Why Leisang, India’s ‘Last Village To Be Electrified’, Has Relapsed Into Darkness
As dusk set in on April 28, 2018, on this lush, remote village, a much-anticipated moment finally arrived–electric light bulbs lit up the dark, as whistles, and shouts of joy accompanied the pealing of the local church bell.
Leisang had finally been connected to the electricity grid, four years after other villages in the block, during which period the villagers had persistently knocked at government offices’ doors.
None less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated Leisang’s electrification, using the occasion to declare that the rural electrification target of the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana to supply power to 18,452 census villages had been achieved.
“Since then, the line [has been] erratic,” a Village Authority member told FactChecker, asking not to be named. “In the initial days when several media persons thronged the village, we used to get about four hours of electricity, and then the hours dwindled to minutes.”
Villagers say they were tutored to hide the truth during a video conference with the prime minister on July 18, 2018, and have actually gone back to sharing the small solar-powered systems they used before the power line reached their village, finding it more reliable and efficient.
This story continues our investigation as part of a FactChecker series evaluating the government’s flagship programmes in the run-up to the 2019 general elections. The first of this series was a three-part investigation of the government’s rural-jobs programme (here, here and here) and the second was an analysis of the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission’s sewage problem.
This present investigation of India’s village electrification programme has three parts: The first part explained why despite “100 percent electrification” of India’s 600,000-plus villages, nearly 15 million homes remain without electricity. This second part takes you to Manipur’s remote Leisang village–supposedly the last Indian village to be connected to grid electricity, and explains why after a high-profile event and great hope, it has lapsed back into darkness. The third part takes you to Sarwara village in central Uttar Pradesh to reveal why a village that has been declared electrified cannot keep the lights on.
A Journey Back In Time
This correspondent started from Imphal towards Leisang at sunrise on Sept. 6, 2018, but the car got stuck in mud 20 kilometers from the village. None of the four mobile services provided a signal. After two hours, some villagers heard the car’s horn and came to help. By the time our team reached the village, most residents had gone to the jhum (shifting cultivation) fields some 6 kilometers away to weed or harvest pumpkins and cucumbers. They also grow yam, ginger, chilli, potato, cabbage, several varieties of beans, mustard and herbs. The men take the produce for sale to Kangpokpi, the closest district headquarters with a large market, 30 kilometers from Leisang.
The village looked deserted, with only cows grazing in the playground. “We cannot afford to rest because our kids’ education costs more each year,” said village elder Lalboi Haokip, his face tanned from working in the hot sun.
The nearest school is in Kotland village, a steep 3 kilometers away, but the better-off families send their children to Kangpokpi. Often, one parent migrates along with the children for their primary education, reducing the village’s population, workforce and production.
The nearest public health centre, partially functional, is at Tujang Waichong, some 5 kilometers distant.
A Long Wait
Leisang is about 81 kilometers from the state capital of Imphal, the last 3 kilometers a steep uphill climb. It is a tableland nestled in rocky, high mountains, with greenery enveloping its 16 households on all sides.
No state transport plies toward this village, and villagers use private trucks or other overloaded shared vehicles. Landslides, slippery muddy stretches and sinking roads punctuate the 30 kilometers distance between Kangpokpi and Leisang, especially during the monsoon. Traffic is sparse, and there are no oil pumps or motor workshops though vehicles frequently break down on this route.
Only 10 people in this village out of a total population of about 70 have received voter identity cards. No political leader has ever visited the village nor has any NGO reached here.
All the neighbouring villages and other villages in the same block were connected to the electricity grid in 2014. Only this year did the repeated requests of Leisang residents to the government bear fruit.
On the appointed day in April this year, the villagers recalled gathering at the church, and the head deacon, Lamkhulien Lotjem, saying a heartfelt thanksgiving prayer on behalf of the congregation. Several elders wept in joy, they remembered.
“We felt like we were finally a part of the modernity boat and sailing at par with the others towards a brighter destination,” one villager told FactChecker. The conversation that night was all about possibilities–carpenters talked about the electric machine that could speed up their work, women of using rice cookers and washing machines.
The following day, village chief Tongsat Haokip convened a meeting to inform residents of the precautions and emergency response for the new power connection. This information led to a slight panic, and the subject remained in the church service’s prayers for a while.
Then, the electricity connection established on the evening of April 28 suddenly snapped on April 30. The elders went to Kotland village to find out why and to their surprise found they were, in government claims, the last village to be electrified in the entire country.
Suddenly, there were several reporters in private cars from town asking for directions to Leisang village. Electricity came back on May 2. This time, there was a rough schedule too: There would be power supply from dusk to about 10 o’clock at night. “After a fortnight, the visitors and the electricity faded together,” head deacon Lotjem told FactChecker.
Meanwhile, there were protests that other villages in the same state had no electricity. On May 14, 2018, the Hmar Student Union reacted to the prime minister’s claim saying 50 villages in Manipur in Pherzawl district and about 100 in Assam–more than 57 villages in North Cachar Hills district and more than 37 villages in the Barak Valley area of Cachar district–were yet to be electrified.
Leisang had thus far used solar energy and China-made dynamos imported from Burma to collectively charge their mobile phones and occasionally watch television with a DVD/CD player. A few privileged households had a few bulbs.
