuses and made me leave.” The second time round, women from the Dalit Vanchit Vikas Ghat (Development Collective for Excluded Dalits) accompanied her. When confronted by 6 women and 2 men from the village, the official was compelled to grant them a meeting. “We showed him the videos. We told him how his department was cheating the poorest communities. He was really cagey of my camera. He told me he didn’t want any of these ‘camera dharnas’ and would help us in any way we wanted.”
The community requested an immediate investigation on the basis of which they would happily pay the correct dues. An official from the neighbouring Electricity Department also joined the investigation to ensure fair inquiries were conducted. Finally, in November 2013, almost 4 months after ArtiBai decided to take up this issue, over 1200 people from Below Poverty Line families, and 260 people clubbed under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (families identified by the Government of India as the ‘poorest of poor’) were presented with fresh bills for the correct amount of electricity consumed by their households. 59 villages in BatigarhPanchayat now have their electricity meters monitored on a bi-monthly basis to ensure that no further discrepancies creep into their bills.
“Being a Community Correspondent has given me a lot of confidence. Not only am I aware of our rights, but I’m also empowered to highlight them. And the best part, the people are with me. When my community saw how terrified the officials were at the prospect of punished for cheating us, their confidence in me blossomed manifold. Gone are the days when the poor bear the brunt of everyone’s greed. Not on my watch. Now my wish is to show them the Impact video. I want them to see how I documented their pain, their pursuit of justice, and finally, how all of us, en masse, brought power to the people.”
Interview compiled by Radhika.
Read also: Subsidies for power consumers.