Amreli (Gujarat): Puncture-repair-shop owner Jaggu Bhai has been waiting “for years” for the local panchayat (the village council) of Lathi in this coastal district to clear his application for a free pucca or permanent home under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), the Prime Minister’s housing programme for India’s urban and rural poor.
Jaggu Bhai told us that he and other Dalits in the village of Dhamel in Lathi panchayat had been excluded from the government’s housing benefits by higher caste panchayat members and that had created a conundrum: since they lived on land that did not belong to them, he and other landless labourers were deemed illegal inhabitants, unable to legally access government services, such as an electricity connection, that required proof of residence.
That Dalits, scheduled tribes and minorities have lower electricity access has been documented, as this 2018 study did. Another March 2020 study of the rural electrification programme in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, revealed that Dalit villages were 20 percentage points less likely to be connected to the grid than upper-caste villages.
When electricity is not accessible, many steal it, as some landless Dhamel labourers did, such as Jaggu bhai. They were recently fined Rs 70,000 for electricity theft. In households that use only a bulb to light shops or huts, that fine is about 45 times more than what their annual electricity bill of about Rs 1,500 might be, if they were eligible for an electricity connection.
The PMAY’s aim is to provide a permanent home to all those homeless or living in kutcha (impermanent) and dilapidated houses by 2022, a promise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated in his Independence Day speech on 15 August 2021.
But India is not on course to meet that deadline.
With less than a year to go, the PMAY-gramin or rural programme has yet to meet 45% of its target, with 127 million of 228 million homes built by January 2021, the Hindu reported in March, quoting a Parliamentary committee report.
With progress stalled because of Covid-19—no more than 6% of houses sanctioned for 2020-21 were built this year—landless labour, such as those in Lathi, had no immediate prospect of a home or proof of residence.
With no means to pay the fines levied on them, these workers face further poverty: if they do not pay the fine, under Gujarat’s state law, they could face three months in prison, or under central law, three years.
Problem: No Electricity Without Proof Of Resident
Electricity is an “essential requirement”, according to India’s national electricity policy. Some have easy access to it, others do not. Some may choose to steal it, others may have no other means of getting it.
Yet, both these groups are penalised and punished in the same way.
In rural India, landless workers—about 144 million, according to Census 2011—make up nearly half of socially and economically disadvantaged castes. About 45% of 33 million landless families are scheduled caste, which is roughly 70 million, who, often, find themselves excluded from government programmes, such as the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), launched in 2005, to provide rural electricity infrastructure and household electrification.
In Amreli, villagers told Article 14 that many of them were excluded from an electricity connection, since they did not have a legal permanent address to apply for the electricity connection. People from these communities who are historically excluded from the ownership of land find little option to an illegal electricity connection. Though multiple electrification policies have been introduced over the past decade, this police lacuna has remained unaddressed.
Although it had some success, RGGVY had many shortcomings, and the RGGVY was replaced by the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana in 2014. Another scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana ( to provide electricity to all rural households across the country by December 2018) or the Saubhagya Scheme was introduced in 2018 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The housing policy, PMAY also failed to address this policy lacunae by providing housing for all 66.18 lakh landless labourers who did not have a home when the programme began in 2015. Promising on paper, the PMAY faltered by failing to bring accountability to its decentralised implementation, which is done through gram sabhas or local councils.
In areas such as Lathi, landless labourers mostly have no social or political influence and hold no panchayat positions. Those who do hold positions when seats are reserved for Dalits, have little say in the decision-making process.
The Karnataka government appears to have found a solution to this exclusion through the Dr B R Ambedkar Nivas Yojana, which provides for vigilance committees, which select beneficiaries from a list of the area’s homeless population that the gram panchayat must submit.
Once identified thus, beneficiaries do not have to wait for the government to act; they can apply for a home through the Rajiv Gandhi Rural Housing Corporation Limited, which provides housing for socially or economically disadvantaged people.
The Right To Homestead
While the PMAY finances house construction on one’s land or provides land to the landless to build a house, Bihar was the first in India to enact a separate law, the Bihar Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy Act 1947, to provide security of tenure to landless rural households over their homesteads.
According to the Bihar law, a homestead is any land (owned by someone else) held by a landless person for more than a year. A landless person with no other land more than an acre is eligible for a permanent title to homestead land.
However, the process is cumbersome and requires a gram sabha meeting, calling for objections; and if there are none, the process requires a record, which goes to the government through the circle officer, sub-divisional officer, district collector and divisional commissioner.
Housing Policy And Electricity Theft
Power theft costs India about Rs 33,434 crore ($ 4.5 billion) every year and reduces India’s gross domestic product by 1.5% according to a 2004 World Bank estimate.
An effective housing policy could be one way to legalise and make millions eligible for a legal electricity connection.
A 2014 report by the Deshkal Society, a non-profit organisation supported by the government’s think tank, the NITI Aayog, recommended changes in the Bihar Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy Act 1947 to create an equitable and sustainable housing policy.
The Deshkal report recommended that a tenth of an acre be allotted for housing sites, up from the current 0.03 acres, so beneficiaries would get space for supplementary sources of income, such as livestock, fodder, fruit trees or vegetables.
The report also recommended that along with legalising their housing, the government should provide basic facilities, such as safe drinking water, sanitation and electricity.
Granting homestead rights is not a new recommendation; some states, such as Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, have had homestead policies for decades. Other states, such as Kerala, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha, have separate programmes that do the same.
A National Right to Homestead Bill, drafted in 2013, has not yet been put before Parliament. Such a law, which provides for at least a tenth of an acre for a homestead, has been cited as being possibly a key move towards rural self-sufficiency, as the Deshkal report discussed.
The Bill also proposes to give the title to the homestead to an adult woman member of the family, in line with previous legislation, such as in the The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
A housing policy that economically empowers landless women and makes their households self sufficient would go a long way, we believe, in ensuring not just electricity but food security, nutritional and financial needs for India’s marginalised households.
(Saadhya Nath, Jalpa Ghataliya and Tanvi Singh work with the Amreli unit of the Centre for Social Justice, which provides legal representation to marginalised communities in Amreli, Gujarat. Saadhya Nath is a first year student at the Institute of Law, Nirma University, and is a CSJ intern.)