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Lighting up their lives

Through a unique participative endeavour, Kerala has made its second-most backward district the first in the country to be fully electrified.

N. Madhavan        Print Edition: March 21, 2010

"Our days have become longer. Earlier, we slept soon after sunset. Now, we remain awake till 10.30 p.m."
-Moopan Raghavan, Thalikakal settlement, Palakkad district.

"We're happy we can watch TV now. But there is a problem. Kids don't sleep at 7 p.m. anymore. They watch TV late into the night"
-Lakshmi, Moolaganga settlement, Palakkad district.

Before you start wondering what Raghavan and Lakshmi are talking about, these are reactions from the beneficiaries of an innovative project in Kerala that has, for the first time, brought electricity to people (mostly tribals) in far-flung areas of Palakkad district. Conceptualised on January 1, 2009, the total electrification project sought to make electricity available at the door step of all residents of the district.

What is novel about the project is the manner in which it was implemented - 91 gram panchayats, 13 block panchayats, one district panchayat, four municipalities, 11 MLAs, two MPs and the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) came together and chipped in with money to fund it. In fact, but for the cooperative initiative, this project would not have been possible. Consider this: Thalikakal and Kadapara are two tribal settlements with a total of 63 families, located deep in the mountains some 70 km south of Palakkad, the district headquarters.

To bring electricity to these settlements as part of the total electrification project, distribution lines were laid from Ponkandam (the nearest electrified town) to Thalikakal over a distance of 10 km at a cost of Rs 65 lakh. On its own, KSEB could not have connected these settlements for two reasons-investing that amount of money for supplying electricity to 63 families who come under the non-paying group (in Kerala power consumption up to 20 units every month is free) was just not feasible. In fact, a project to supply power to Thalikakal was drawn up as early as 1980, but remained on paper as it was not found viable. Also, according to KSEB rules, the power utility cannot provide supply connections to houses that are more than 235 metres from the existing distribution line unless the consumers who want electricity are willing to pay the cost of extending the line. There was no way the tribals could raise such funds.

The Project

Total electrification of the Palakkad district involved:

  • Laying 78 km of three-phase line.
  • Drawing 907 km of LT single phase line.
  • Installing 26 transformers.
  • Offering 18,000 new service connections.
  • Lighting up 502 far-flung tribal families.
Similarly, KSEB could never have spent over Rs 1 crore to connect Vachchapati and Moolaganga settlements in Attapadi area, over 100 km north of Palakkad, housing 400 poor tribal families (who also come under the non-paying group) by drawing power lines for over 20 km. It all began in 2007 when Kannadi panchayat in the Kozhalmannam assembly constituency in Palakkad became the first gram panchayat to become fully electrified in Kerala. That was made possible through funds made available by elected representatives, local bodies and KSEB.

"The success of the participative effort at Kannadi panchayat gave us the confidence to try it at a larger scale. We then successfully electrified an assembly constituency - Irijalakuda in the Thrissur district using the same model before taking it up at district level in Palakkad," explains A.K. Balan, Minister for Electricity and Welfare of Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes, Kerala. "Involvement of various local bodies and elected representatives has been crucial for the success of the project and the dual portfolio that I handle helped me to optimally tap the tribal development funds for this project." On February 16, a little over 12 months from the start of the project, Union Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde announced to the world that Palakkad had become India's first fully electrified district- in effect, every home has electricity.

To achieve this distinction, 907 km of low tension single phase line and 78 km of three-phase line were laid, 18,000 new service connections were given (including 2,500 SC/ST households) and 26 transformers were installed-all at a cost of Rs 23.26 crore. "The project cost would have been much higher had we not spent Rs 520 crore over the last three-and-a-half years to upgrade the transmission and distribution network in the district," points out M.B. Rajesh, an MP representing Palakkad Lok Sabha constituency. Almost all households in the district today have electricity at their door step with a very few exceptions such as those awaiting forest department permission (Balan says those approvals have since come in, too).

KSEB faced many a unique challenge to make this electricity-for-all initiative a reality. "We had to overcome very difficult terrain, especially in Thalikakal and Kadapara area. At many places, we had to physically carry the concrete poles and cables as there were no roads," says P. Rajan, Executive Engineer, KSEB (Alattur Electrical Division). Then, there are places in Parambikulam area which are not accessible from the Kerala side at all. For such places, KSEB chose to draw power lines from Tamil Nadu and buy the required electricity from the neighbouring state.

Permission of the forest department was another challenge and where it was not forthcoming, KSEB had no choice but to take the power lines on a detour through private lands. And as if these challenges were not enough, the Kurumba tribe in Attapadi region put the project managers in a piquant position-how to make electricity available at the doorstep of a tribe that shifts its dwelling place every few weeks!

At some places where KSEB did bring electricity to the doorstep, people did not have the money (about Rs 2,000) to wire the house. "We are looking at ways to help people below the poverty line wire their households. Gram panchayat can use the development funds for the purpose with government approval. There are also plans to get the people to fund at least part of the cost from their NREG earnings," says K.V. Mohan Kumar, Collector, Palakkad district, referring to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

The project, however, has caused a great deal of excitement among the people, most of whom are enjoying the benefits of electricity for the first time. "We had no hope that electricity will come in our lifetime. We can't believe it," says Veeran, 60, a resident of the Moolaganga settlement in a language that appeared to be a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil.

His views are shared by many people who are eagerly anticipating a better quality of life. There are already signs of change in the lives of these tribals. Rama Moopan (moopan means leader of the tribe) of Vachchapati village is impatient to build a pucca house. "I don't want to do the wiring in this old house," he says pointing to his ramshackle hut. In fact, the availability of power, in a way, has accelerated rebuilding of many tribal homes. It has also rekindled the hopes of Moolaganga residents to return to farming.

"We are blessed with a fertile black soil, which is ideal for growing cash crops such as toor dal, horse gram and ragi, but elephants from the nearby forests repeatedly destroyed our crops in the past. Frustrated, we ultimately quit farming. Now, with electricity, we can look at the possibility of 'putting earth' (electric fence) and restart farming," says Veeran. They are also eagerly looking forward to using mobile phones as availability of electricity paves way for setting up towers, thereby extending mobile coverage into their area.

"It will take at least two years to determine the socioeconomic impact of electricity on the lives of tribals. I expect it to have the most beneficial impact on women and children," says Rajan Pullenkattil, Assistant Executive Engineer, KSEB, Mannarkad, who is also doing a project on the Role of Energy on Sustainable Development of Tribals as a part of a PhD he is pursuing.

Some experts consider absence of decentralised power source or off-grid power as one of the shortcomings of this project. Palakkad district has a good potential for wind energy, solar power and biomass-based electricity generation. "We are looking at solar energy and mini wind mills to supplement grid power. These projects take time. We did not want to wait that long," explains Rajesh, the MP.

Success at district level has emboldened Minister Balan to now replicate the project at the state level. About 25 of the 140 assembly constituencies have been fully electrified so far. "Our aim is to cover 100 assembly constituencies in the next one year and the rest of the state in two years," says a confident Balan. If he has his way, Kerala could soon become India's first fully electrified state.

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