"My Village Has Never Seen Light": In India, Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasis Wait for Electricity

Women and children surround a tribal woman getting ready to fetch water from a nearby well in Khiriya Bharka village of Ashoknagar district, Madhya Pradesh in October 2022/ Credit: Tarushi Aswani.
Article 14
Ashoknagar, Madhya Pradesh, India
"My Village Has Never Seen Light": In India, Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasis Wait for Electricity

On a hot and dusty day in Koopgarh village in northern Madhya Pradesh, 8-year-old Imli Chap, red-faced and dressed in a pink salwar kameez, dragged her cloth bag behind her as she made her way to the local government school. 

Imli, the daughter of a mason, was less than enthusiastic about returning to school after the Diwali holidays. As she entered her one-room school attended by 19 other children, her teacher Ram Lakhan Ojha commended her for coming.

“Good you came today,” said 46-year-old Ojha as he opened all three windows of the small room as wide as he could to let the sunlight in. 

“This is the only source of light we have,” he said. “There’s no electricity here. The heat in the summer is extreme and children skip school because it is uncomfortable for them to study in such heat.”

In Koopgarh in Ashoknagar district, 250 kilometers north of Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal, uneven and unpaved roads lead up to 40 thatched huts coated with cow dung used as cooking fuel. 

The 100 residents, mostly Adivasis and some members of the Gurjar community of the other backward classes (OBC), who are wheat farmers or laborers, say their village has never had electricity. 

Villagers recall that in 2018, the state government, run by the Bharatiya Janata Party for almost two decades, installed electricity transformers in villages under the 2017 Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana "Saubhagya" scheme to bring light to approximately 45 lakh un-electrified households of Madhya Pradesh. 

More than four years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 28 April 2018 announced “every single village of India now has access to electricity,” the Adivasi and OBC villagers of Koopgarh and the neighboring Khiriya Bharka say they do not.

A village is declared electrified if 10% of its household are connected to a power grid. 

“As per recent reports from the States, household electrification level in rural areas is more than 82% ranging from 47 to 100% across various states,” the Modi government said at the time, adding that Saubhagya would achieve universal household electrification in the country by 31 December 2018. 

In November 2018, eight states — Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, Bihar, J&K, Mizoram, Sikkim, Telangana and West Bengal — claimed “100% saturation in household electrification” under Saubhagya. 

Adivasis without electricity

Of Madhya Pradesh’s 72 million people, 22% are from scheduled tribes, who appear to be particularly left out of the electrification program.

Adivasi-dominated villages in Damoh district are yet to be electrified, reported The Times of India on 15 August 2021. Villages in Ratlam district had electricity poles but no electricity, Zee News reported in 2019 when the Congress came to power.

In Rampur village of Bundelkhand district, villagers recalled electricity poles being erected in 1990, but there was still no electricity for 1,500 people, The Times of India reported in 2018. Bead village in Dewas was not electrified, Newsclick reported in 2018.

As the state government plans large-scale solar energy initiatives and invites bids for renewable energy projects, the Adivasis and the Gujjars in Koopgarh and Khiriya Bharka said they had heard of renewable energy but are yet to become recipients.

Commenting on this gap in access, tribal rights activist Gulzar Singh Markam, based in the southern district of Mandla, said that while thousands of crores were being invested in renewable energy projects, there were Adivasis who had no access to power, conventional or renewable.

“Adivasis still live without electricity, trekking in dense forests to collect firewood and drinking muddy water out of streams,” said Markam. “We are not a very beneficial constituency for politicians; this makes us suffer more.”

Harsingh Jamre, a Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sanghatan (JADS) activist from Barwani district bordering Maharashtra, alleged the government had forgotten Adivasis.

“Several villages in Pati tehsil of Barwani district such as Chervi, Dhanjara do not have electricity,” Jamre said, citing his fieldwork. “In Semli village in Agar tehsil in Shajapur district, they have never witnessed electricity.”

