Electricity highlights India's rich-poor divide

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Yeoor village, known to many in India for its proximity to Sanjay Gandhi National Park, is one of the country's top tourist locations.

But the tribal village is also known for a more dubious distinction, as one of the many hamlets in Maharashtra state without electricity.

Located just outside Mumbai, India's most heavily populated city, the lack of electricity has hindered development and education and kept impoverished people poor, according to local community leaders. In nearby Takka, several dozen tribal houses remain dark while the high-rise buildings of Mumbai's bordering gateway city of Panvel cast dark shadows over the village.

Of the 43,711 villages in Maharashtra state, 4,808 -- or about 11 percent -- have no electricity and depend upon kerosene lamps at night. Those impacted include Dalit Christians, among the poorest of the poor in a country where Christians constitute a minority, 2.3 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people.

"Though the government has announced many projects for tribal welfare, they have not reached us. Our children are unable to study and burning oil lamps is unaffordable," said Lahanu Koth of Takka village.

The lack of electricity deprives tribals of "any gainful employment because we are unable to start any ventures", he said.

India has failed to overcome electricity disparities, said Yatendra Agrawal, an engineer and founder of EcoSolutions, a nongovernmental organization that is working to provide solar lamps to villagers. 

"The grid-based centralized generation system has failed to meet the basic energy needs of the rural population," he said.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to provide electricity to villages through a new national network, many villagers recalled that Modi's predecessors had made the same promise.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh launched the National Solar Mission in 2008, which aimed to make India the world leader in solar power generation by 2022. The first phase of the mission was completed in 2013, but the poor in Yeoor said they have not been helped.

A state electricity board official told ucanews.com that the area, located near an Indian air force base, is a high security area and having it lit at night is considered dangerous. However, the air force base and the bungalows of wealthier residents are brightly lit, while the tribal villages remain dark.

In India where the gap between rich and poor has as much to do with culture as it does with economics, some of the poor believe electricity is meant only for the rich.

"We are very poor and illiterate. We depend on the sahibs [rich] for our living. They are our mai-baaps [providers]. How can we dare to have the privilege of electricity like them?" says Soma Gavit, whose hut at Yeoor is black with soot from the kerosene lamp that lights his home at night.

Maharashtra's Minister for Tribal Development Madhukarrao Pichad expressed shock when told 11 percent of tribal villages in the state were without electricity.

"I am not really not aware of the woes of these villages. Nobody has complained to me," he said.

Villagers are not surprised by the minister's lack of awareness.

"During elections the politicians assure us that our village will be lit," said Hiraman Suthar.

Anand Limaye, the director general of the Maharashtra Energy Development Agency, responsible for renewable energy in the state, said that his agency has invested about $20 million to improve electrical services. But he said the rough terrain has stalled development projects from reaching all villages.

Ganesh Naik, Maharashtra's minister of new and renewable energy, boasted, "We will bring light to the lives of the poor."

When asked how he intends to accomplish this goal, the minister said, "I know that the targets are ambitious, the task is not without hurdles and that the aspirations and expectations of the people are immense. But I am confident that my ministry will be able to bring light and succor into the lives of the people."

Amit Deshmukh, a junior minister, told ucanews.com that under a federal scheme, tribal villages will have electricity within two years.

But the villagers of Takka and Yeoor have heard it all before.

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