President & Group Managing Director: Dr.Shelly Ahmed | Editor in Chief & Group CEO: M H Ahssan

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Feature: What Happens When A Village Gets Electricity?

By M H Ahssan / INN Bureau

Chibaukhera, a village 20 kilometres from Lucknow, finally got electricity for the first time in April this year, and all the television sets acquired in dowry started to come alive. His face is tense; shadows dance on it. He is perched on a ladder against one side of a brick wall. His eyes are glued to a television set on the other side, a few feet away, watching Mithun Chakraborty in Maa Kasam. It’s a difficult position in which to watch TV but Gurvachan isn’t bothered.
The wall was erected around five years ago when the brothers in the family had a dispute. It pierces the room like an ugly scar. On one brother’s side, an LG television is mounted on a wall, and a few plastic chairs are arranged around it in the fashion of a mini theatre. A bunch of children watch intently as Mithun returns to find both his sisters dead and pledges revenge. Their faces twitch and their mouths are agape. Beyond the battle lines, on the ladder, the other brother’s children, including Gurvachan, take turns to watch the hero’s antics.

On a shelf in the verandah outside the house is a broken TV set, possibly the second in the village, brought home in 1984 by Daya Shankar Yadav, a retired soldier and father of the feuding brothers—Virendra and Anil Kumar Yadav. The television ran on battery for years. It is Virendra Kumar’s son sitting upright on the ladder. Although Virendra doesn’t allow his children to go to his younger brother Anil’s side of the house, he doesn’t mind when they mount the ladder to watch TV. When Virendra’s mother was living in their house, the old TV set, a Core model of Sony One, was kept in her room. Once a week, they’d charge the batteries and watch religious serials.

Mahima, his daughter, steps outside, goes around the house, peeps into her uncle’s house, lingers outside, but returns to her side of the house. “I will get a bigger and better television,” says Virendra. “That side is wealth; here poverty. But it is a matter of time.”

In Chibaukhera, as in all of rural India, TV sets have become a staple in dowries. As per the 2011 census, 47 per cent of households had a television against 31 per cent in 2001. In the same decade, the number of households that owned a radio declined by 15 per cent. But television came here before electricity. Chibaukhera got power only recently. Poles were stuck into the ground for months before a local politician came one afternoon in late April, cut a ribbon, and fans started whirring in the village, barely 20 km from Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh.

This village used to be cut off from the highway and could be reached only by crossing a dry canal. It now has a narrow road. Chibaukhera isn’t a wealthy village, but a few families—the doctor Shivbalak’s for instance—own land. Shivbalak bought the first TV set in the village in the early 80s. Two years ago, he bought a generator to power the wonder box. He paid Rs 2,000 per month towards the generator’s running cost. It is still there but lies unused.

Komal Singh, a young man who attends college in Aminabad, says Chibaukhera was favoured over the other two villages in the gram sabha to get electricity because they had better connections. Besides, they were willing to shell out money.

Mewa Lal is intently listening to an old transistor. “Samachar samapt hua,” the news presenter signs off. Mewa Lal switches it off, and looks up. “We waited forever,” he says. “Every election, we gave applications, approached local politicians, but electricity never came.”

In 1973, when he first experienced the luxuries of a light bulb and a fan in Mohanlalganj, he got together a group of villagers to try and get electricity to their village. It didn’t seem like a task—the village was in Lucknow district and near the city. A few years later, some of them collected money, bribed officials, submitted more applications, but nothing happened. Finally, Mewa Lal gave up.

“So many times I went to Lucknow. They would tell me to wait, ask for money. They would say, ‘You walk four steps, and we will take one step’,” he says. “It was too much effort.”

Anil Yadav, an advocate, bought an LG television when his wife Manju was away at her parents’ house. She returned to find the front room turned into a mini theatre of sorts. She loved the television right away, but told her husband he had spent too much—Rs 14,000—on it. “It isn’t a small sum of money,” she says, but in the next instant adds that more things are on their way because of electricity. A cooler is a necessity in this heat. And though wiring and connections cost money, barring three Dalit homes on the other side of the pond, most other houses have been wired.

