Patna doesn't have much in the way of social spaces. Its efforts are pretty much encapsulated in the Gandhi Maidan, a wide square of scrubby grass in the centre of town, and people flock to it.
The evening scene there on Friday 29th started as any other: hawkers roasted peanuts in woks of hot sand, selling the kernels with green chilli and salt in newspaper packets for ten rupees a pop. Boys were playing cricket next to the line of huge yellow school buses that had, for some reason, been parked on the field like a seam, or a scar. Chaiwallahs lugged heavy silver kettles of tea between the small groups of men seated in the grass, and the crows followed at a distance, watchful for food. In the long evening sunlight their feathers gleamed like black slicks of oil.
Then crimsons and pinks began to pop at the side of the field. Women in bright sari appeared, more and more of them, and grouped underneath the Gandhi statue behind a yellow banner.
‘Renewable Energy = Empowered Bihar’
it read. Opposite them, groups of men began to gather too, wearing cream and white kurta and dhoti that distinguished them from the shirts-and-shoes-outfits of the city-dwellers. They held more signs: pink and green and blue placards with more slogans calling for decentralised renewable energy. By half past four, there were more than 600 people massed in the shadow of the metal Gandhi, having come from districts across Bihar to protest their neglect at the hands of the state electricity providers.
“Gandhiji believed that a nation cannot develop unless its villages develop,” explains Brikesh Singh. Brikesh is one of a team of Greenpeacers that have spent the last month on a Urja Kranti Yatra, or Energy Revolution Journey, travelling through rural areas in 15 districts to spread awareness of how decentralised renewable energy could quickly provide electricity for the villages.
“Well, we take that further. We believe that villages cannot develop without decentralised renewable energy.”
Under the statue in Gandhi Maidan, a street theatre troupe began to play. To the beat of their drum, the lines of village dwellers moved forward and began their protest march.
“There are 9.5 crore people in Bihar,” said Ashok Kumar Sinha, who heads a consultancy group in the development sector “and only 21% of them have access to electricity.” On the morning of the march, a group of Bihar farmers and social commentators had gathered in the Urja Kranti Kendra to speak of Bijili Ki Kahani, or stories of electricity.
“Each time we want to raise an issue, we seek support from a political party,” roused Arpana Udupa, a Greenpeace campaigner who had organised the event. “We need to break these shackles, because it’s fundamental that the people’s voice is heard on this issue.”
The stories were an unflinching testimonial to the sad state of Bihar’s electricity infrastructure, and the consequences for those whose lives have been left to the dark.
“The situation was better in 1980 than it is now,” testified Pashupati Prasad Singh, a farmer from Sarang Jila, Chhapra district. “Back then there was a little electricity in one or two homes. But now there is no power supply, and all you can do is just sit under a tree to relieve yourself from the monstrous heat.
“Patna is the capital, so the condition is a little better. But nobody asks or cares about villages.”
The attestations came thick and fast. “We need power for all sorts of comforts, small and big,” said Avdesh, a farmer from Kalyan Bigha. “But our power supply is only two or three hours a day. There’s no power for agriculture, schools, offices.”
“It’s hardly for one or two hours, and sometimes only for a minute or two,” asserted Ajit Kumar Singh, a farmer with land near Avdesh’s. “The entire village is suffering from this problem. Whatever electricity there is has come from the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, which is hardly of any help. I spend Rs. 100 a month to buy oil from the market to meet the electricity shortage.”
The Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) is the rural electrification scheme under which the Ministry of Power intends to deliver its grand promise of ‘Electricity for All’ by 2012. Needless to say, that dream is still a long way off.
“I’ve never had an electricity supply, so I’ve never paid attention to where it might come from,” says Sudhakar Mishra from Sarang Jila. “I buy six to seven litres of kerosene oil a month.”
The RGGVY focuses almost exclusively on expanding the centralised grid system, which takes electricity generated in large power plants and sends it to end users through transmission and distribution lines. India has a power generation deficit, which is particularly severe in Bihar, meaning that there is simply not enough electricity to go round. In addition, electricity is lost through transporting it over long distances, so more is wasted.
