Power and telephony: how things have changed

A generation ago, a visiting Japanese minister was flabbergasted when asked by his Indian counterpart (through the interpreter) how many tries it took him to get through to the telephone number he was dialling! Things have certainly changed since then, writes retired IAS officer Vivek Agnihotri

Vivek AgnihotriOn 4 September 2015, on the eve of 125th birth anniversary of Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the first vice-president of India and chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while interacting with the students of India in the course of a video conference, announced that by 2022 all villages of India (Bharat) will have 24x7 electricity supply.

In the same news coverage of the event, during a break, there was an advertisement.  It showed a grandfather telling his granddaughter to study hard for her examination, when the lights suddenly go out.  The ad goes on to show that the old man's son, who is the father of the child, leaves his food, despite the old man's protestations, saying that his daughter's future is more important than his dinner.  He goes off on his motorbike and,  the ad ends with  a tree illuminated with CFL / LED bulbs and a number of tables and chairs under it for students to sit and study. 

I am sure this and other advertisement will become irrelevant in 2022.  It happens; things, which are very critical and important at a given moment, have a tendency to become irrelevant with the passage of time.  But you would be wrong to write them off altogether.

A generation ago, I attended a conference organised by one of our business community associations.  During a session one of the participants recounted his experience as a member of a delegation led by the then minister of telecommunication (by whatever name that ministry was then known ).  In the course of the ministerial exchange, the minister from India asked his counterpart from Japan how many attempts did it take him to get connected to the telephone number he wanted to get connected to.

The minister from Japan was perplexed.  He asked the interpreter to repeat the question put by the Indian minister; but to no avail.  He consulted his civil servants, but they too were at a loss.  The Japanese minister then informed the Indian minister that it would take time for him to find the answer and the discussion veered round to to other topics. 

The Japanese bureaucracy in the ministry of telecommunication was thrown into confusion trying to understand the question.  They tried various sources to get the hang of the question.  Finally, they turned to their ambassador in India, who had little difficulty in explaining what the Indian minister meant because he was facing the problem himself day in and day out.  When the time came for the Japanese minister to bid goodbye to his Indian counterpart, he had a beatific smile on his face.  His reply to the postponed question was simple, ''We dial to get the number we want''.

Soon we were overtaken by the mobile revolution, which, after some initial hiccups, made the question asked by the minister from India look very unintelligent. But a couple of decades later, we are back with the reincarnated problem of call drops, about which too the Prime Minister has expressed great concern.  The landline or fixed line telephone is back in demand, as is home cooked food.

Coming back to the promise of 'electricity for all', I am reminded of an incident which happened when I, along with my family members, went to Kashmir for a vacation in mid-1980s.  From Srinagar we drove down to Anantnag to enjoy the scenic beauty of interior Kashmir.  We reached the circuit house in the evening when the sun was about to set.  We found that there was no power in the circuit house.  Power cuts were no great surprise in those days.  We had them all the time, mostly unscheduled.

I asked the caretaker as to when the electricity was likely to be restored.  He smiled and said: ''Abhi to gayee hai sahib'' (Sir, it has just gone).  Meaning thereby that it will take time and God alone knew when it would come back.  We stayed at Anantnag for two days; and sure enough there was no electricity during that period.

Of course, given the weather conditions in Kashmir during autumn, we did not feel greatly inconvenienced and enjoyed going through our chores in candle and paraffin lamp light.

Thing are much better now.  In Greater Noida, we built a house in 2002-03, but shifted there only in 2012.  In the intervening period, we heard horror stories about power supply from our tenants, from time to time.  Six-hour outage was the norm; but it could be much more on a day to day basis.  When we were moving in, we had to take a major investment decision regarding power back up: inverter (Rs40 k) or generator (Rs1.5L+).

We went around seeking advice from a few friends who had already settled down.  Some had installed generators, others inverters, and both categories appeared quite satisfied.  We were confused, till the realization dawned that the generator-wallas were those who had settled down 10 years ago, when we had built the house.  The inverter-wallas were comparably recent settlers.

We went ahead and installed a double battery inverter.  We have been around for over three years now, and we too are very happy about the investment decision.