Manju owns what is probably the second best TV set in the village of around 150 households. The best set belongs to Amaresh, a huge one his wife brought in dowry. Manju once had a smaller television set, but she gave it to her sister-in-law after a few years, fed up of waiting for electricity. There’s a DVD player too now, and a table fan, a gift from her wedding 14 years ago, which has been repaired and placed in this half-room.

“I used to get sad looking at the fan,” she says. “It hasn’t been easy living here.

I came from a village that had electricity. But what choices did we have? We had to adjust.”

When her two sons return from school around noon, they switch on the television and other children start arriving to watch. She doesn’t mind. It is a prestigious thing to have a colour TV set in one’s house. Earlier, her kids, too, were part of a group that knocked on the door of every house with a television, asking to watch something on it. “It didn’t feel nice,” she says.

At 5 pm, Manju insists her sons switch off the idiot box and complete their school work before their father comes home. At 8 pm, the television is switched on again, and they watch it until 11 or midnight.

When Hemlata’s son got married last year, his wife came with a Sansui television set, a Videocon fridge and a mixer. The TV set is yet to be unpacked. They want to have a proper place, a nice table for it. The wiring also needs to be done; most wires don’t even have plugs. The set is placed in the living room for now.

When Hemlata came to this village as a bride, she brought along a transistor set, cycle and watch. “If this village had electricity then, I would have got more dowry. Electronic goods of different kinds,” she says.

The maroon-coloured Videocon fridge is used with utmost caution. Besides milk, there’s Shiny nail paint and lipstick stocked in there. The mixer is locked in her almirah. She is reluctant to use it. She also doesn’t know how to use it.

For many years, Hemlata wouldn’t tell distant relatives her village had no electricity. For her daughter Pratibha’s wedding on 29 April this year, she hired a generator from Mohanlalganj. It was the same day, the ribbon duly cut, that the lights came on in the village.

“Our village was never such a VIP village, but now it feels different,” says Hemlata, fidgeting with the transistor. It looks archaic. She places it on a shelf.

A cheap music set blasts bhajans, while she rests under the fan. Not all the rooms in her house have been wired yet. She lives in a two-storey house and they are among the few wealthy families in the village.

A few houses, belonging to Scheduled Caste Pasi and Jatav families, are not part of the general cheer of electricity. They have other issues—crumbling walls and roofs that have caved in on their houses made of dry leaves and twigs.

In one of the houses that has just got power, an old man talks about other woes. His TV set, a black-and-white set like most others in the village of brands like Sonodyne, Texla, Classic DLX, Sony One, needs to be repaired. Like most other sets in the village, this one has also suffered a short-circuit.

At Suraj Yadav’s house, an old set with knobs and a wooden body has been the sole marker of prosperity for years. For 10 years, it has been preserved in the hope that when electricity comes, it will run. But it is erratic in its performance. Suraj got this TV set as part of his dowry. There are other such antique sets in Chibaukhera.

Most afternoons, Ram Sahay sits outside his house, fan in hand, keeping a watch on his grandchildren. They return from school, run to Anil’s house to watch films, and roam the village until later squatting in front of the TV set. Sahay is complaining yet again about the vices of electricity, and Priyanshu, his grandson, is looking to escape. A pedestal fan stands in a corner, but Sahay wouldn’t let Priyanshu switch it on. A few days ago, Neetu, a 10-year-old girl, was rushed to hospital when she got an electric shock while trying to plug in a fan. They say she was flung back a few yards and her fingertips turned black. There have been other instances of electric shock in the village because officials forgot to install insulators near poles.

Priyanshu likes Salman Khan. The last film he watched was Bodyguard.

“Who is this Salman? I don’t even know his father, and here they are singing his songs as if he was their masterji in school,” says the grandfather. “In my time, I never watched any films. There used to be one theatre in Mohanlalganj, but it cost money. They shut it down later. Young men went to Lucknow to watch films in talkies, but we were forever in our fields, tilling the land so we could eat. This electricity is not good for children.”

In Mohanlalganj, before the days of electricity, those who could afford it would recharge their batteries for Rs 15, and their television sets would work for four or six hours.

