Light and Life

Chanda sometimes wakes long before dawn to sweep out her house and beat the husk off her rice. Now in her seventies, Chanda long since lost her sight. The sound of her early morning routine reverberates down the narrow, unpaved street of the Adivasi colony, through the mud brick walls of the homes stacked either side, and wakes her neighbours. Next door, Leena complains but is sympathetic. ‘Living without electricity’, she says, ‘is like being blind. You move around your home and cook without being able to see. Even in the day you think it is the middle of the night.’
    Ducking into the home that Leena shares with her husband you quickly appreciate the analogy. Two beams support a low roof made from a blue tarpaulin and corrugated iron sheets. The windowless walls offer some protection from the winter cold and the monsoon rain. They also keep the daylight out. Leena cooks on three polished stones at the back of her house, balancing her pots over a small open fire that long since blackened the ceiling. Even at noon with the wooden door wide open, her kitchen sinks into the gloom.
    Leena’s mother once made castor oil to light the inside of her home. She gathered the small orange seeds from plants in the hills, crushed them and boiled the grounds, skimming off the oil to burn in a clay lamp. Today, like everyone else in the colony, Leena burns kerosene. Each Wednesday she carries a half litre plastic bottle to the market, three kilometres walk away, and buys enough fuel for the week. Each night she lights it in a coopi, a simple wick lamp constructed from an old coconut oil tin. The light is so weak that it barely illuminates the corner of the room.      

    This is the village of Goudaguda, nestled in a fertile valley amidst the high plateaus of southern Odisha, India. Over half the population of 1500 are Poraja Adivasis, an indigenous community who rank among some of India’s poorest and most marginalised people. For many, like Leena, life without electricity is most keenly felt in the home at night and the lighting of a coopi after dusk is a daily ritual.
    For environmental health scientists the use of kerosene lamps for lighting in rural India is associated with the risk of domestic fire and respiratory infection. Nobody in Goudaguda describes the risks in these terms. But many Adivasi houses are built to accommodate the use of kerosene and to mitigate the perceived danger of burning it indoors. Lamps are often placed in a small alcove called a tobo that has been built specially into the wall. At night these keep the coopi’s naked flame out of the reach of children and partially contain its noxious fumes. 
    In daytime the un-electrified life of the village is manual and un-mechanised, with no electrical appliances to ease agricultural labour. Grains of millet, maize and rice harvested on the valley floor, for example, are all husked and polished by hand. Of course, on special occasions people generate their own electricity. During the Hindu festival of Ganesh Chauvati or the Poraja harvest festival of Pus Parab the Adivasis hire a diesel generator from the nearest town, buying enough fuel to power a colony’s worth of coloured lights and run a sound system all night long.  
    Yet Goudaguda is not entirely un-electrified. Like elsewhere in Odisha, one of India’s poorest states, access to electricity here maps directly onto income and caste. In 1984 a line of wires and pylons first connected the homes of its richest families, the high caste Gouda farmers and traders who give the village its name, to the regional electricity grid.
    Forty years later the supply of electricity is erratic and unreliable. But while the majority of Adivasi homes remain entirely unconnected to the mains, Gouda homes have fans, televisions and plugs to charge mobile phones. More than these appliances it is the simple electric light bulb that makes energy inequality most visible to people here. Walking through the village at dusk, the light from Gouda homes can be seen from afar, spilling out over the threshold into the night.  
    In August 2012 I moved to Goudaguda with my wife and six month old son. Over five months I recorded how access to electricity was tied up in the politics of village life. Before arriving here I had read studies, like those published by the UK charity Practical Action, that proposed metrics for measuring poor people’s energy access. But I had come across few attempts to understand the social relationships that shaped people’s experience of energy poverty.
    Many Adivasis here feel the lack of electricity in their homes as a kind of handicap that prevents them from living a good or better life. Some blame the political and economic power of the Gouda’s for stymying their own development. One day I accompanied Ballava, a soft, bespectacled Poraja man, in his late forties, to a paddy field where he wanted to put up a scarecrow. ‘Only when the Goudas and their sons die will we prosper,’ Ballava said, looking back to the village in which he had been born and the grove of mango trees opposite the colony where he had lived his whole life.
    When my family and I left Goudaguda we bought solar powered lanterns for Leena, Ballava and the others who had looked after us. Solar technology was increasingly common here. In neighbouring villages an Indian NGO had installed solar lantern charging stations and one of India’s largest mining companies had distributed solar lanterns as part of a corporate social responsibility campaign. The valley was also becoming a frontier market for companies selling their brand name solar lanterns as a cleaner, cheaper alternative to kerosene.
    In January 2015 I returned to Goudaguda. Our solar lanterns had been welcome gifts. Yet neither here nor in the surrounding villages had they replaced the kerosene coopi. If the lanterns still worked people were using them to supplement light from kerosene lamps at night, alongside candles and battery-powered torches.
    Meanwhile, nobody imagined that access to solar powered lighting had levelled energy inequalities. Instead the solar lantern promised little but a second-class alternative to life on the grid.
    Returning to the Poraja colony I was surprised to see a line of wooden poles running down the middle of the street. Since my last visit to southern Odisha, a government funded rural electrification programme was extending the regional electricity grid and connecting rural homes. But because Goudaguda village was already part electrified its Poraja colony had been deemed ineligible for the scheme.
    With no immediate prospect of electrification people had taken matters into their own hands. Ballava and others, I learned, had hunted down unused pole from across the valley and carried them home. If they could only show the government that they had poles, they hoped, the wires might follow.
    Any practical solution to the challenges of energy access must understand that energy poverty is a social relationship. In rural India poor people’s expectations for grid-like standards of electricity are shaped by local histories of inequality and exclusion. In the Adivasi villages of southern Odisha nobody thinks a kerosene lamp or a solar lantern is sufficient to illuminate a home. People living without electricity don’t just want to see in the dark, they want to live in light as others do.

All names have been changed

This piece was first published in The Guardian


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