Only three families had solar lighting: The village chief, the head deacon and one Tongminlal Haokip. The other families were dependent on kerosene lamps and candles, spending at least Rs 20 per night per family.
Suddenly, power supply seemed to usher in equality among the 16 households, including the thatched house of the eldest widow, Hatkhunei Lotjem, and the two non-tribal Nepali families. They were not concerned about the meters that had been installed before power supply had begun, they said, because local officials had assured them that the boxes were “mandatory” and would not actually work or be used.
The Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (Deendayal Upadhyay Village Electrification Programme) became the first ever government programme implemented in the history of this village, kindling hopes that they were finally being recognised as citizens and would be treated as such.
Shortly after the power line reached the village, all the village leaders–irrespective of the church and the governing village body–met the chief minister in Imphal with a memorandum requesting road connectivity, potable drinking water supply, a community hall, a school and an anganwadi (child care) centre.
“During our village meeting we discussed that we are also entitled to these schemes so we decided to pursue at the chief minister’s level,” Kamlun Khongsai, appointed by the villagers as their development secretary, told FactChecker. “Till date, except for few small plastic pipes, we have not received any assurance regarding the other requests.”
By the time the monsoon arrived, rather early in May, power supply was sporadic at best. “Even slight thunder would mean power would be cut off for days,” said Lalboi Haokip, vice-chairperson of the Leisang village authority.
Each household had bought internal wiring and other requirements costing between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000. They had also arranged the lodging and food for three electricity department staff for a week. The department staff proved slow, so even the chief’s 15-year-old son Lenminlal Haokip assisted in the wiring of several households.
Six families bought television sets in the euphoria of the moment, while village chief Tongsat Haokip and Lamkhulien Lotjem bought satellite TV dishes. Two electric rice cookers were bought, becoming the object of envy for other families. Lalboi, the village secretary, had bought a new electric carpentry tool.
However, during the FIFA World Cup in June and July 2018, power supply was so erratic the villagers missed most of the matches. They finally decided to fall back on their solar batteries for the final matches.
‘Coaxed To Lie’
Yet they told the prime minister during a video conference on July 18, 2018, that they had watched the World Cup thanks to the new power line. Villagers told FactChecker they had been coaxed by power department officials not to mention the irregularity of supply. During the trial show for the conference, the villagers were taken to Imphal and instructed to highlight only the positive impacts of electricity. So, one of them told the Prime Minister they had started using washing machines.
This was indeed the cherished dream of the womenfolk in the village, though the men had decided to invest in television sets first.
Thangal Sam Vaiphei, the deputy general manager of the Kangpokpi unit of Manipur State Power Distribution Company Limited, arranged three vehicles to transport 20 villagers, including four women, to Senapati district headquarter for the video conference.
In order to converse with the prime minister in Hindi, they hired a relative from a village 120 kilometers away. The video conference lasted about seven minutes. The Prime Minister, the villagers said, briefly asked if they had watched the World Cup and who had won. He congratulated them and left to talk to villagers from other states.
Powerless Once Again
These days, the maximum supply is four hours, though usually it lasts no more than two, provided the weather is good. “Electricity has become like the most notorious thief,” said Lhingjahoi Haokip, the village chief’s aunt. “Sometimes electricity comes at 10 at night, after the entire village has gone to sleep. The purpose and utility of power in this village has been defeated by the irregularity of supply.”
The villagers had made enquiries and discovered an alternative power supply line that could give the village lit up for longer hours. For now, they have gone back to sharing the solar source for charging mobile phones, which, according to them are more reliable and efficient. The church has reconnected its new microphones to the solar batteries for its Sunday evening service.
After the video conference with the Prime Minister, all the officials who had assured them better power supply have stopped answering their phones, said Khongsai, the village development secretary. No one had come to collect their bills. Incidentally, Leisang is the only village in the area to be fitted with an electricity meter. Most villagers said they would be glad to pay for regular electricity that could improve their lives.
The state power distribution company’s deputy general manager in Kangpokpi, Thanglal Sam Vaiphei, did not answer this reporter’s phone calls or text messages. He finally agreed to talk after another senior official intervened on our behalf. He said he did not answer his phone because he feared calls from rebels in a state ridden with insurgent groups.
“Conflict is both a context and a convenient pretext for several service agencies to explain even unrelated anomalies,” said Kamlun Khongsai.
When asked about the unpredictable and irregular power supply, Vaiphei said only six line staff managed 70 kilometers of power lines to more than 100 villages in the hills.
“We charge Rs 120-150 per household per month, which is the least (possible) bill for being an economically backward area, and yet the villagers do not pay promptly,” said Vaiphei. “Hence, we sometimes cut off power for weeks.”
(Jajo is a freelance reporter based in Manipur.)
This is the second of a three-part series investigating the government’s electrification claims. You can read the first part here.
These stories are part of a series evaluating flagship government programmes in the run up the 2019 general elections. You can read the first part on the rural jobs programme here, here and here, and the second part on the sewage problem of the national toilet-building scheme here.
Filed Under: Fact Check
This copy was published in a special arrangement with IndiaSpend