By Kainat Mushtaq
In the depth of the bitterly cold winter Mehbooba’s family sits around a kerosene stove to warm themselves in a dimly lit living room on the country side of the Himalayan valley.
While in other parts of the country, the availability of power has improved in recent years, but in Kashmir, a region torn by 23 years of separatist insurgency; authorities are not upgrading the state utility system, which has been less than adequate for decades.
“In my lifetime our home never had a 24-hour power supply,” says Mehbooba, a 55-year-old housewife.
Power blackouts that last for hours have become a routine nightmare for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, already suffering economic hardship.
Children strain to do their schoolwork by oil lamp. Families sit on rugs, bundled in warm clothes, for their evening meal, chatting in the darkness, broken only by a candle. Bathing, putting the children to bed, cooking or praying, is all done in cold, dark homes.
Although 97% of the 6,477 villages have electricity connections and the towns and cities are supplied first, leaving little for the areas where most Kashmiris live.
The state needs 800 megawatts of power daily when the temperatures drop below zero, but gets only 600. Jammu-Kashmir produces 120 MW and imports the rest from the national grid, said an official spokesman.
Kashmir’s high mountain streams, if tapped, could generate up to 20,000 MW of electricity per day.
But officials say the bloody separatist campaign and security force operations in the state have kept investors from building new projects.
The state hasn’t seen any new investment in years, but Chief Omar Abdullah told a recent business gathering he will change the pattern of previous administrations.
Most of the state’s own funds are spent fighting the insurgency, leaving little for development.
In villages, “sometimes electricity is off for days and the only way to light or heat our homes is firewood and kerosene lanterns,” said Zohra Shah, a woman farmer in Pulwama.
To beat the cold, Kashmiris traditionally carry a portable coal-filled pot called the kangri under their long woolen cloaks. It is a big comfort with the lack of electrical heaters.
But medical research suggests it may cause a type of skin carcinoma, said Dr. Sheikh Mushtaq, who works at the government hospital in Srinagar. Kashmiri doctors refer to it as Kangri cancer.
The power shortage problems “lead to a certain darkness and dimness in our lives,” Mushtaq said.
Use of kerosene stoves also contributes to increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere and causes respiratory disorders, while large-scale use of firewood leads to deforestation.
“We have heard about private investment in the power sector many times before, but is it practicable?” said Manzoor Shah, a Kashmiri businessman.
“Private investors look for profits and conditions don’t allow that,” he added, referring to the usual Indian difficulty of getting people to pay for their electricity.
Fifty percent of connections aren’t metered, making it hard to track consumption and collect revenue. Nearly half of the power generated is lost during transmission and distribution because of pilferage or network leaks.
Government efforts to get private companies to invest in power will surely take time. Until then, Kashmiris will continue to grapple with cold and darkness.
Always keep a candle or a flashlight close by just in case the lights go off,” said homemaker Zargar.