Unnao (Uttar Pradesh): As the mercury soars, Hasim Khan (44) reaches out for his ‘bena’ or hand fan at his modest two-room dwelling at Madarnagar in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh. Life was much easier when the solar power plant was functional, but those days are far gone.
Sitting in the verandah, Khan reminisced how the free power supply from the plant set up by Arise India Limited, a Delhi-based company, brightened up his family life. “It was installed outside the village. Free connections were given to about 400 homes, including mine. We were told we would get free electricity for five years, with each family receiving 100 watts per day to power a tiny bulb and a fan. Nevertheless, it was a relief as my children could study under an electric light, and my wife could cook in the kitchen,” he told 101Reporters.
However, Khan’s relief was short-lived as the electricity supply was abruptly cut off within a year. Though villagers were told that the plant had some technical issues, nothing was done to restore the supply. “I can barely sustain my family of five with my meagre income, let alone afford an electricity connection now,” he lamented.
The plant, which came under the Bangarmau block, was set up in 2017 at a cost of Rs 3.12 crore under the Mini-Grid Policy, which sought to enhance electrification in rural areas with no access to the national grid. The policy facilitated private developers to set up solar plants to power rural households and collect tariffs directly from consumers.
Hasim Khan fans himself to find respite from heat in the absence of electricity in Madarnagar village of Unnao district in Uttar Pradesh.
However, the government apathy rendered the facility non-operational, forcing people like Khan to rely on emergency lamps. “Even if I manage to get the connection again, how will I pay the bills? My three children study in a government school. How will I pay for their education?”
Khan managed by sleeping inside a mosquito net under a tree. But his wife and children who stayed inside, often got diarrhoea due to the heat. “Monsoons have added to my problems,” he said disappointingly.
“We cannot even lie down in the open then,” bemoaned Khan.
Shubham Sahu (26) has a mobile shop just outside the village. “People benefited significantly when the solar plant was functional. There was uninterrupted power supply throughout the day. Even at dusk, the shop remained illuminated and we did not require any emergency lighting facility. However, we had to look for other resources when it stopped operations,” he told 101Reporters.
Other businesses are equally affected. Working on an intricate embroidery in the fading light along with her three daughters and two daughters-in-law, Shakuran Bano (60) said, “We women were immensely relieved with the installation of the solar power plant. We could finally cook in the light. Our house had an existing electricity connection, but power would be cut off when it was sweltering hot and when it rained.”
Maintenance issues, red tape rule the roost
Ramesh Kumar Gupta (56), an operator at the solar plant, said the 150 KW plant was set up with 500 panels of 320-325 W and 540 batteries, and about 400 houses were powered free of cost by installing connection poles. “We ran the plant 24×7 for almost a year, but then some officials took issue and directed us to run it from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. After two months, another set of officials from Lucknow turned up and told us to shut it down permanently until ordered otherwise.”
Thefts have been reported thrice since its closure, with 46 batteries, five solar panels, and panel wires stolen. “Though we tried to lodge a complaint, the police kept harassing us. Till date, they have not recovered anything,” he said.
Gupta said he was recruited as an operator for a monthly salary of Rs 14,000. But even after five years, he received only five months’ wages. “When we informed the officials about the thefts, they permitted us to hire a guard for Rs 7,000, but he has received only one month’s salary so far,” he added.
The plant is in total disrepair, with tall grass engulfing its premises and inches of dust settled on the equipment and batteries inside. “Officials visit from time to time, but only look from the outside and disappear,” said Gupta, expressing his angst.
Speaking to 101Reporters, Madarnagar panchayat chief Bacchu Lal (42) said, “I took up the village leader role a year ago, and the plant had become dysfunctional even before that. We talked about reopening it with the New & Renewable Energy Development Agency (NEDA) officials, but they said they could not help, and asked me to use the gram panchayat fund set aside for the development of the village. Despite these bottlenecks, we are constantly trying to fix this.”
Passing the buck
Though the plant was functional only for less than a year, the blame game surrounding it is still on. “Arise India Limited was responsible for its operation for five years, but they abandoned the project midway without due reasons. We will write to the government to restart the plant and also take legal action against the firm,” said Nepal Singh, an executive engineer with the NEDA, Unnao.
He claimed they had tried to contact the company multiple times, but the calls went unanswered. “The department is constantly trying to get the budget approved to restore the facility.”
Repeated efforts by this reporter to reach out to the company also went in vain.
The solar plant was built by the Samajwadi Party-led government during the tenure of then chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. Speaking to this reporter over the phone, Sunil Singh Sajan, a former MLC who represented the Lucknow-Unnao seat, termed it as Akhilesh’s dream project.
“The government of the day is working to stop all work carried out in public interest by the previous regime. Developmental ventures should be under the purview of the government and they should not be affiliated with any political party. But the current regime is interfering and stopping the previous government’s projects due to political jealousy,” Sajan, also an official spokesperson of the party, alleged.
Though Wakeel Ahmed, the former principal lawyer of Madarnagar, pointed to the empty rhetoric over the plant reopening, Sajan said they were going to leave no stone unturned. “We have written several times to the government to revive this plant. I had also written multiple times to Ravindra Kumar, the former district magistrate of Unnao. Now, I plan to speak with the new district magistrate and seek assistance on the matter,” he said.
When contacted, Shrikant Katiyar, the BJP MLA from Bangarmau, parried questions and said, “I had also visited the site once, but I do not have all the information as to why the plant was closed. I will try to restart it, after carrying out in-depth investigations.”
Leaders and department officials have their own arguments about the Madarnagar plant, but the closure of the ambitious venture that once illuminated impoverished households is unfortunate. Those directly affected, including Khan, are still hopeful that the plant will resume operations soon and their homes will be lit up again.
(The author is a Unnao-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)