Electrifying claim?

Power For All

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The Modi government’s resolve to light up every home by December 2018 is no doubt commendable. At the time the announcement was made, August 2015, available data showed that 18,452 villages were without power. Though work is said to be moving at a somewhat fast pace, there is scepticism whether all households would eventually get electricity and importantly for how many hours on an average daily basis.
In a country where around 65 per cent of the 1.3 billion population lives in rural areas, electrifying every home has proved somewhat of an onerous challenge. Among the reasons is the dire state of the power distribution companies’ finances and rampant theft from the grid. With the General election slated for next year, access to power would predictably turn out to be a key issue for voters, among various other plans and promises of the NDA coming under scrutiny.
In 2014, 270-odd million Indians had no access to electricity, making them up as one third of the world’s powerless. (Nigeria was second-highest with 75 million.) According to World Bank data, access to electricity in India’s rural communities jumped since 1990, when less than half had electricity, but more than a fifth of non-city dwellers still were without power in 2016. This compares with 100 per cent rural coverage in China and 99 per cent in neighbouring Pakistan.
Recall that in 2017, the NDA government launched the Saubhagya scheme, which promised to provide free electricity connections to households in rural areas and also the urban poor by end of 2018. It further promised to distribute LED lamps to newly electrified households, in the backdrop of a major section of this population continuing to be dependent on kerosene lamps or diesel generators given that there is no regular supply of power in their electrified homes.
A visit to the Saubhagya website shows the break-up/percentage of electrification carried out so far in each State. While Punjab, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Puducherry are reportedly “100 per cent” electrified, only “55-60 per cent” of households in Uttar Pradesh and around “50-55 per cent” in Jharkhand are electrified. However, unofficial reports suggest that these official figures are not quite realistic. This is so because the power supply to these ‘electrified households’ is for not more than four hours or so on an average.
It needs to be mentioned here that the figures are based on the premise that a village is considered electrified if 10 per cent of public places, schools, panchayats offices and health centres have access to electricity. Thus, 100 per cent electrification does not mean that all households have access to electricity. In fact, as a power expert explained such vague definitions only create a false sense of achievement and doesn’t spell out the ground reality of the quality of supply in the areas.
In April-end, the Modi government claimed that all of nearly 600,000 villages have now been given electricity connection. While the government may have provided the power infrastructure in villages, it is now left to households to seek a connection and for the State authorities to supply at affordable costs. In fact, electrification of villages and that of households are two different things and making the latter a reality is indeed quite difficult. Such vague definitions, says an expert only create a false sense of achievement and take us further away from the ground reality of duration and quality of supply in these areas.
The seeds of 100 per cent village electrification were sowed with the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJUY), a scheme with a projected outlay of Rs 76,000 crore that Modi launched on July 25, 2015. Earlier the scheme, launched by the UPA government was called Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana. Apparently, Modi drew inspiration from his tenure as Gujarat Chief Minister, wherein farm and household feeders in rural areas were separated to assure 24×7 power supply to households and also to the farmers.
Coming to the question of power distribution, which indeed is a crucial challenge, it has been observed that State DISCOMS (power distribution facilities) are forced to sell power to consumers below cost, largely because that makes politicians popular with voters. DISCOMS are consequently forced to borrow heavily to pay power-generation companies, restricting their ability to expand services. Also, they don’t get paid for about one-fifth of the power flowing through their networks because of sloppy billing and revenue collection, poor wiring or straight-up theft. Over the years, there has been a clear lack of will to address these problems and while the government is trying to change it around, little headway has been made till date.
Barring cities such as Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, Agra, Surat and Ahmedabad where power distribution is privatised, it is the State DISCOMS that buy power through long-term purchase agreements with Central and State-owned generating stations, private generators and the Power Exchange India Limited. It seems that large transmission and distribution losses, corruption etc. are key issues that are intrinsically related to providing electricity to every household.
For distributing power to all, say even by 2019, DISCOMS need to become viable enabling them to bear infrastructure costs such as build sub-stations, install feeders, transformers and metres.etc. The investment cost may be recovered through consumer tariffs over the next five-six years. Moreover, they have to focus on promoting efficiency, optimum utilisation of generation and transmission capacity, shifting of overhead lines underground, wherever possible, laying of new feeder feeders and setting up of new distribution transformers. It must be remembered that the onus has to be on the States with support and help from the Centre, in effect the Power Ministry.
Even if we look at ‘power for all’ or for that matter 50 per cent of all households within its targeted timeframe, the government has still a long way to go in providing this very essential infrastructure to the masses. If at all it is successful, the generation of power to the villages would have a rippling positive effect on the rural economy and subsequently could improve the incomes of the people. In April, it has been claimed that all of nearly 600,000 villages have now been given electricity connection.
The desired change in the rural economy particularly may be seen in the coming years but to witness real and complete transformation there is need for more dedicated efforts by the States and the Centre. Importantly, electrification plans, especially for rural India need to be ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’ for both households and governments. Will this be a reality? —INFA