Students learn in sunlight coming in from windows at a local government school in Koopgarh village, Ashoknagar district, Madhya Pradesh in October 2022 / Credit: Tarushi Aswani.
Students learn in sunlight coming in from windows at a local government school in Koopgarh village, Ashoknagar district, Madhya Pradesh in October 2022 / Credit: Tarushi Aswani.

“As far as I know, there is no village without electricity, but if you have come across any such village, please let me know,” Madhya Pradesh energy minister Pradyuman Singh Tomar told Article 14, when we sought comment on the villages without electricity. “My team and even I will personally visit the ground to make sure the situation improves. If that is the case, I will look into it and ensure electricity reaches them.”

“We are becoming a self-sufficient state in terms of power,” said Tomar, adding that the government was encouraging farmers and others to affix solar pumps and install solar panels and cut back on conventional power resources.

“We are working at a very fast pace towards green energy, and there is no such village in the state which does not receive electricity,” he said. 

In Koopgarh, villagers have bought cords for Rs 5,000-6,000, depending on the length, to draw electricity illegally from a transformer located a kilometer away in the neighboring village of Mamon.

“Only 15 days before Diwali, even those transformers from where Adivasis pull light stopped working,” said Guddu Devi, Imli’s mother. “Even after using cords purchased from our own money, we suffer.”

Namrata Ginoya, program manager of World Resources Institute (WRI) India, said that one of the main reasons that renewable energy schemes fail in marginalized areas is that governments are not invested in these areas. 

“There is not enough political will. They will engage in some pilots here and there to showcase their work, and then they’ll milk it, but a lot of these regions where they engage in such pilots are just to show the possibility of electricity provision,” said Ginoya.

Koopgarh is a village located in Ashoknagar district, Madhya Pradesh. October 2022 / Credit: Tarushi Aswani.
Koopgarh is a village located in Ashoknagar district, Madhya Pradesh. October 2022 / Credit: Tarushi Aswani.

Renewable energy goals falter

In 2015, in its submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), India pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of GDP by 33% to 35% compared to 2005 levels (revised this year to 45% by 2030, from 2005 levels). 

India also pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels-based electricity to 40% by 2030 (revised to 50%). As of 9 September 2022, the ministry of new and renewable energy said that India achieved its target a decade ahead of 2030 by becoming world's third-largest producer of renewable energy, with 40% of its installed electricity capacity coming from non-fossil fuel sources.

Madhya Pradesh produces a total of 25,489 megawatts, which is 7.27% of the national energy output, 21.38% of which is renewable.

After the announcement of India’s clean energy transition process in 2015, the target installation capacity of 175 gigawatts of renewable power projects was set in 2018 by the BJP government in New Delhi, followed by states setting their own targets. 

MP aimed at 12 gigawatts of renewable power capacity by 2022.

In September, the global energy think tank Ember released its latest analysis, which said that by August 2022, India had achieved two-thirds of its end-of-year renewable energy target of 175 gigawatts. Four states account for the shortfall — Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, which is at 6.5-gigawatt capacity currently. 

“If these states continue to see such low installation rates, it would take decades for them to reach even their December 2022 target: 20 years for Maharashtra, 80 years for Uttar Pradesh, 44 years for Andhra Pradesh and 55 years for Madhya Pradesh,” the think tank said. 

MP’s plans and promises

As of 31 October 2022, according to data shared by the new and renewable energy department, Madhya Pradesh, with Article 14, the total installed capacity of renewable power projects in Madhya Pradesh is currently 2.46 gigawatts of solar energy and 2.77 gigawatts of wind energy. 

With this, the state will have reached 45% of 12 gigawatts by 2022, a deficit of 6.77 gigawatts.

On 25 November 2021, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan laid foundation stones for three solar power plants of 1,500-megawatt capacity in Shajapur, Agar and Neemuch at the cost of Rs 5,250 crore. 

