Question: do you believe the government of India can, or will, provide electricity to one rural home in India every two seconds over the next five years? Yes, one rural home electrified every two seconds, 1800 every hour, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, for five years. Possible? Do you believe any government, or any other body, or anyone, can do this?
My answer is a sceptical snort. I shall presume that yours is similar.
Nevertheless, there must be people who either believe this or think that they can say so and others will believe it. Because there's a full page advertisement from the Ministry of Power in today's Times of India (April 4). It is titled "Empowering Rural India", and it announces the launch of the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (Rural Electrification Programme). There's a picture of that man Rajiv Gandhi. There's also this inspiring quote from him: "Electricity is what generates employment." (I believe I shall put that up there with "Ask not what your country can do for you.")
Quotes aside. The ad tells me that this scheme will "provide access to electricity to all households" in five years.
A fine goal, right? Is it a novel one you've never heard before? ... OK, I won't stretch it.
But how many households in India need such access anyway? I look around me at people like me here in Bombay, living in flats like mine, electricity available to them all through the day; I look around at the lights of this city, the hoardings, the hotels, the floodlit stadiums, the elegant lamps in the nearby park by whose light my friend Ameya jogs in training for next year's marathon; I look around at all this and I say to myself, come on, there really can't be too many households in this country that don't have electricity. A few thousand, maybe a few hundred thousand? Oh sure, five years is enough to get them electrified. And I slip "The Shawshank Redemption" into the DVD player and forget about households and five-year promises.
But then I remember the mistake I made last week, when I looked at a little table in The Vijay Times in Bangalore. "Rural Households Without Electricity Statewise", it is titled. It takes its data from the 2001 Census; and you can find the germane data here.
The important thing to note: 56.48 per cent of India's rural households -- 78,090,874 homes in which people live -- are without electricity. Yes, this is an at least four-year-old figure; but it is unlikely to have changed substantially. Yes, it is skewed by the pitiful state of such states as UP (80.16 per cent), Orissa (80.65), Jharkhand (90.01) and Bihar (94.87 -- these statewise figures from the Vijay Times table); but that doesn't take away from the magnitude of the task the new Rajiv Gandhi programme has set for itself.
This magnitude: 78 million homes to be electrified in 5 years. Do the arithmetic yourself. One every two seconds. Save the snort, I think I heard it already.