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Dalit Bahujan Adivasi Media

Maharashtra Adivasis still left in the dark!

Poor electricity supply adds to the digital divide by limiting internet access; work, finances and education interrupted

Vallari Sanzgiri 12 Jul 2021

 Rural Electrification PolicyImage Courtesy:newsfirst.lk

According to the latest Annual Administration report 2018-19 of the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Co. Ltd (MSEDCL), as many as 41,923 villages in the state are electrified. Complete with a data table, it states that 41,618 villages are electrified by the MSEDCL using conventional methods and 305 villages are supplied electricity by the Maharashtra Energy Development Agency (MEDA). Five villages in Amravati district were rehabilitated, at the time.

However, as per the 2011 census report, there are 43,665 total villages in Maharashtra. This means that despite great performance when compared to other states, Maharashtra’s remote villages remain in the dark, even after years of infrastructural development.

Particularly, villages inhabited by Adivasis and other marginalised communities remain outside the reach of government-provided electricity supply.

Reality of village electrification

As per the Rural Electrification Policy (2006) a village is declared ‘electrified’ when at least 10 percent of total households and public places like schools, panchayat offices, dispensaries, enjoy the benefits of distribution transformer and distribution lines.

For tribal villages, it is difficult to avail these distribution lines and transformers due to remote locations in heavily forested regions. The few villages that manage to avail them experience infrequent lighting and share common electric utilities to sustain themselves.

In 2019, the ‘Power for All: Maharashtra’ report listed 62 villages in nine districts that were yet to be electrified including Palghar, Nandurbar, Gadchiroli, Buldhana and similar tribal-populated areas. Out of these 52 villages, 20 villages were to be covered by the MSEDCL. As many as 32 villages were to be covered by the MEDA along with another 10 villages which were earlier electrified under the Decentralised Distributed Generation (DDG) Schemes.

While the MEDA is responsible for providing electricity in these areas, the agency faces issues due to the five-year tenure of operations and maintenance (O&M) under the DDG scheme.

“It has been observed that once the tenure ends, due to inadequate O&M, the systems become inoperative. Such a scenario requires re-electrification of these villages either by repairing and renovating the existing system or by installation of a new DDG system,” said the report.

This explains why local Marathi newspapers like Maharashtra Times continue to speak of villages in Melghat that receive electricity for the first time after independence in 2021.

The village in question Chopan resorted to one of the alternative methods of electricity generation – solar energy. Similarly, an Adivasi hamlet near the Dahigaon region availed the help of Pune-based NGO Gram Oorja to use micro-grids for electricity supply, reported the Hindustan Times in 2019. The community was moved into the forest 8 km from Dahigaon when the Vaitarna and Tansa dam was built in the late 1950s.

Speaking to SabrangIndia, Gram Oorja Technical Head Prasad Kulkarni said that such tribal regions near dams and forests are excluded from the electricity grids because it is difficult to reach the electric supply to separate households in hamlets.

“Remoteness is one of the critical factors because it costs quite a lot to electrify 10-12 villages within a 4 km distance. House lighting is likely to be an issue then. So, alternative methods like solar panels are used. Gram Oorja uses a similar method where we help through decentralised, single power generation units, then distributed to villages. The power is basically for household purposes and few commercial reasons,” said Kulkarni.

Electricity in Maharashtra’s Adivasi-dominated districts

A Nandurbar Adivasi resident recounted how the quality and frequency of electricity in Adivasi villages varied extensively. Some villages enjoyed 24-hour electricity while others suffered infrequent bouts of power supply. Wanting to remain anonymous, the law student said that she lived with her extended family in Akkalkuwa region for better power supply to continue her studies. However, even in Nandurbar, the issue of poor quality electricity persists.

Most indigenous villages there do not receive electricity from 10 AM to 3 PM and then again from 6 PM to 9 PM. During monsoon, there is no schedule and villages are left in the dark for hours to come. Some areas do not have electricity for months together.

Despite this, the electricity bill does not change throughout the year. Every household receives regular bills of approximately Rs. 150 every month even though most people only charge their phones or use lights at night. These costs are an additional burden at a time when villagers have to deal with heavy rains. The student also mentioned that some street lights in villages do not work.

“We have tried to talk to officials about the bills but whenever we complain, they threaten us with assault charges. This has happened with my cousin already,” the student told SabrangIndia.

When asked about similar complaints, Kulkarni agreed that Gram Oorja too received similar complaints from residents but did not have any idea why this happened.

