It was the year 1991 when India decided to open its economy. Hakki Bai, a five-year-old girl then, used to go to nearby forests with her mother to pick woods for fuel. Her mother would use it as firewood to prepare food for her and her father. Thirty years later, Hakki Bai, now a mother, goes to a nearby forest area in search of firewood to cook meals for her and her 15-year-old son. They stay in Kota Gunjapur, a village of Panna district in Madhya Prades that is known for diamond mining.

On what has changed between then and now, she smiled and said: “I do not know if my parents had any dream for me or not but I have one for my child. I want my son Brij to study and live a dignified life.”

However, this dream has suffered a setback due to the pandemic. Brij was studying in Class nine at a nearby school, which has been closed since the countrywide lockdown was imposed in March 2020 to restrict the spread of the virus. “Neither he goes to school nor he studies at home,” Hakki Bai, whose village is around 20-km from Panna town in Madhya Pradesh, told Mongabay-India.

“Ever since his school got closed, he has been spending his days playing one game or the other with his friends and during the night, he cannot study because it is pitch dark,” she rued. “The village has no electricity. I am desperately waiting for either his school to open or my village to get electricity so that he gets some time to study.”

The story of 35-year-old Hakka Bai from 1991 to 2021 – during which India’s per capita electricity consumption rose three-fold from 360 kWh to 972 kWh – summarises the journey of many Indians for whom access to energy continues to define their life.

In 2017, she had got an LPG connection under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana but, according to her, she has not been able to refill it regularly due to her unaffordability.

She is not alone in this and is part of millions who are beneficiaries of India’s recent push to make clean energy available to all.

“Connection is there but adoptions remain to be done,” notes Debajit Palit, Director, Rural Energy and Livelihoods, The Energy and Resource Institute.

Hakki Bai lives in a village where 88 families of the Gond community (a tribal community) reside and nearly all have a similar story to tell. They have been waiting for decades for the electricity to come to their village.

Hakki Bai with her family. She had got an LPG connection under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana but, according to her, she has not been able to refill it regularly due to her unaffordability. Photo credit: Ramvishal Gond

In 2017, they thought that their dreams would see the light of the day when electricity poles were transported to their village. But four years later, those poles are still lying there, said Ramvishal Gond, a resident from the same village. Even for charging a mobile phone, they have to travel a few kilometres, he told Mongabay-India over the phone.

He shared a picture of his eight-year-old daughter studying in the light of a kerosene lamp and said: “I can afford the necessary kerosene but everyone cannot. I go to the town and earn some money but most of the families in my village are dependent on labour work and forest produce.”

The electricity poles were brought into his village when the central government launched Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (Saubhagya) in 2017. Launched with the aim of achieving universal household electrification by providing last-mile connectivity, it has managed to connect 2.81 crore households, according to RK Singh, the minister of state for power. He claims that “all households have been reported electrified by the states on Saubhagya portal, except 18,734 households in Left-Wing Extremists-affected areas of Chhattisgarh”.

Similarly, the central government launched another scheme named the PMUY in 2016 with the purpose of giving LPG connection to families below the poverty line. It was later extended to other poor families. Launched with the purpose of pushing clean cooking fuel and reducing indoor pollution, the scheme had connected eight crore families by September 7, 2019, claims the central government.

Ramvishal’s eight-year-old daughter studying in the light of a kerosene lamp in Kota Gunjapur village of Panna district of Madhya Pradesh. The villagers have been waiting for decades for the electricity to come to their village. Photo credit: Ramvishal Gond

Fellow and Director of the Powering Livelihood unit at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, Abhishek Jain said that in the past few years there has been an increasing focus on ensuring basic access to energy sources both electricity and clean cooking fuel. Most of the Saubhagya work came on the back of years of effort made previously like laying down entire distribution lines to each and every village of the country under the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojna launched in 2005.

“But there is a long way to go before we can claim to have 24X7 uninterrupted universal supply of electricity,” he told Mongabay-India. “There is a significant number of households not getting electricity for more than 12 hours to 15 hours.”

Quality of electricity

A Dhanbad-based journalist Vivek Sinha underlines the quality of electricity in the city and nearby areas as he observes that there are at least 24 power cuts in 24 hours of the day. The time duration of power cuts varies from a few minutes to even hours.

Jharia, barely five kilometres from Dhanbad is one of the major coal providers to the country which energises the Indian economy.

Sinha said that situation is worse in rural areas. In districts such as Hazaribag, Chatra (Jharkhand), people get hardly 10 hours-12 hours of power supply and that too is erratic. The worst part is that there is no power supply when the people need it most – during summers or extreme winters.

While replying to a query in parliament in September 2020, RK Singh shared the hours of electricity provided to rural areas in different states. He said that rural areas of Jharkhand get around 18.39 hours of electricity while states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Mizoram, Sikkim get 14 hours-16 hours of electricity in a day. In comparison, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand get around 18 hours of electricity every day.

