PoK border villages still live in darkness
Musarrat Yasmeen, Poonch, Apr.18,
The grimy but warmly-clad figure, limping from a decade-old bullet injury in his leg, thinks nothing of the virtually unlit bulb in the setting darkness as he goes about lighting the rudimentary kerosene lamp that throws eerie shadows on the mud walls of his two-room hutment. To a first time visitor, the setting is surreal. But to the slightly-bent man with a flowing beard, looking older than his years, it is simply the end of another hard day. Life-as-usual in the lives of those who call the Pir Panchal ranges their home.
'But the houses in the distance are well-lit!' the incredulous visitor may well be excused for pointing out. Ah, but those lights are across the river, the indistinguishable boundary that marks the infamous Line of Control separating India from her Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) neighbors.
Why such a strategically vulnerable region along the sensitive international borders of Jammu and Kashmir remains deprived of basic amenities like electricity is a moot question. For the intent and infrastructure may be in place, but the dream of 100 percent rural electrification is certainly a long way off.
It isn't about the poles and cables, the bulbs and bills. In many villages in Poonch District at the PoK border in the Jammu region, lit bulbs barely brighten the wires from which they hang in homes spotting the stark mountainside. These are among the 6554 villages recorded as electrified in a state that, backed by Census 2011, records 85 percent of households using electricity as their primary source of lighting.
And so the release of free electricity connections to BPL households and comprehensive rural electrification plans continue to be formulated and announced. More so, in an election year, when the issues of the common man come into plain view of the powers that be.
Rajiv Gandhi Gram Vidhutikaran Yojna, a program to create Rural Electricity Infrastructure and Household Electrification, was started by the Central Government in April 2005 with the objective of speeding up electrification and supply of electricity to the far flung areas of the country. The scheme wants to achieve complete electrification of Indian villages by 2020. But the question is, will India achieve this objective? Will every Indian village have electricity by 2020?
As recently as December 2013, 60 projects were sanctioned to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, with the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power, Jyotiraditya Scindia, announcing that these projects will cover electrification of 234 unelectrified villages, intensive electrification of 3,247 Partially Electrified (PE) villages and release of free electricity connections to 79,991 BPL households.
But tales of life without electricity abound. One such power-starved area is Jammu Shaheed, in Surankot Tehsil of Poonch district. Its population of about 1500 takes pride in the battle they fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Indian security forces to secure the area during the peak of insurgency in the state. Yet, over six decades of independence have not seen this area free of darkness.
Describing the situation, Yusuf Shah,35, says, "The electric poles have reached our area. When electricity will run through it is another matter, though." Absence of electricity also affects the students who cannot read at night. Another local, Husain Shah, says, "In the absence of electricity, many children are deprived of good education. When we complain to the concerned authorities about power supply, they simply say 'Ask the person who gave you the bridge'."
Hidayat Khan, a local from Mohalle Setha of Balfiyaz, Surankot Tehsil, says, "There has been no electricity for the last two months, although I am expected to pay the bill every month. In fact, we would earlier receive a bill amounting to Rs 80 or 100, but now, when we do not have electricity, the amount is Rs. 350 in each month's bill! It is difficult for the poor like us to cope."
When a complaint was made to the Assistant Electrical Engineer, he directed the Junior Engineer (JE) to look into the matter. The JE, in turn, sent a man named Tahir to look into the matter, which he evidently did. No progress has been heard of since.
On this issue, people approached the electricity office many a time, but no officer was willing to make a comment or commitment. Rabiya Begum (name changed), a local, narrates her experience, "When I complained about the electricity problem to the line-man, he simply said 'Complain to the officers, I cannot do anything'. And that was that."
It is evident that the officers in the Electricity Department are aware of the issue, but seem to be doing precious little to resolve it. Some villages receive power supply for barely 2-3 hours a day. Farzana Kausar (name changed), another local, says, "The electricity bill is very high, although we don't use television etc. We want meters installed." The Charka Development Communication network points out that paradoxically, those whose lands are used to erect electric poles have received neither compensation nor electricity.
Night has settled and the brightly-lit border security fence cordoning the Indian villages along the LoC forms a glowing line across the mountain range. To the visitor, the irony of the situation is not lost. The line of smoke from the kerosene lamp fills the room and the old man coughs slightly, as the chulha's fire adds to the congestion in his lungs. Clearly, it will be a while before the dark ages pass.
(Posted on 18-04-2014)