Even in Palghar district near Mumbai, the situation is the same. Talasari’s farmer Sunita said that each household receives electricity bills worth Rs. 17,000 to Rs. 18,000 per month although they do not receive 24-hour electricity.

“Around two households here share one bulb for light. In the evening there is no electricity. It comes at 10 AM but then many times there is no electricity in the morning either. We complained to the authorities. They never did anything about it,” said Sunita.

The considerable bills further complicate household finances. The student who spoke to us also said that officials could at the least check whether the area’s electric boards are working and charge accordingly.

The digital divide

Experts on this matter assure that villages have 15-20 hours of power supply and a sturdy infrastructure despite compromises in quality. Kulkarni pointed out that cost and services also depend on the amount of population, related subsidies and how well money is being collected. However, it is worth debating whether these circumstances are acceptable in 2021, amid waves of Covid-19.

For Dhadgaon villagers, the erratic electric supply is a hindrance to education. The unreliable internet situation makes it difficult for smooth online registrations. Be it vaccine registration, exam forms, mobile phones need to be sufficiently charged to work in the digital world, said the student. Children cannot carry on online education because of similar charging issues. She spoke of an incident wherein many aspirants from Nandurabar and Dhadgaon taluka failed to fill CET exam forms due to issues with internet connectivity.

“By the time they filled the form, they had to pay penalty fees. Nowadays, everything is digital. All work needs electricity,” she said.

Already in 2010, the World Bank stated that 85 percent of Maharashtra’s rural population used electricity as a main source of lighting. Nowadays, nearly every form of transaction is carried out digitally. To the younger generation, the situation is little different from 2009, when youngsters from aforementioned talukas travelled 150-200 kms to avail internet/electricity access.

Recently, during Cyclone Tauktae, the student’s phone switched off mid-exam leaving her law paper unfinished. She had charged her phone from a nearby village and was working at 40 percent battery.

Her college later informed the exam was delayed due to the issue but the problem in Adivasi villages remains. In Akkalkuwa, she now lives in a house with a generator, hoping no such incident will happen during her next examination.

Related:

Stone quarrying, development projects threatening Jharkhand’s sacred groves
Impoverished Adivasis Hunted as Criminals
Adivasi Mahila Kisan: the unsung voices of Indian agriculture
Maharashtra’s fishing community fights to protect its 'golden belt' coast

Maharashtra Adivasis still left in the dark!

Poor electricity supply adds to the digital divide by limiting internet access; work, finances and education interrupted

 Rural Electrification PolicyImage Courtesy:newsfirst.lk

According to the latest Annual Administration report 2018-19 of the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Co. Ltd (MSEDCL), as many as 41,923 villages in the state are electrified. Complete with a data table, it states that 41,618 villages are electrified by the MSEDCL using conventional methods and 305 villages are supplied electricity by the Maharashtra Energy Development Agency (MEDA). Five villages in Amravati district were rehabilitated, at the time.

However, as per the 2011 census report, there are 43,665 total villages in Maharashtra. This means that despite great performance when compared to other states, Maharashtra’s remote villages remain in the dark, even after years of infrastructural development.

Particularly, villages inhabited by Adivasis and other marginalised communities remain outside the reach of government-provided electricity supply.

Reality of village electrification

As per the Rural Electrification Policy (2006) a village is declared ‘electrified’ when at least 10 percent of total households and public places like schools, panchayat offices, dispensaries, enjoy the benefits of distribution transformer and distribution lines.

For tribal villages, it is difficult to avail these distribution lines and transformers due to remote locations in heavily forested regions. The few villages that manage to avail them experience infrequent lighting and share common electric utilities to sustain themselves.

In 2019, the ‘Power for All: Maharashtra’ report listed 62 villages in nine districts that were yet to be electrified including Palghar, Nandurbar, Gadchiroli, Buldhana and similar tribal-populated areas. Out of these 52 villages, 20 villages were to be covered by the MSEDCL. As many as 32 villages were to be covered by the MEDA along with another 10 villages which were earlier electrified under the Decentralised Distributed Generation (DDG) Schemes.

While the MEDA is responsible for providing electricity in these areas, the agency faces issues due to the five-year tenure of operations and maintenance (O&M) under the DDG scheme.

“It has been observed that once the tenure ends, due to inadequate O&M, the systems become inoperative. Such a scenario requires re-electrification of these villages either by repairing and renovating the existing system or by installation of a new DDG system,” said the report.

This explains why local Marathi newspapers like Maharashtra Times continue to speak of villages in Melghat that receive electricity for the first time after independence in 2021.

