When the authorities cut off the electricity here, they picked on the wrong town.
In the villages and small hamlets where most Indians live, power blackouts are as common as bullock carts. The country does not have enough electricity for all of its 1.1 billion people, and so daily outages as long as 18 hours are imposed on smaller settlements so that megacities such as Mumbai can enjoy a 24-hour supply. It is an arrangement that is suffered mostly in silence.
But, last February, in this small, dusty town of 50,000 in central India, where goats and children scamper through the byways, the blackouts triggered a violent agitation. Thousands marched to the local government offices, some pelting stones, others setting police jeeps ablaze. When the police fired their guns to scatter the mob, at least two people got killed. That one town exploded over what others quietly endure is perhaps an anomaly. But a recent visit to Umred suggested that the agitation might also reflect new anxieties stewing in a nation where ambitions are trickling down much faster than the means to achieve them.
Umred belongs to a growing number of small, rapidly urbanizing towns—not yet a city but no longer a village—whose people have yet to taste the fruits of economic growth but have nonetheless acquired the aspirations and expectations that are growth’s byproducts.
Satellite television is beaming urban India’s new cravings into Umred’s living rooms. Relatives who migrated to cities are returning home with tales of lucrative jobs and trendy nightclubs. The Internet has emboldened the young to hunt beyond the town for jobs, life partners and ideas. But even as big-city dreams flow to Umred, there is not enough electricity for those dreams to come true.
“Electricity is essential to ambition,” said Ravindra Misal, the 26-year-old owner of an English-language academy here, “because I need it to do my homework, I need it to listen to music if I am a dancer, I need it to listen to tapes of great speakers, I need it to surf the Internet. But I cannot, so people get angry. They have bigger expectations, but electricity is becoming a hurdle on their path.”
Ten years ago, this was a sleepy town, little altered since it emerged as a trading hub for surrounding villages. Farmers’ sons became farmers. Women married young and lived with their in-laws. Few spoke enough English to work in a city like Mumbai; even if they did, few would abandon aging parents for jobs. It was a place far removed from the bustling business and soaring ambitions of metropolitan India.
But if new wealth remains concentrated in urban areas, the longings created by growth are spreading more evenly. To buy a washing machine costs money, but to desire one is free. So Umred began to catch ambition’s bug, expecting more than had been its lot. Farmers’ children began leaving the farm for big-city jobs. Young women whose mothers barely left home began venturing to Nagpur, a small city an hour’s drive away, and even Mumbai, an overnight train journey away, to study subjects like fashion design. Last year, the town held its first-ever Mister and Miss Umred contests. Sixty-eight people competed, and while Umred’s resources were limited, it strove to follow global practices. “We gave them a crown,” said Misal, the English teacher, who helped organize the show. “It was plastic, but it was good.”
English-language training became a growth industry as the young sought to leave town. Five years ago there was one English-language school in Umred; now, there are 10. Misal’s private academy offers a spoken-English course whose price reflects how far down the economic strata ambition has seeped: For 90 hours of classes over 45 days, he charges just $24 (Rs984).
It was in this changed climate that the blackouts struck. Until a few years ago Maharashtra was power surplus. But even as energy demand soared, this state and others have failed to expand the supply. The result is large-scale rationing. Big cities such as Mumbai are spared as much as possible to avoid discouraging investment. The burden is carried by villages and small towns. Entering the hottest season, however, the crisis is so acute in Maharashtra that even Mumbai may face blackouts. They would be the first in decades, and Mumbai’s elite is furious at the prospect of no air conditioning for 90 minutes a day. In Umred, a 90-minute disruption would be a luxury. Its blackouts are typically eight to 12 hours a day.
“Why?” barked Abhay Lanjewar, owner of a sporting-goods store in Umred. “They’re humans in Bombay, but we’re only animals here?”
For Prashant Sapate, the owner of an Umred printing business, blackouts have strangled business, cost him sleep and threatened his baby’s health. Because the electricity is often absent during much of the workday, he does much of his printing between 9 pm and 6 am.
His four-month-old baby recently had bronchitis. The doctor told Sapate to bring the baby in twice a day to receive medicine from an electric inhaler. But at the appointed time, there was often no electricity. Sapate had to use a pump inhaler. The baby took more than three weeks to recover, rather than the eight-10 days originally anticipated.
Yet one thing enraged Umred more than any other. Its heightened expectations are distilled in a new craving for schooling. Across India, there is a new insistence among the uneducated that their children receive education and break poverty’s chain. But the blackouts were distracting their children from their studies. When the parents marched in February, a principal demand was that blackouts be suspended during the annual examinations that can make or break a child’s career in India.
Sushrut Lanjewar, an 8-year-old with a Spider-Man T-shirt, is still learning his letters, but he knows he must study his way out of Umred, and he intends to do so. He wants to be a botanist and discover a plant to thwart global warming.
But several nights a week, he said, electricity vanishes from Umred. He lights a candle to finish his homework but loses focus, he said, because of the flickering light and the mosquitoes.
“Are these people crazy who keep turning off the light?” he asked, not just angry but inquisitive. Why do grown-ups keep telling him to do his homework and then shut off the light? He was told that eight-year-olds in Mumbai have 24-hour power. His eyes bulged. “If they can get the light,” he asked, “how come we can’t get it?”