In a country like India, where resources are vast and unequally distributed, “development for all” is a powerful vote-catcher. It’s the one promise that has fired up many elections and changed the fate of many people and their parties. But even after 15 general elections, this electoral promise remains unfulfilled.

‘Development for all’ is unattainable unless electricity is provided to all. Even today, 80,000 villages, which together are home to 40 crore of India’s nearly 125 crore population, still do not have the power to light even a bulb. Out of this, 19,000 villages are within Bihar alone, where economic growth, human development and entrepreneurship have been held back because of the lack of electricity. Yet, our policymakers continue to carry forward an energy paradigm that is well beyond its sell-by date.

Hurting centralism

Despite the burden of our rapidly growing population and it’s even more rapidly growing energy needs, we have stuck to an expensive, unsustainable centralised energy infrastructure, creating vast gaps between demand and supply. In the 11{+t}{+h} Five-Year Plan, India added 52GW to its electricity supply chain yet couldn’t provide a mere 12GW of electricity to its un-electrified rural population.

In an era of decentralisation in economy and politics, our electricity continues to be produced in bulk quantities at central, large-scale power plants. It is then supplied to areas till where wires and poles have been stretched to the last. However, the farther a location, the less reliable the power supply, and there are more distribution and transmission losses.

As a result, villages located far away from these central power points fail to feature in the Government’s priority list.

The story of Dharnai

In Bihar’s Jehanabad district lies once such un-electrified, nondescript village of Dharnai, which epitomises all that is wrong with centralised energy planning. In 1981, Dharnai’s only bridge connecting it with the rest of the country collapsed. Being a primarily agricultural village, its electrification was deemed ‘not urgent’ and the village’s burned power transformer was never rebuilt.

In the following three decades, in the absence of electricity, economic backwardness and poverty set in the village, as people grew desperate and poor, missing out on opportunities to grow with the rest of the country. The promise of “development for all, electricity for all” was heard every five years but not once delivered to the village in even 30 years.

But in March this year, Greenpeace, along with Centre for Environment and Energy Development (CEED) and an BASIX, a livelihood promotion organisation, set up a solar-powered micro-grid in the village to supply 24x7 electricity and the changes have been instant and noticeable. Apart from the hard economics of better light translating into better business, the social transformation in the village is even harder to miss.

Better light has aided in better education. Better lighting has led to better safety for women. Powered by the micro-grid, Dharnai has managed to run 30-year-long distance in mere three months.

Electricity acts as a catalyst for socio-economic development. It acts an enabler, and villages such as Dharnai can no longer remain disabled due to its lack.

A cry for clean energy

The country is blessed with an abundance of clean energy resources, lending it the ability to generate sustainable, affordable power. India is already the world’s fifth largest wind power producer, but it has tapped only 6 per cent of its entire 300GW wind energy potential. Due to its favourable geographical location, reveals the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), India receives 5,000 trillion kWh of solar energy each year, which is far beyond our country’s annual power consumption.

According to the MNRE, in Bihar, India’s energy-poorest state, renewable energy market in 2013 was 2,564 MW, including 640 MW biomass power.

Such potential can be harnessed by developing Dharnai-like off-grid or decentralised renewable energy-powered systems to quickly deliver sustainable, clean electricity to Bihar and the rest of India.

An off-grid system, as the name suggests, is an independent power source. It uses locally available energy resource (such as solar or biomass) to generate power close to the site of consumption, reducing distribution losses, infrastructure costs and improving reliability of supply. Unlike the central system,A micro-grid can rapidly upgrade with time and need. Moreover, a micro-grid takes just six to 12 months to develop versus about eight years for a coal plant.

India is a young country, with a collection of many Dharnais that have tremendous energy needs and even greater yearning for growth. But with a quarter of its population still trapped in the “other India”, frustrated and waiting in the dark for its basic needs to be met, promises of an “emerging India” or “development for all” will continue to ring hollow, remaining only a theme for vote-grabbing in party manifestoes.

The writer is associated with Greenpeace