The centralised model has failed to provide energy services to rural India, and Greenpeace has another vision of how it can be done: a network of small systems, running off renewable energy. By building infrastructure in this decentralised manner - called decentralised renewable energy, or DRE - rural communities can generate their own energy supply, and go some way towards righting the electricity bias that exists in India: that power is always sent to the cities, and rarely to the villages.
DRE has already begun in Bihar, and Rama Shiva of Husk Power Systems comes to speak about their work. Husk Power Systems create electricity through a simple technology called biomass gasification, using only rice husk as a raw material. Because the rice husk is sourced locally, it can generate money for the local economy, and a plant can be set up in only one or two weeks. You can read more about the project here.
In the audience of Bijili Ki Kahani, I meet Arjun Prasad. He runs a hostel 35km outside of Patna, housing 925 children through his organisation, Susangini. In addition to a roof, they provide the children with free education, clothing, books and medicine.
“I came to get the knowledge [on DRE] to take back to my community. We only have electricity supply [from the grid] for 4-5 hours per day, so I have to pay Rs. 8,000-10,000 each month to run a diesel generator for lights and fans in the hostel rooms. There are 35 of them. It’s so costly. I could use the money for the education. I think DRE could be a great solution, and I’m going to take the knowledge back to my community,” he says.
Back at the march, the columns of villagers march steadily past a rusted distribution transformer – another piece of electricity infrastructure in the process of decay. Next to it, high above their heads, is a shining billboard advertisement on for a college. ‘I can be anything I want to be’ it trumpets. Sadly, that’s not necessarily true for many of the people on this march. There are about 600 people here, included some rounded by rural NGOs that campaign on women’s and children’s issues, amongst others.
It’s a fact rarely appreciated by those of us who have ready access to power, but without energy services, domestic tasks take so much longer. It’s the women who walk to fetch water when it can’t be pumped, or spend hours preparing food in the dark by hand. Children are affected too, as they can’t study at night, so their chances of overcoming other socio-economic factors and making it to college are knocked even lower.
We can’t just source energy from anywhere, though. The centralised grid system in India typically runs off coal-fired thermal power plants, which also have negative effects on their local environment, in addition to the link between fossil fuels and global climate change.
Murli Dhar Sharma is a farmer who lives near to Muzzafarpur thermal power plant, which has been burning coal for power for 25 years now. He says no employment has been given to people in the area, and their crops are suffering.
“The groundwater level has lowered because of the establishment of the plant,” he says. Coal-fired thermal power plants need water for cooling, and for creating steam. They are famous guzzlers of local water supply. Once burnt, the coal is turned to gases, and solid ash.
“The ashes in the air get desposited over the leaves of our plants,” Murli further testifies. “And the quality of the crop has severely suffered. No villager has been given the right to ask questions with regard to their problems.”
Rajesh Tripathi from Chattisgarh attests to similar problems in his own state: “There is no water till 1500 ft deep, whereas earlier it could be found at 80 to 85 ft. The rivers are becoming horribly dirty, and people are suffering from asthma, TB and cancer because of the [coal fired power] plants. We need energy but safe energy. The kind of alternatives that is given by Greenpeace is given is definitely a good option.”
It’s the lead up to Diwali, and sales of washing machines, mixers and other electronic goods spill out into the streets as the protesters march by. ‘Life’s Good’ winks an advertising banner.
“All the appliances at home just keep lying unused,” says Rahmina Khatim, from Chhapra. “There’s no electricity in my house. No politician has ever paid attention to these problems; they just make false promises. A promise of the power supply in the next five years is made.”
Just before the afternoon march ends at the Urja Kranti Kendra, it passes by the car of Sushil Kumar Modi, the deputy chief minister of the previous government, canvassing votes as this is election time. ‘Vote for renewable energy!’ waved a placard message. This year is a first: the manifestos of almost all major political parties are mentioning energy access as a critical issue for Bihar. It’s about time.