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Out of the heart of darkness towards a brighter future

Issue Date - 30/04/2012
So far, the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) has done a commendable job in lighting up the lives of people in India’s boondocks. It shows. There are however threats that could derail the ambitious targets of the scheme. A little more attention to ironing out the wrinkles will go a long way in making its impact and appeal ring louder. An exclusive B&E ground report from Assam unveils all this and more...

18 months back, Umeshwar Saikia, aged 70, and a resident of the Halowa village (around 275 km north east of Guwahati), was not a busy man. He is today. A wooden craftsman by occupation, Umeshwar barely made a living by the rare orders that came his way. Today, even though he isn’t enjoying a life of luxury, he is satisfied; his income has doubled and is growing. The reason, he points out, is that with electricity reaching his house, he has been able to set up a small workshop where he puts in extra hours at night. This way, he is able to accept more orders. Electrification of his village under the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) has made all the difference, says Umeshwar.

Like Umeshwar, 85-year-old Niroda Saikia has her own reasons to feel happy about life. Her village borders Karbi Anglong, a district of Assam, which is home to many tribes and is often frequented by elephants, tigers and leopards who cross the village to reach higher land during floods. The villagers often have to give up their cattle to wild animals during floods and even otherwise. As she recalls, one night in early 2010, a tiger broke into the village and took away one of her two cows from the shed just behind the house. But much change has come to pass in the last couple of years. “With electricity reaching the village, there is a huge fall in the incidents of animal attack as the bright light scares them away,” she tells B&E, pointing to a bulb that she opted to be put outside her cowshed instead of inside the house.

20 other below-poverty-line (BPL) households like Umeshwar’s and Niroda’s in these two villages of Assam and around 790,000 households in this north-eastern state of India have, thanks to the RGGVY, have witnessed a change in the way they live their lives.

Launched by the Union Ministry of Power in April 2005 (by merging all ongoing schemes at the time) to electrify all villages and habitations as per the government’s ‘new definition of electrification’, RGGVY claims to provide access to electricity to all rural households and offer power connections free of charge to BPL families. But what has come in handy in bringing about this transformation is the change in the definition of ‘electrification’ of a village.

Unlike earlier (when a village was deemed to be electrified if electricity was used in the inhabited locality within the revenue boundary of the village for any purpose), today, a village can be called electrified only when 10% of the total number of households in the village are electrified and basic infrastructure such as transformers and distribution lines are provided in the inhabited locality. Additionally, power is also to be provided on demand to public places like schools, panchayat offices, health centres, dispensaries, community centres et al, ensuring that some electrification takes place in the real sense in these villages, instead of just being lip service. Perhaps this is why since the launch of the RGGVY programme in Assam, power connections have reached 791,659 BPL households (lighting up 7,629 non-electrified villages and partially electrifying 11,425 others).

“Electricity is the mother of all development and once it starts fuelling the lifestyle of these villagers, their aspirations will see a positive change,” says K.C. Venugopal, Union Minister of State for Power to B&E. According to Venugopal, over 90% of the targeted villages and about 80% of the targeted BPL households have been electrified by way of effective implementation of RGGVY. “I hope the states are putting in their best efforts to see that the funds allocated are utilised most optimally,” he says.

However, like the implementation of all other programmes, there is a flip side to the RGGVY as well. Despite the progress of the programme (with the second phase of the programme already underway), certain oft-heard complaints regarding its implementation and the role of middlemen have come in the way of the programme’s progress. Take the case of the 55-year-old Mukul Sahu, a resident of Haldhibari village (Golaghat district), for whom the promise of RGGVY remains an illusion. He wishes to have electricity in his home, but he says that the persistence for bribes by the personnel of Hyderabad-based Nagarjuna Constructions Co. Ltd – the sub-contractor for RGGVY works in Golaghat – has been demoralising. “I have a BPL card. I am eligible for a free connection. But when the Nagarjuna people came to the village, I was told that my name wasn’t on the list. I was asked to make a payment of Rs.3,000 for a connection. Months passed by and the rate went up to Rs.4,500. Today, it’s Rs.6,000. Where will I find such money?” recounts Sahu.

It appears that Nagarjuna Constructions, which was awarded the contract for carrying out the implementation work of RGGVY, does have an unsavoury track record. There have been complaints against it in the past as well (when it was involved in government projects such as the Gandak canal project in Bihar and road development works in Jharkhand, leading to black-listing of the company in these states).

When asked why the contract was given to an agency with a dubious past, Ajanta Kumar Goswami, Chief Project Manager – Guwahati, REC, says, “Nagarjuna was not black-listed when the contract for works in Golaghat district was awarded to them.” But he adds that there have been complaints against the company and I don’t see them being awarded any further contracts. Responding to this allegation, MoS Venugopal declined having any knowledge of such allegations.

While such acts of corruption have been known to plague the success of many of the Centre’s flagship programmes, lack of proper awareness also plays a major role. For instance, in the case of RGGVY, villagers are often oblivious to any mechanism to register their protests or complaints. This kind of ignorance encourages middlemen who misinform and misdirect villagers into giving in to illegal demands.

The residents of Rangbong village of Golaghat had some mixed reactions to share with B&E. Monir Ali, a 23-year-old, who now has a small business in this village, recalls how difficult it was to charge a cellphone in the days when electricity was a distant cry in his village. “It cost us a lot to travel to the town for access to a power point. We had to shell out up to Rs.50 per hour for the same.” Today almost every household in the village owns a mobile phone and Ali runs a shop for mobile software, printing et al. Then there is the 18-year-old Shankar who lives in a nearby village. After completing his high school, he had to opt out of studies. His parents could not afford his college fees. Says he, “Electricity reaching our village is good. But it hasn’t changed our lives. A bulb in my house won’t get me education,” he says. It is a lesson worth bearing in mind that dependence on one scheme for ‘total welfare’ is an impractical idea.


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