Activist Sunanda Patwardhan was in her office in interior Jawhar district, one morning last year, when a local Warli woman angrily demanded to see her. She had just returned from Mumbai and what she had witnessed left her incensed. “Two-three fans in one room, tubelights, many bulbs, moving pictures, mixer, fridge, washing machine, everything can run on their grids, and ours? Even the light that comes from our bulbs is weak,” she fumed.
Patwardhan tried to console her, saying she would have to pay more than the flat rate she paid now for electricity. “I don't know all that. What I do know is we are being given less and they are being given more. Tai (sister), you fix it,” she said as she stormed off.
Patwardhan smiles. “She knew even without an education and without knowing any science, that the electricity that comes off the microgrid is not the same,” she says.
Inequality from access to electricity comes in many forms. One is the lack of access itself and the second is access to a watered-down version. The first allows consumers' free reign of use, the latter requires consumers to consider the collective good. The first comes from privilege, the latter from the interminable wait to be hooked up to the grid.
When Tulsabai Sankhwad, 42, became sarpanch of Arjapur, in Biloli, Maharashtra, her first act in 2015 was to give electricity to the Masanjogi gully, a narrow strip of slums, the nomadic community had been consigned to since the 1960s. For the first time, there are streetlights along its narrow lane, and in her house, a tubelight, a bulb, and a mixer. The electricity is not constant. As evening falls, they still sometimes sit in the dark, but that it comes on at all is a big change.
One of the small repercussions of enforced representation policies in local body politics has been the widening of access to power, real power.
“Whether the electricity comes from the conventional grid or the solar microgrid, to the recipient, electricity is electricity,” says Debajit Palit, associate director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) for rural energy and livelihoods. In Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, Palit tells of villages that differentiate between “asli bijli” (real electricity) and “chhoti bijli” (little electricity).
“They join the queue of people who keep waiting for the government grid,” Palit says. The distinction between ‘asli' and ‘chhoti' bijli or electricity emanating from microgrids, or solo solar panels that provide enough power to charge just one mobile phone or one low watt bulb, is commonplace in the villages of the have-nots.
In villages with microgrids, everyone’s waiting for ‘real power’