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As water and power dry up in India, the people revolt

Hundreds of times a week across the nation, frustrated residents block roads and demand resources. But there's simply not enough to go around.

August 13, 2009|Mark Magnier

VIRATNAGAR, INDIA — The rage surged through the crowd, mixing with the heat, the sweat and the frustration to create a volatile stew, as several hundred locals incensed over power and water shortages blocked the main Alwar Road here Wednesday.

Most residents said they hadn't seen a lightbulb's worth of energy come through their wires in the last 60 hours, and this after suffering protracted cuts for the last month. With no power to pump well water, some said they had to walk miles to find a hand pump. Others said they were paying up to a third of their meager incomes to price-gouging drivers of water trucks.

Localized eruptions like this one, most unreported, occur hundreds of times each week across India, where this year the situation has been made worse by unusually light monsoon rains. The states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and Rajasthan are among the hardest-hit areas.

Experts say the shortages could be the result of global warming or natural cycles. That hasn't provided much solace to farmers like these in eastern Rajasthan as they watch their crops die, their livelihoods wither, their children go thirsty.

Rajasthan, which abuts Pakistan, is heavily dependent on hydroelectric power, as are many other drought-hit states. With water levels down, turbines aren't turning, taxing India's overextended infrastructure and fraying tempers.

Blocking roadways is a time-worn way to draw a response from officials, particularly for rural communities. A protest last year in Rajasthan over access to government jobs shut down the national highway for a month.

"No one ever listens to us unless we block the road," said Kishan Saini, 27 and unemployed, one of the leaders of the 2 1/2 -hour protest here Wednesday. "This is the worst shortage I've seen in my lifetime. We'll keep doing this for as long as it takes to get some action."

As the standoff continued, the logjam of trucks, buses and horse carts grew, eventually extending for hundreds of yards in both directions.

At the epicenter of the protest, a dozen men squatted in the road, surrounded by hundreds of supporters and onlookers. Thirty feet away, two dozen women with red, orange and green head scarves sat on boards among the potholes, forming a second line of defense.

Eventually, a local official showed up, along with seven policemen in beige berets, their long bamboo canes at the ready should things turn violent. As the crowd swelled, onlookers jostled for position on roadside manure piles and rooftops to get a better view as a camel, unhitched from its wooden cart, stared impassively from beneath a tree.

"Sure you're angry," the local official said. "But why didn't you lodge a complaint?"

"We've tried for the past two weeks, but no one does anything," shot back a man wearing a gray T-shirt.

With no meeting of the minds and traffic backing up, the official called in reinforcements: Ashok Sharma, a subdivisional district magistrate.

Sharma carried on where his colleague had left off. "You've filed no report, you can't just block the road like this," he told the crowd. "We officials are also suffering. I've been working on nothing but this problem for the past two days."

This drew jeers.

An old man piped up, spitting with anger, egged on by the cheering crowd. "We pay our electric bills. We pay late fees and fines. Yet there's no power. What's the point of paying?"

Sharma shifted gears, attempting to get the crowd on his side. He told them he had discovered that some 72 megawatts of electricity from the local transmission station were going to a nearby city and that he had persuaded higher-ups to divert a portion to their area.

The crowd now listening, Sharma pressed his advantage. "As a compromise, we'll cut power six hours a day but keep the power on for the other 18 hours."

"We're ready to endure six hours," several in the crowd responded, even as a few got up from the road. "But can we trust that the power will stay on for the remaining 18?"

Sharma pledged his word.

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, senior editor with the Hindustan Times and an Asia Society senior fellow, said scenes like this are played out every day in India and do little to resolve the basic problem: There simply aren't enough resources to go around, particularly during times of natural calamity.

"Ultimately, a lot depends on how much political clout you have locally and whether you can grab what's available before others get it," he said. "And blaming the problem on the city always plays well with villagers."

With Sharma in the home stretch after 30 minutes on the scene, and with much of the yelling down to a dull roar and locals starting to wander off, the savvy official delivered his coup de grace.

"I've told you the situation," he said. "I'm not holding out on you, and I can't create power. Keep shouting like this, and maybe you'll get the gods to open the clouds for you."

--

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana of The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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