Claiming that MP produced more than 5,300 megawatts of solar power daily, CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan said in a statement that this was nearly a quarter of the state's generating capacity of 22,000 megawatts — hydel, thermal, solar and the wind were taken together.

In August, the MP government announced that the world's largest floating solar plant would be built in Khandwa to generate 600 megawatts of power by 2022-23. The project is estimated to be worth over Rs. 3,000 crores.

In October, under the Surya Shakti Abhiyan, the state government launched an initiative to electrify villages with lights and pumps using solar energy. The motive of this initiative is to reduce electricity costs incurred by Gram Panchayats in the future and spend the remaining amount on the development of rural areas. 

Government schemes are an ‘eyewash’

Markam, the Mandla-based tribal rights activist who has campaigned for Adivasis over two decades, described Madhya Pradesh government schemes as an “eyewash.” 

“Recently, they installed solar panels in backward areas like Mandla, Balaghat, and tribal areas in Sivni Chhapara, but that was about it,” said Markam. “Nobody reaped any light out of those panels.” 

“The government just got rid of their responsibility by giving tenders to private companies, who do not comply with any government schemes,” said Markam.

Ginoya, project manager at WRI India, said that Madhya Pradesh lacked a decentralized renewable energy policy and a regulatory mechanism for the installation, operation and maintenance of these systems. 

Comparing MP with other renewable energy-producing states, Ginoya said that Jharkhand had NGOs, private players and government institutions which had selected tribal areas for “mini-grid deployments” where villagers pay and participate in the creation of solar energy systems, and Chhattisgarh had helped bring solar power to health centres in rural areas. 

In April 2017, the Madhya Pradesh government launched a programme to provide nearly 18,500 solar-powered water pumps to farmers at subsidised rates.

Markam, who applied for a solar pump under the scheme in August 2022, said that this scheme was a political gimmick. 

“We filled the form online recently, but Urja Bhawan officers told us that even those who applied in 2017 are yet to receive the equipment,” he said. “Is this how they plan to empower us tribals?” 

Ramdevi and another tribal woman get ready to collect firewood from nearby forests to obtain light in Khiriya Bharka village, in Ashoknagar district, Madhya Pradesh in October 2022 / Credit: Tarushi Aswani.
Ramdevi and another tribal woman get ready to collect firewood from nearby forests to obtain light in Khiriya Bharka village, in Ashoknagar district, Madhya Pradesh in October 2022 / Credit: Tarushi Aswani.

‘Why do we still burn wood?’

Shyamji Gurjar, 60, who lives in Khiriya Bharka village, close to Koopgarh, said that electric poles were erected in his village in 2018, but they are yet to see any bulb light up. 

“Once a family stretched cords from a nearby transformer into their home,” said Gurjar. “As soon as they connected the cords from their home to the distribution board, a child got electrocuted and died. Since then, no one has even dared to try this thievery.”

Ramdevi Karni, 32, finishes all her household chores by 3 in the afternoon every day. After she is done feeding her cows, herding her goats and cooking for her family of four, she puts her 2-year-old to sleep and goes into the dense forests to collect firewood because of the lack of electricity and rising kerosene prices. 

“I see poles but my village has never seen the light,” said Karni, a mother to two children, who, like other Adivasi women, returns before sunset because she feels unsafe. “My children don’t know what a lit-up bulb looks like.”

Ram Bharan Gurjar, 28, stood under an electric pole watching children taking turns playing with cycle tyres. 

“People use kerosene or firewood to obtain light in the darkness of our village,” he said. “At such times, I feel that all these solar and wind energy projects are useless until they come to us.” 

Ram Bharan Gurjar had heard of the inaugurations and announcements of solar ventures by government and private organisations. “Why do we still burn twigs to obtain a spark of light,” he asked, “if such advanced technology is being used by our state?”


This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Article 14 on November 30, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Women and children surround a tribal woman getting ready to fetch water from a nearby well in Khiriya Bharka village of Ashoknagar district, Madhya Pradesh in October 2022/ Credit: Tarushi Aswani.

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