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The hunt for Aladdin’s lamp

August 09, 2012


WHEN President Pranab Mukherjee in his inaugural address described his journey “from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi”, he may have unwittingly measured the distance from stark reality to resplendent illusion.

The oil lamp flickers on stoically in India’s electricity deficit towns and villages. Naturally, their inhabitants took scant notice of the world’s worst blackout that hit much of the country last week. Most of the residents were used to longer outages anyway, which last for days, sometimes weeks.

Others didn’t pay heed because they do not know what it means to have electricity to begin with. On the other hand, the chandeliers adorning the British-built Presidential Palace have become part of a national narrative — the media calls it the growth story — with an uncertain denouement.

Material evolution is not disconnected with its societal womb. Mr Mukherjee’s early experience with oil lamps in his ancestral village was not the only occasion the utility found mention in an Indian president’s words. The nation’s first head of state in his autobiography shared his own, more sociologically layered experience with lamps and their absence too by a quirky social fiat.

His story reveals a link rather than a dichotomy between primitive social structures and India’s atavistic modernity.

According to Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, he was allowed access to his wife only in the pitch dark of her unventilated boudoir. A housemaid accompanied him with a lamp to the threshold of the room assigned to his wife in the upper-caste Bihari joint family. The maid would then walk away with the light to leave the master alone with his wife and, according to his memoirs, without giving him a chance to see her. Custom required him to return to his own bed in the men’s section of the mansion before daybreak.

The purdah tradition of mediaeval India has not waned, only mutated from its erstwhile upper-caste rigidities to be embraced by the more numerous lower castes straddling all major religions. Sociologists know the phenomenon as Sanskritisation. The tendency ought to have been discouraged but Gandhiji torpedoed Subhas Chandra Bose as Congress president, the one possible gender-sensitive hope India had, and foisted Prasad as the new leader.

As paradoxes go in India’s complex evolution, Subhas Bose, virtually shunned by Gandhi’s Congress acolytes, became the one significant Indian leader to raise an armed brigade of women fighters to frontally take on the British rulers. The iconic Captain Laxmi Sehgal of the Indian National Army, a doctor by profession, died last month in Kanpur in her nineties. If Florence Nightingale was the Lady with the Lamp, Laxmi Sehgal, a protégé of Bose, was a powerhouse of hope for those she touched and tended to. After giving decades of medical counselling to an unending flow of impoverished women free, she fell short, not surprisingly, of the required votes when she fought the election for India’s president a decade ago.

There is no law, of course, that requires any degree of modernity or a progressive outlook in a society to make it eligible for its fair share of electricity. Equally, we can only see it as a myth the claim that abundant electricity could bring to India its promised sugar-candy mountain, a panacea for its many gaping wounds and illnesses.

What use is abundant energy (for that matter any other offspring of science), if the end users are to remain trapped in a societal time warp? Countries in the Gulf are a case in point. They have all the modern amenities one can imagine. But look at the status of their women, half the population.

I happened to be in Japan where I experienced the rumble of the earthquake in Tokyo the day the Fukushima disaster rattled the country. What brought tears to my eyes was not the enormity of the tragedy, which took its time to be revealed slowly, but the extreme calm and civility with which everyone negotiated the trudge home after efficiently vacating their offices.

It was in that moment of induced power failure in Tokyo that one could discern hope for a society, which was not too long ago ranged against its women, making way for a fairer future. In another place, another time, we saw how scientifically endowed people, commanding the development and consumption of energy, could not deter the human calamity that befell Europe in the first half of the previous century.

So what is the way out for India? Where can we draw the line between a Luddite impulse to regard with suspicion all material progress aided by scientific knowledge and overstressing on the hand and the need to push reckless plans to produce electricity at any cost? What is worse is that these plans, including the disastrous nuclear option, are offered as a cure-all for what ails the country.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Punjab’s female foeticide rate is as high as its share in generating power for the country. When the blackout occurred the main wailing mourners were not so distraught that people were inconvenienced, that lives were put at risk in hospitals, trains had stalled, flights were cancelled. Their main worry was that the grid failure had embarrassed India with foreign investors. ‘Superpower India, RIP,’ sighed the Economic Times, the country’s most read business paper.

A quick reference to the superpower status was on display on the TV monitors. Three or four bronzes and a silver at the London Olympics was enough to send the country of a billion plus, via its vocal cheerleaders, into self-congratulatory raptures. Did India not win a single medal in Barcelona because the electricity situation was iffy? And did it bag a few third places and a second slot by a default in London because the electricity supply had improved?

One of the worst scandals to hit the headlines recently involved the selling of airwaves to vendors of cellphones and other contraptions. Is it not a bigger scandal that in large swathes of India village panchayats are forcing young women not to own or use cellphones because it violates an ancient notion of morality? To bail out these women and to repair much else that torments the country, India needs Aladdin’s lamp, not more electricity.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.