The village in question Chopan resorted to one of the alternative methods of electricity generation – solar energy. Similarly, an Adivasi hamlet near the Dahigaon region availed the help of Pune-based NGO Gram Oorja to use micro-grids for electricity supply, reported the Hindustan Times in 2019. The community was moved into the forest 8 km from Dahigaon when the Vaitarna and Tansa dam was built in the late 1950s.

Speaking to SabrangIndia, Gram Oorja Technical Head Prasad Kulkarni said that such tribal regions near dams and forests are excluded from the electricity grids because it is difficult to reach the electric supply to separate households in hamlets.

“Remoteness is one of the critical factors because it costs quite a lot to electrify 10-12 villages within a 4 km distance. House lighting is likely to be an issue then. So, alternative methods like solar panels are used. Gram Oorja uses a similar method where we help through decentralised, single power generation units, then distributed to villages. The power is basically for household purposes and few commercial reasons,” said Kulkarni.

Electricity in Maharashtra’s Adivasi-dominated districts

A Nandurbar Adivasi resident recounted how the quality and frequency of electricity in Adivasi villages varied extensively. Some villages enjoyed 24-hour electricity while others suffered infrequent bouts of power supply. Wanting to remain anonymous, the law student said that she lived with her extended family in Akkalkuwa region for better power supply to continue her studies. However, even in Nandurbar, the issue of poor quality electricity persists.

Most indigenous villages there do not receive electricity from 10 AM to 3 PM and then again from 6 PM to 9 PM. During monsoon, there is no schedule and villages are left in the dark for hours to come. Some areas do not have electricity for months together.

Despite this, the electricity bill does not change throughout the year. Every household receives regular bills of approximately Rs. 150 every month even though most people only charge their phones or use lights at night. These costs are an additional burden at a time when villagers have to deal with heavy rains. The student also mentioned that some street lights in villages do not work.

“We have tried to talk to officials about the bills but whenever we complain, they threaten us with assault charges. This has happened with my cousin already,” the student told SabrangIndia.

When asked about similar complaints, Kulkarni agreed that Gram Oorja too received similar complaints from residents but did not have any idea why this happened.

Even in Palghar district near Mumbai, the situation is the same. Talasari’s farmer Sunita said that each household receives electricity bills worth Rs. 17,000 to Rs. 18,000 per month although they do not receive 24-hour electricity.

“Around two households here share one bulb for light. In the evening there is no electricity. It comes at 10 AM but then many times there is no electricity in the morning either. We complained to the authorities. They never did anything about it,” said Sunita.

The considerable bills further complicate household finances. The student who spoke to us also said that officials could at the least check whether the area’s electric boards are working and charge accordingly.

The digital divide

Experts on this matter assure that villages have 15-20 hours of power supply and a sturdy infrastructure despite compromises in quality. Kulkarni pointed out that cost and services also depend on the amount of population, related subsidies and how well money is being collected. However, it is worth debating whether these circumstances are acceptable in 2021, amid waves of Covid-19.

For Dhadgaon villagers, the erratic electric supply is a hindrance to education. The unreliable internet situation makes it difficult for smooth online registrations. Be it vaccine registration, exam forms, mobile phones need to be sufficiently charged to work in the digital world, said the student. Children cannot carry on online education because of similar charging issues. She spoke of an incident wherein many aspirants from Nandurabar and Dhadgaon taluka failed to fill CET exam forms due to issues with internet connectivity.

“By the time they filled the form, they had to pay penalty fees. Nowadays, everything is digital. All work needs electricity,” she said.

Already in 2010, the World Bank stated that 85 percent of Maharashtra’s rural population used electricity as a main source of lighting. Nowadays, nearly every form of transaction is carried out digitally. To the younger generation, the situation is little different from 2009, when youngsters from aforementioned talukas travelled 150-200 kms to avail internet/electricity access.

Recently, during Cyclone Tauktae, the student’s phone switched off mid-exam leaving her law paper unfinished. She had charged her phone from a nearby village and was working at 40 percent battery.

Her college later informed the exam was delayed due to the issue but the problem in Adivasi villages remains. In Akkalkuwa, she now lives in a house with a generator, hoping no such incident will happen during her next examination.

Related:

Stone quarrying, development projects threatening Jharkhand’s sacred groves
Impoverished Adivasis Hunted as Criminals
Adivasi Mahila Kisan: the unsung voices of Indian agriculture
Maharashtra’s fishing community fights to protect its 'golden belt' coast

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