May 28, 2005

Blinking in the distance

One evening some days ago, a small band of us went for a long walk on a beach south of Bombay. As I mentioned in this essay, we could actually see the buildings of downtown Bombay from this beach, distant in the haze but discernible. It had taken over 3 hours through over 100 km to drive here, but in a straight line, the city is no further than the horizon.

The sun sets splendidly as we walk, and dusk quickly settles. Several cottages line the beach, one of which is where we are spending a few days, all of which are dark. In fact, this evening this entire village of Kihim -- like nearby Rewas, Thal and Alibag -- is dark. This is true every evening, we learn and experience. There is no electricity between 2 and 8 pm: a six hour power cut, every day. (Though this night, the electricity actually comes back only past 9:15 pm: over seven hours).

So we walk, because the beach is a wind-ruffled delight. And as we walk, we see the lights of Bombay blinking on, only a dozen or so km away. Soon the entire stretch of buildings is a blaze of lights, an eye-catching and pretty sight even from here.

Kihim is still dark.

So as we walk, I begin to wonder. Might someone from this stretch of coast, let's call her Subhadra, wandering on the beach of a power-free evening -- might Subhadra look at the big city lights and ask herself: "Why do they have electricity while I don't?" Perhaps she says to herself: "I'm going to move to the big city, then I too can have power without interruption."

Would these be reasonable thoughts for Subhadra to have? (She might temper them by remembering that if she did move to the city, it's possible she'd find hostility enough to officially smash her home, to applause from fellow residents).

I felt on that beach much as I had in a small Madhya Pradesh village one wet, muddy, black night a few years ago. It was so utterly dark that I had actually walked through someone's compound; he coughed gently in my ear to alert me to my trespass. I had no idea I had stumbled into the compound, nor even that we were in a village. And yet, from where I stood, drenched and trembling after being startled by his cough, I could see a cornucopia of lights on a massive dam across the Narmada, and in the nearby town it supplied power to. A cornucopia no more than a couple of km from this spot, dark as it had likely been in the time of the Emperor Ashoka.

Here's something about the way this country has "developed": sometimes people can actually see just how they have been left behind, know just how profoundly they have been forgotten. Whether in a MP village or on a south-of-Bombay beach: people without electricity can often see the stuff, not so far away.

Home a couple of days later, I open the newspaper to read that in this time of a massive power crisis all over my state, in this time of power cuts, it's not just that Bombay is an exception. It's also that my various state Ministers are exceptions. Maharashtra's Minister of Energy (!), one Dilip Walse-Patil, has run up electricity bills of almost Rs 30,000 a month, his house being fitted with 10 (!) air conditioners. The Minister for Rural Development (!), one Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, has 9 (!) air conditioners in his home, and he has had bills of over Rs 30,000 a month. The CM, one Vilasrao Deshmukh, has generated power bills befitting his status as CM: get this, well over Rs 100,000 monthly.

(Aside: my electricity bills are about Rs 1000 a month, not sure about Subhadra's. I am trying hard to imagine how these men consume electricity 30 and 100 times faster than I do).

Not that any of these men are paying for their power. We are, the people of this state.

Including Subhadra, walking the beach on a power-free evening. Think of it. Not only must she watch the city lights blink on and shine forth, she must also pay the electricity bills of the men who decide to deprive her of electricity. There's irony in those lights, Subhadra.


Anonymous said...


This sounds sickening. Electricity bills of 30K ?? I mean what are they doing inside the house ? some underground factory or something ?

I also read that Gujarat rulers have amassed money that is beyond comprehension, now this news in maharastra.

I am feeling powerless and helpless.

Anonymous said...

In a fine book on development, funding/aid money politics, etc., James Scott, an anthropologist, develops this metaphor of "seeing like a State." Your post reminded me of another practice of looking, from the margins, of those citizens whose 'seeing' is powerless on many counts. So much so, if the looking from the margins at times turns 'violent' (the intensity of course not comparable to that of the State), they are even unable to garner support for the legitimacy of their violence. [yes, i am using 'violence' very loosely here, but hope what i'm saying makes sense].

Kartik said...

It's a LONG journey yet Dilip, to the day when we can hope you no longer have to invent fictitious characters to express the angst and indeed, irony, of the marginalised citizen.

This is part of a growing trend in our country, of Urban vs. Everything-Else alienation... we have multiplices one-a-day while this kind of scenario still exists.

Is there something we can do? Sure there is .... but until we ALL start doing it, there's nothing to BE done about it! Awareness is a good first step, good job!

Vikrum said...


I think his name is Dilip Waste-Patil, not Walse-Patil.

Suhail said...

One is reminded of one Ms Jayalalitha, who owned hundreds of pairs of sandals, thousands of sarees, and ACs in double(triple??) digits.

I think, after the Right To Information Act, we should now have a Right To Question Act. What say ?

Anonymous said...

Cool... that's what happens when you take advise from gaane ka rasswala on nuke energy, eh Dilip?

Whoo hooo...let's keep electing politicans who promise free electricity.