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Many Indian villagers still waiting for promised electricity

Modi's rural power campaign has yet to reach 31 million homes

A man installs an electric transformer by a wheat field in India -- many villages are still without power.   © Reuters

CHANDOKHA SUDIYAL, India -- In late April Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government had achieved the laudable feat of getting electricity to every village in the country, a promise he made when he stormed to electoral victory in 2014. But a visit to a village in a rural area shows that reality is lagging behind the rhetoric.

In Chandokha Sudiyal village, some 170km southeast of the nation's capital, daily wage laborer Kishori Lal, who has been siphoning electricity to power a table fan and two lights in his house, is waiting for his own connection.

"[Stolen electricity] may be free, but it's not the same thing as having your own connection," said Lal's daughter Anita, a postgraduate student who applied for the electricity connection for the family about six months ago. "It doesn't give you the same feeling. So many people in the village have electricity but we don't. We also want our own connection."

More than 800 million of India's 1.25 billion population live in the countryside. According to the government's definition, a village is considered "electrified" once it is connected to the grid by a transmission line and when public places like schools and clinics and at least 10% of the homes get power.

So far, only 1,423 of 18,452 villages identified by the government in 2015 as lacking power now have 100% household connectivity, according to official data. About 31 million homes are yet to get any power, the largest chunk of which are in Uttar Pradesh, Lal's home state, and the country's largest and poorest one.

Many of those with little or no electricity access get it the old-fashioned way, by hooking a wire to the transmission lines in the area and diverting some of the power to their own homes -- power theft, in other words. Or they turn to the scores of companies that sell or lease solar panels to people to run their fans and lights.

Modi's government has promised to get power to all the remaining 31 million homes by December -- that means wiring up 150,000 households a day, a tall order when the authorities lately have only managed about 30,000 a day. The government has waived the connection fee for the poor, who would still have to pay for the electricity they use. It has also promised round-the-clock electricity to all homes by 2022.

Connecting the villages to the grid is an important first step toward those goals, experts say. It also helps shore-up voter support, with several states due to go to the polls this year and national elections set to take place by next May.

But despite Modi's claims, Lal's story is fairly common across the country, experts say.

Hakim Singh gets legal electricity 10 hours a day, so he has to rely on a handheld fan to combat the heat much of the time. (Photo by Megha Bahree)

"This is an achievement, as in 70 years [of India as an independent country] we hadn't taken electricity to all villages," said Debajit Palit, associate director, rural energy and livelihoods, at the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi. "And it's fine to celebrate achievement, but unless you make the overall picture, you've only won the battle and you still have to prepare for the war."

The gaps are visible in Lal's village, where more than 100 out of almost 400 families do not have an electricity connection.

Lal's neighbor, Hakim Singh, a milk seller, has a legal electricity connection, but gets power for barely 10 hours a day. On a recent Monday he sat on the floor, eating lentils and bread with one hand while swinging a fan with the other to wave off the swarm of flies in the afternoon heat. His three children, all going to school, still have to study by candlelight.

"This is the bigger challenge for the government," said Palit, not just to ensure that electricity reaches all homes, but to have it available at all times. An agreement between the federal and state governments to achieve this by 2022 -- the so-called 24x7 Power for All goal -- was "ambitious," he said.

Some others are boosting their limited legal or illegal electricity supply with solar power.

In neighboring Faridpur village, Bharti Devi, her farmer husband and three school-going children live in a two-room house where their cooler, television and small fridge are all powered by hooking a line to the transmission wire. They have a solar connection as a backup for when the electricity goes down.

The five members of the family of Bharti Devi, left, run their fan and other appliances with power siphoned from a transmission line. (Photo by Megha Bahree)

Manoj Kumar, another resident of the same village, has a legal connection to run the same gadgets in his house and a solar one for when the power is out. But Kumar does not have a meter, and he said the last time he got an electricity bill was in 2016, for a thousand rupees ($15), a common scenario across villages.

For the grocery store that he runs in the village, Kumar is sticking with solar, as a commercial connection would be "too expensive," he said. "I can run everything important, a fan, a light and charge my cellphone with solar power."

The cost of power and fine-tuning the infrastructure to deliver it is a real problem, said TERI's Palit. "To manage infrastructure in rural areas is very difficult and companies have to work very hard ... My fear is that after some time these households will get disconnected [for nonpayment of bills.]"

Piyush Mathur, chief executive of Simpa Networks, a renewable energy company which counts Kumar and Devi as its clients, said the arrival of the grid had hurt the company, as it delayed potential clients from signing contracts with it.

"But on the flip-side it's also been good for us as the grid gets them habituated to electricity, and we see many customers turning to Simpa as a cost-saving measure," said Mathur

That could include Lal, who paid $30 to a line-man for his connection, even though he is eligible for one for free. After months of waiting he is now looking for other options.

"It's been a while since we applied," he said. "We have no update on it and we're still waiting."

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