Vantage point

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Why Can't Sainath See The Forest For The Trees?

Dear Mr. Sainath

I write this addressing not just you, but all those bloggers, journalists, columnists, activists, politicians, thinkers and even citizens who feel apalled at the growing inequality in this country after the 1991 liberalization. I address all those who show concern for the other India.

I found this excerpt from your recent article in The Hindu very interesting -

This week's big news is that Mumbai has topped Maharashtra's HSC results with a pass percentage of 76.67. That should not surprise us. The metro's schools and facilities outclass those of other regions. True, even this time, the State toppers are not from Mumbai. They are from Wardha (in Nagpur division) and Amravati. Both in Vidharbha. But at 47.5 and 51.08 per cent, the overall pass percentages of those divisions are dismal. They are way below the State average of 64.25 per cent. And both have fared worse than they did last year.

Here's one reason why. Vidharbha, always electricity starved, saw 12- to 17-hour power cuts at the time the children were studying for their examinations. (It's a region where schools re-open weeks late to avoid exposing children to excessive heat.) The great metro of Mumbai was spared this "power crisis." (Some of the well meaning did write articles on how to be a good citizen and use your air conditioners more efficiently.) In one estimate, a 15-minute power cut in Mumbai could give Vidharbha two hours of electricity. Half that would have helped the students with their examinations. Further, malls and multiplexes lead Mumbai's biggest power guzzlers. But this is the city of 25,000 of India's 83,000 dollar millionaires. Not only home "to the largest number of affluent individuals," as an American Express study puts it. But also having "the fastest growing affluent population in the world." So the darkness is banished to zones such as Vidharbha — which produces more power than the other regions of Maharashtra.

Inequality in the context of growing commercialisation of education means that millions of bright and talented students are shut out from a better future for want of money. That rubs in an old truth. Merit = accident of birth + electricity. (And maybe a dash of geography.)

Now I am not one of those blind champions of 10% growth who will tell you that it makes sense to give preferential treatment to Mumbai because it is our "financial capital". Neither am I, by the way, one of those who feels it is OK to steal farmers' land for building SEZs so that we can "catch up with China".

I agree with you that this injustice is despicable, and this inequality is unfortunate. And yes, it would be more just to divide the load shedding equally among rural and urban areas.

But here is something I don't understand. And I don't mean this as a rhetorical question, but as a genuine query. Why don't we see you or people like you demanding that we solve the problem altogether? India has a 14% shortfall of power, and Maharashtra, literally the great state, has a shortfall of 26%. Should we not look at ways to at least boost the capacity?

I know, power capacity can not be boosted overnight. But dude, 12 to 17 hour power cuts in rural India did not start last night. At least in Maharashtra, they started 5 years back. And nothing serious has still been done to add to the capacity by the government. The only initiative in that direction has comes from the CII in Pune last year, pooling together excess capacity from their privately owned captive power plants to make it a practically no-load-shedding city. But no steps from the government.

Let us say, there is equality in power cuts. Suppose we implement 6 hours of load shedding, in villages as well as cities, including Mumbai, starting next year. Egalitarian load shedding. What do you think will happen?

Well, us citifolk are rich. We will buy inverters. We will buy generators. We will buy special high luminosity emergency lamps. We'll get by with a little help from our wallets. Our kids will still be able to study. And the kids in Vidarbha will still be at a disadvantage. I know that 6 hour power cuts are still better than 17 hour power cuts. But wouldn't you rather that there be no power cuts?

And yet I hardly see any of you making any serious noises about adding capacity. Even now, I don;t see anyone saying "Ensure equality in power cuts in rural and urban areas immediately, AND add enough capacity by 2011 to make sure there are no power cuts at all."

Why is that?