Diksha, a short young girl, spends most of her time at Anil’s house these days. She finished her intermediate exams but didn’t manage enough marks to get admission to any of the nearby colleges. Not that she is too keen on it. Her mother is already planning her wedding. If only they had a little money, things wouldn’t look so glum. The family has one-and-a-half bighas of land, and the father does his best to provide for the family.

In their modest house, there’s a TV set with the brandname Kajal. It was part of her mother’s dowry. They brought it to the village 10 years ago. Since then, the family has almost made a shrine of it. There are cheap plastic flowers, incense sticks and old photographs on and around it. A few photos are placed at its bottom. Years of waiting, however, wore out the television. It doesn’t work. 

They say it is like an old woman—it coughs and shudders, and collapses. Diksha’s mother found out there was no power in the village only after her wedding. It took a long time to adjust. Most daughters-in-law have a similar story. They weren’t told and initially complained to their parents, but they were here, and they had to stay on. Television sets have become a major cause for debt in the village. Ram Shankar Yadav lifts an embroidered piece of cloth to show a brand new television set. It is Akai, he says.

“I got it from Lucknow. I have to pay in instalments,” he says.

His wife grins through a gap in her teeth.

The villages of Rajakhera and Sheetalkhera lie across the highway from Chibaukhera. For the more than 100 families that live there, it is a mystery why they have not been given electricity.

A large part of rural India is still without any power. The Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), a welfare scheme launched in 2005 by merging similar schemes aimed at electrifying rural households, changed the definition of ‘electrified’ villages. Now, any village with at least 10 per cent of households electrified is deemed ‘electrified’. Under the scheme, households below the Poverty Line were to be provided electricity free of cost. As with most government welfare schemes, this one too suffers implementation failures.

The population of these two villages is over 100 families, the threshold for RGGVY benefits. The scheme proposes to cover habitations with less than 100 in phase II, but that hasn’t commenced yet. The list is prepared by state and district officials and that’s why most villagers feel they were left out. Perhaps the counting was all wrong. They have grown in population over the years, but nobody cared to update the lists. They had been ready to pay bribes, but it was no help.

Sheetla Prasad is a thin man from Rajakhera, who says he likes to assist people in his village. He managed to get some education. He is a farmer, but wears pants and a shirt. On most afternoons, he rides his bicycle through the twin villages asking if anyone needs him to read letters, or for any other help. He points to a trail of mud tracks. More than electricity, he says, they need roads and houses.

“They say the village was approved for electrification. They had done a survey. But nothing ever happened. We have no schools, no infrastructure. The children cross the highway to attend a primary school in Chibaukhera,” he says.

They wrote letters to the Chief Minister urging him to intervene. When a few girls of the villages passed their intermediate examinations, thus becoming eligible for laptops under a scheme launched by current CM Akhilesh Yadav, they wrote saying, what’s the point of giving laptops when students can’t even use them? They sent reminders. Now they are tired of protesting. Nankai, who works odd jobs in the farms that belong to others, says it is unfortunate that the poor have to stage battles on all fronts. 

“How will our children study? How will we ever get out?” she asks. Some time ago, about 40 poles had been dumped in the twin villages to set up power lines. The womenfolk guarded them zealously and once used broomsticks to chase away administration officials who came to take them away. They even laid thorns on the way. But then, in February this year, the police were called in, and the poles carried away on a tractor. Nankai wept for at least four days.

“I have no hope for us in this life,” she says. “They just forgot us.”

In Chibaukhera, Sarita, 16, switches on an old TV set. But the pictures are blurry. She tugs at the wire, adjusts the knobs, but it doesn’t help. Her sister-in-law is reluctant to switch on the pedestal fan. The baby would catch a cold, she says.

It is hot outside. Inside too. But they have been without electricity for so long that it doesn’t matter anymore. Only the television makes some sense.

The walls are plastered with posters of Bollywood stars. The girls bought them for Rs 10 at the village fete. There’s Katrina Kaif in full bridal finery, and Ajay Devgn and Juhi Chawla in police uniforms.

Sarita’s sister-in-law Guddi took the TV set out of its box two months ago. It had begun to rust. It is an old Texla, part of her dowry. It is sad that it doesn’t work so well, but as long as there is a TV in the house, Sarita doesn’t mind.