A survey conducted by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in 2018 highlights a similar trend. It states that “About 76% of the rural households in Bihar reported using grid electricity as their primary source of lighting, compared to only 21% in 2015.”

“Likewise, rural Jharkhand saw a three-fold increase in the number of households that rely on grid electricity as their primary source of lighting, from 20% in 2015 to 60% in 2018, even though the median hours of supply in the state has only marginally improved from eight hours to nine hours a day,” it states.

Abhishek Jain is one of the lead authors of this survey.

About the quality of electricity connection, a study conducted by NITI Aayog with Rockefeller Foundation and Smart Power India in 2020 notes that “around 92% of household customers with a grid-based electricity connection have a low sanctioned load of 0–1 kW (76% of customers) or 1 kW–2 kW (16% of customers)”. It reflects customer’s demand and their capacity to consume electricity. Enhancing connected load and customer capacity may be crucial to driving economic productivity and output going forward, says the report.

A woman cooking chapatis in a small village in the Kutch, Gujarat. The government launched the PMUY scheme in 2016 to give LPG connection to families falling under Below Poverty Line. The majority of villagers got LPG connections but usage is quite low. Photo credit: Chris/Flickr

Purchasing power

Though connections were provided by the centre through several schemes there is debate over whether people are able to use them due to their unaffordability. There is a good number of people who have the connection but are not able to pay for it, said Debajit Palit of TERI.

Providing electricity to the household is the states’ responsibility. Few states are providing subsidised and cheap electricity. The majority got the LPG connections but usage is quite low, he added.

“Till people do not reach a level of reasonable income, they will not be able to purchase modern energy source in general and clean cooking fuel in particular,” he told Mongabay-India.

Data of per capita electricity consumption indicates the same – poorer the state, lower the electricity. Bihar per capita electricity consumption was 332 kWh in 2019-20 in comparison to 360 kWh of per capita electricity consumption of India in 1991. Bihar also registered the lowest per capita net state domestic product in 2019-’20. The relationship is obvious.

In many states like Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, Puducherry, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, the per capita electricity consumption is less than India’s per capita electricity consumption in 2019-20. While Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa tops the list.

Kota Gunjapur village in the Panna district of Madhya Pradesh has no electricity since independence. In 2017, the villagers thought their dreams would see the light of the day when electricity poles were ported to their village. But four years later, those poles are still lying there. Photo credit: Ramvishal Gond

Pandemic and energy crisis

The relationship of energy access with purchasing power paints a grim picture for the near future. Many like Hakki Bai are increasingly facing financial hardship in recent days.

Regarding refilling of the LPG cylinder given under the Ujjwala Yojana, she said that for the first couple of years, she tried to get it refilled at least twice a year. It helped her in some immediate cooking like preparing tiffin for her son or making tea but she has completely shifted to biomass since the pandemic hit the country.

She explained the reason: “Before Covid-19, I used to earn around Rs 2,000 to 2,200 per month by doing labour work in a farm field or construction sites. I used to get 10 to 12 days of work every month and was getting Rs 200 on a daily basis. Now, nobody hires us for these works.”

When asked how does she manage her livelihood, she said it is by selling minor forest produce such as mahua and tendu leaves.

Her story might be unique but the experience is universal. Debajit Palit from TERI shared his experience of Varanasi where his organisation is working with the weaver community and is engaged in installing solar looms. In this programme, weavers give 40% of the cost and 60% is pooled with the help of the corporates under Corporate Social Responsibility.

“Once the first wave of Covid-19 pandemic receded, we resumed our work, we found weavers are facing problem in paying their share since their income was hit,” he said adding that it is going to impact the access to the clean and modern energy source. “They are not getting orders. They have used all their savings to ensure food and shelter during the crisis time.”

Other than these anecdotal facts, there are few studies indicating about increasing financial hardship of more and more people due to Covid-19. A new study by PEW Research Centre released on March 18 has claimed that India along with sub-Saharan Africa will see a significant increase in poverty due to the ongoing pandemic. “Asia is expected to have accounted for most of the shrinking of the global middle class in 2020, with the middle-class population falling by 32 million in South Asia,” it said and added that India will have a big share in this number.

While talking to Mongabay-India, Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India and head of the Centre’s Standing Committee on Economic Statistics shares a new perspective about consumption and wealth distribution as he connects the present scenario with another pandemic of 100 years ago.

He explained that due to demonetisation and now a pandemic, the pattern of wealth distribution is changing. “Few are moving upward and more of the middle class is moving downwards,” he said. “As a result, there will be an increase in consumption level immediately once the pandemic recedes. It will happen because of those who have moved upward on the economic ladder. Soon, it will get saturated. India has seen a similar situation in 1920, a century ago when another pandemic has hit the country hard.”

The situation will be grimmer this time because the distribution of wealth is worse than that, he added. And obviously, access to energy will get impacted – exactly what the story of Hakki Bai suggests.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.