When neighbouring Chibau Khera got power a year ago, they thought their turn would come. But many appeals later, the village had another dark Diwali
In Sheetal Khera, every day is Diwali, and Diwali was not a specially illuminated day.
Located just 20 km from Uttar Pradesh capital Lucknow, the small village of about 40 houses has no electricity, and diyas are a way of everyday life.
“Why should we light diyas for Diwali when we do that the rest of the year? The only thing special about diyas we use on Diwali is that they are coloured,” says Bittoo nonchalantly, sitting outside her hut with her two children.
As the sun begins to set, she takes out the diyas and places them in the courtyard so that the light can seep into the rooms. Other than diyas, villagers use candles and lanterns. As it gets dark, the youths hang around in the alleys, the elderly take the cots out to the verandahs, women rush to cook early dinners and students finish their homework.
Ravita, a Class XI student, studies by a lantern as her father Vasudev looks on. “Khana khao, diya bhujao. After finishing our meals, we quickly put out the lamps as there isn’t enough oil to last the entire month,” says Vasudev. “With our Antyodaya Anna Yojana ration cards, we get only 2.5 litres of kerosene oil. It lasts a fortnight at most,” he says.
The absence of electricity has stalled development in the village. The nearest school is about 2 km away and the nearest Community Health Centre is about 3 km away. The kuchcha road leading up to the village is surrounded by an overgrowth of bushes.
Many, like Om Prakash, have left the village for Lucknow, their houses now locked. “His wife was educated and didn’t want to stay here,” says Ram Khilawan, Prakash’s younger brother.
Darkness has also dimmed the marriage prospects of many young men in the village. Lala Ram, who is over 60, had difficulty finding a girl for his son. “A couple of years ago, the brothers of a prospective bride came to our house to meet my son. They went away saying they won’t send their sister into such darkness,” he says.
There are other practical difficulties. To recharge the batteries of their mobile phones, for example, villagers have to go to the main market a few kilometres away or to nearby villages. Elders say their relatives never stay back for the night. Women are always worried about the ration oil running out. Mustard oil is too costly at Rs 100 a litre.
By 7 in the evening, it is pitch dark, and the lanes are eerie and desolate, with a few intoxicated men like Pyare Lal the only ones hanging around. “We give votes to whoever assures us of electricity,” Lal mumbles incoherently.
In another shack, Phoolwati is preparing to cook her food. She struggles to find a matchbox in the dark. “We used to have a fridge, television and a submersible pump in my father’s home in our ancestral village, but here there is absolutely nothing,” she says.
Further ahead sits 70-year-old Nankau on a cot on a chabutra outside his home. One night last June, Nankau was returning from his field when his cycle slipped in the dark a few metres from his home, dislocating his hip bone. Now dependent on a walker for mobility, he no longer works in the fields. “They have inserted a metallic plate in my thighs. It cost me Rs 34,000,” he says.
He, however, does not complain about the darkness. “I was born in darkness, I’ll die in darkness, how does it matter,” he says indifferently, the flames from the lantern lighting up his face as children perch around his cot.
Like Nankau, there are other village elders who don’t mind the lack of electricity. Kamlesh says he is “used to” living without it.
But the youth of the village don’t want to be resigned to their situation. “The elders don’t know what they are missing out on as they have never experienced it,” quips a 20-year-old.
The youngsters cite the elders of nearby Chibau Khera as an example. The village had hit headlines when it got an electricity connection in April last year.
Pyare Lal, 35, sees caste politics at play in the electrification of Chibau Khera and not Sheetal Khera, two villages less than a kilometre apart. “Chibau Khera is Yadav-dominated. To seek any such facility, our village should either be dominated by Yadavs, Dalits or upper castes, but we are neither and hence the indifferent attitude,” he says.
While there are two Pasi families in Sheetal Khera, the rest are Lodhis who are classified as OBCs. “We should have just installed an Ambedkar statue when Mayawati was in power,” quips Rajendra Kumar.
Merhi Lal, 64, who is the husband of the village panch, agrees. “In 2012, then MLA Ram Kewal Chaudhary had arranged for a pre-electrification survey of our village but he lost the Assembly elections that year,” he says.
The villagers then approached the new MLA, Chandra Rawat, of the Samajwadi Party. “But somebody told her we voted against the SP so she hasn’t paid any heed to us,” Merhi Lal claims.
When Chibau Khera was electrified last year, and SP MP Sushila Saroj was at the village to inaugurate the electricity connection, villagers of Sheetal Khera again went to her with their request. “However, the Yadavs of Chibau Khera misbehaved with us and told her that we are all anti-SP, so she ignored our request,” villagers say. They have little hope from the new BJP MP Kaushal Kishore. “He has given us the same old assurances,” most villagers say cynically.
Sheetal Khera, however, isn’t the only village without electricity on the outskirts of Lucknow. The adjacent Raja Khera village, too, has no power. “Like Sheetal Khera, Raja Khera’s caste distribution doesn’t suit any political party,” says Ram Chandra of Raja Khera. Two girls from this village were awarded laptops as part of the SP’s poll promise, but without electricity, these laptops lie unused.
Meanwhile, it is pitch-dark and elders have dozed off in Sheetal Khera. As mothers put their children to sleep, the diyas are being put off gradually. The night is long and the villagers have no choice but to sleep early, until the sun rises.