Ujjaini: Just an hour’s drive from the bright lights of India’s financial and film capital of Mumbai, Vimal Madhkar, 28, spends her evenings in the dark coaxing fire from twigs so she can cook dinner.
Madhkar is one of an estimated 400 million Indians who live in a world outside electricity and on this night, as every night, it is painstakingly gathered kindling that provides her family with light and cooking fuel.
Her children sit with her around the fire as she roasts seeds outside her hut in a village 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Mumbai.
“I’m used to cooking in the open,” Madhkar said on a chilly winter evening. “I get some light from the skies above and some from the fire below.”
As India has grown, power generation has badly lagged with the gap between electricity supply and demand nationwide averaging up to 14% at peak times. And that’s in spite of the fact not everybody gets power.
Large swathes of rural India are plunged into darkness at night with only the stars for light.
Ujjaini, population 4,000, is no exception. Although a few of the residents might be able to afford diesel-fueled generators, most here, and in a nearby cluster of nearby villages, get by with kerosene, candles and kindling.
“Beyond my village there are 13 hamlets and three villages that never get electricity,” says Rajendra Khokhde, an activist from Ujjaini who works with a nonprofit group called Vidhayak Sansad or Organisation for Progress.
“Children are born in homes that never have had electricity.”
Although Indian parents often recount to their children tales of leaders who succeeded despite having to study by candlelight, the children here say it’s a tough example to follow.
“I can’t study at night because there’s no light,” said third-grader Balu Hanumant Ghatal.
With their children making poor progress in school, villagers say it makes more sense to put them to work.
As they grow up, many will end up as hired farm labourers earning pittances. And thus the cycle of poverty continues.
“Our situation forces us to remove our children from school,” said Yogita Padga, 18, a fourth-grade dropout who married a few years ago and now works around the house and in the fields.
“Our children are kept from progress and development,” she said.
Indeed, most residents of Ujjaini have never switched on a light or used a fan in the sweltering summers.
Mumbai’s Bollywood tinseltown may be nearby but those who live here don’t often get to watch the films that have made the city world famous, or much else.
“I’ve never watched a cricket match on television,” said eight-year-old Neelam Ghatal, as she recounted a recent visit to a a doctor in a town not far away.
“I was thrilled to see a lightbulb at a shop. I also felt the wind under the fan at the clinic for the first time. Our school has no light or fan.”
A few have cellphones but must trek to nearby towns to recharge them.
And it is on these trip that they glimpse a more prosperous world, the economic miracle that the headlines say in taking place across India but which is passing places like Ujjaini by.
Maharashtra state, where Ujjaini is located, wants to quickly implement four new power projects, which would generate an extra 2,000 megawatts of power, about half the current shortfall.
But that will not help Ujjaini, whose pleas to get connected to the national grid have been held up while officials evaluate whether the village falls in a forest reserve area.
Meanwhile, one enterprising person has brought a taste of electricity to the village.
“Last year I bought a generator,” said 42-year-old schoolteacher Nana Bhoye. “I use it at night for light and to watch TV if there are cricket matches on.”
Bhoye wouldn’t reveal how much the generator cost but said villagers are helping him recoup his investment by paying to watch the odd cricket match.
“I don’t always charge the villagers the 10 rupees,” said Bhoye sheepishly. “But they give it to me.”