|The Great Indian Darkness
||[Sep. 29th, 2009|06:21 pm]
Rainspotting in Bangalore
I visited some villages in rural Karnataka this week where people are living without electricity. After nightfall we drove to Mahime Village in Uttara Kannada, a coastal district of Karnataka State and left the car at the side of the road. On foot we picked our way along a dirt path through the forest, splashed through a creek and uphill until we reached a house. The muted blue of the mud walls glimmered in the yellow light of the small kerosene lamps as we picked leeches off our feet and Sarojini Rama Naik, the wife of the house, burnt them with embers from the fire.
Sarojini and her husband, Rama Timma Naik, have lived here for nearly 40 years, fitting their daily schedule into the daylight hours and eating their evening meal by kerosene lamplight before going to sleep at around 8pm. The government provides everyone in the area with three litres of kerosene per month, subsidised to a rate of ten rupees per litre, but as this isn’t enough for their needs Rama travels to Gerusoppa Town, 10km away, once a month to pick up an extra six litres on the black market, at a higher rate. As the express buses don’t stop at their hamlet – Vatehalla – the journey takes him a whole day, on which he must set other business aside. The people in the village who do have electricity don’t always need their government-issued kerosene, so he asks the ration-shopkeeper to deal him the extra.
Mahime village consists of scattered hamlets, like most of the villages in this rural area, and of the 300 families the village is home to about 65 are living without access to electricity. It’s not an uncommon living arrangement, easily overlooked with the district website’s claim that “all towns and villages have electricity facilities in the District.”
Rama signs the yearly application letter for electricity sent by the village to the government, but only occasionally do they receive a reply informing them of the status of their application – usually a notice that it has been forwarded to X official – and there is still no power connection. About five years ago, 25-30 pylons were erected in the area but they still stand naked, devoid of power-carrying connecting cables. Rama doesn’t know why. He thinks it is because of the thick forest that surrounds the area, meaning cables could be cut by falling trees at any time; but also because of the scattered nature of the village population - separate cables would have to be laid for every one or two families. The village’s unelectrified residents boycotted the last assembly elections in protest but nothing has changed, save a visit from local government official.
Rama is a small-scale farmer: he cultivates half an acre of paddy and a quarter acre of orchard. The areca nut that grows in the orchard has to be dehusked, processed and separated into its red and white varieties within a certain timeframe, but it’s not work that can be done in the dark. If they had electricity, they say they could do this after nightfall too, and increase their income. They’d also use it to irrigate their crop with an electric pump, and Sarojini would get a grinding machine to save her the one-two hours she spends each day grinding spices in the huge granite mortar on the floor of the kitchen. They’d like to read at night, too, but it’s too dim so they just go to bed.
To add to their injustice, the couple live near two large hydroelectric dams – upstream of the 240MW Gerusoppa Dam, and downstream from the 55MW Linganamaki Dam. But the electricity produced by the dams goes elsewhere, and only one percent of the 1664MW of electricity produced in Uttara Kannada is distributed to the district’s residents. Most goes to the cities: Bangalore, for example, in which there are still frequent power cuts, gobbles over half of the electricity produced in the state.
“I remember when the dams were built when I was young, and my father saying we might get electricity,” says Rama. “Many of the surrounding villages have it. Why don’t we? It must be our bad fate. You learn to accept it.”
Kerosene lamps are not just a primitive and inefficient way of lighting a home, they also have implicated health issues. As we talk, the flame at the top of the small metal bottle snatched at the air, giving off grey smoke.
“The inside of my nose is black,” admits Sarojini, and the smoke makes me cough. But I’m used to it – I’ve never known a different way of living.”
Accustomed to the polluted conditions, many people with these living arrangements are not aware of the damage slowly being wreaked to their health, but that’s not to say the consequences don’t exist. The UN estimated that people who rely on kerosene and biomass stoves inhale the equivalent of two cigarette packets a day, with women and children being the most affected as they spend the most amount of time in the house. Two thirds of women in India, China and Mexico who developed lung cancer were non-smokers, an alarmingly high aberration.
The lamps are dangerous, too. Earlier in the day, while it was still daylight, a 16 year old girl called Hemavati told me how their house had burnt down two years previously after her father had left the burning lamp too close to the thatched palm wall.
“We managed to save some of our things, but most of them were burned,” she remembers. “I was very scared at the time, but all the people got out and there’s no use still being scared of the lamps – we have to use them.” Inside the dim house, the lamps were lit despite the sunshine outside, and smoke form the fire curled up in the chinks of light coming through the roof. The tops of the walls were black with deposited soot.
Some of the saddest and most overlooked consequences of living without electricity are the social and familial. In every unelectrified hamlet we visited, most of the children were absent. Sometimes for lack of a school in the village but always because of the lack of light to study in the evening time, the young people of the village had been sent away to live with relatives in bigger, electrified towns. In one village with 35 unelectrified families, only six children were still living with their parents, the other 40 living elsewhere. Rama and Sarojini’s two children are also living in a different town.
“Of course I miss them,” says Sarojini. “But they have to have an education. We see them once every six months when they come and stay with us for a night, but even then they find it difficult to be without electricity.
“Moving is not a possibility for us two. We’ve been here almost 40 years, and our home and our land is here – where would we go now?”
To keep in contact with their children, the couple have bought a mobile phone, a pink Nokia that dangles from a roof beam in the amber lamplight. Of course, they have no way to charge it and so make the day journey to Gerusoppa once a week where they can plug it into a power socket. As Sarojini texts her children by the light of a kerosene lamp, you wonder at the incongruity of living in such archaic conditions in an age of nuclear medicine and pleasure trips into space.
With thanks to Mr. Narasimhe Hegde and Mr. Ramesh Hegde.