"Drinking water comes under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. There have been cases where the government has acquired farmers' wells to enable the supply of drinking water, even as the farmers' own crops dried up. So how can the government justify diverting electricity meant for pumping drinking water to the industry?"
This logical poser by Vidya Haribhau Deshmukh (37), the sarpanch (village council head), of village Datala had the administration of the Buldhana district of Maharashtra utterly stumped. In the rural areas of Vidarbha, long hours of load-shedding - in some places around 12 to 14 hours a day - have severely affected the supply of drinking and irrigation water.
Vidyatai, as she is known in the village, ('tai' means 'elder sister' in Marathi) has become the first sarpanch to have successfully secured increased electricity supply for her village. In the process, she has set an important political precedent in a region where anger is simmering over the unfair distribution of electricity in the urban and rural areas.
For the last couple of years, the rural parts of Vidarbha have been facing a severe power crunch. The reason, as social and political activists have argued time and again, is not a genuine dearth of power, but a flawed government policy that has permitted the diversion of power to urban areas to meet the lifestyle and industrial needs of the cities - at the cost of the rural areas.
The seriousness of the problem can be gauged from the fact that in the previous crop season, farmers had taken out massive demonstrations demanding sufficient electricity supply. In fact, the residents of village Ladegaon in Washim district went to the extreme of not paying their electricity bills for the last six years to protest against insufficient and erratic power supply.
Datala, on the Malkapur-Buldhana road, is a large village and a local trade centre with a population of around 8,500. According to Vidyatai, there is no dearth of drinking water in the village at present.
"We have sufficient ground water reserves, an additional water supply from a Maharashtra Life Foundation project, and can supply piped drinking water to the entire village at least once in three days. (In the drought-prone Vidarbha region, drinking water is supplied to most villages less than once a week.)
"But last year, two industrial units belonging to politically well-connected people came up quite close to the village and the power supply, which was quite regular till then, was diverted to these units. Since then, the three-phase electricity supply (necessary for pumping water) comes for just eight hours a day.
The rest of the time there is either single-phase supply or no supply at all," she says. This hit the village water supply hard. "During winters we manage to supply water once in seven days, but in summer it dwindles to once in 15 days," she adds.
Initially, Vidyatai, who became the sarpanch on an open (unreserved) seat about 18 months ago, decided to start supplying water through tankers - the stock answer to the rural water crisis in Vidarbha. But this did not work out: Fights would break out among villagers gathered around the tankers and the tanker service had to be stopped. But then the situation worsened. "The protests grew louder and louder, and people seemed to think that I was the culprit," she says.
"As a sarpanch and a woman," says she, "I have had to face rejection and non-cooperation from the male panchayat (village council) members and government officials. I have had to fight corruption at various levels while working on a scheme for street lamps, which had been pending for a decade, and while organising relief work during floods. However, this was not a case of corruption but of government policy, which is much, much harder to fight."
After much thought, Vidyatai formulated a two-pronged strategy. "On the one hand, I began to talk to the women in the village, preparing them for an agitation which could extend over a period of time. On the other, I began to study the subject from all possible angles," she recalls.
Through extensive research, Vidyatai formulated her argument under the Essential Commodities Act. "In February this year, I began to send applications to all officials at the block and district level. Officials, who earlier had ignored my pleas, now began to sit up and pay attention," she says. But even two months later, there was no sign of things becoming better. "We received a lot of assurances, but no work was done. Officials were afraid that if our demand was met, similar demands would start coming from other villages in the area," says a female resident of the village.
Fearing a stalemate, Vidyatai approached the officials once again. But this time around, she announced that there would be full-blown agitation if their demand were not met. In May, as the situation threatened to get out of hand, the local MLA, Chainsukh Sancheti, finally, intervened. In the last week of May, the three-phase power supply to the village went up to 12 hours, and in early June, a sum of Rs 750,000 (US$1=Rs 40) was sanctioned for laying an express feeder line for the village, on which work has already begun.
Learning from the Datala situation, today, people in the nearby villages are beginning to question their power supply situation. And the administration is visibly on tenterhooks. While the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) and the district collector have declined to comment on the issue, Sancheti says, "The government's power policy is not clear; and distribution-wise, the rural areas have certainly got a raw deal. The Datala incident is important politically, and I won't be surprised if it has a snowball effect in the area."
On her part, Vidyatai is triumphant, but aware that this is not the end. "The problem is solved today, but tomorrow more industrial units may come up nearby and our electricity might be diverted again. The basic question is a policy one. Rural people have faced enough injustice and it is time things started to change."