With Leisang village of Manipur connected to the power grid, every village in the country has been electrified as on April 28 this year. This claim by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has elicited scornful harrumphs from opposition parties, and with reason. After all, reaching this “100 percent rural electrification” target is nothing much to crow about for the present Central government, as Power Ministry data itself reveal that by October 31 in year 2013, almost 94 percent villages (5,61,613 villages to be exact) had been ‘electrified’. So the NDA has now merely completed 6 percent of the task that was remaining when its predecessor UPA was holding the reins at the Centre. What both the political dispensations mostly leave unsaid is that 100 percent electrification of villages hardly means electricity for all village households. Take the case of Assam, for instance. When a query was raised in the Assembly last month about the electrification status, Power Minister Pallab Lochan Das informed that the number of households in the State lacking power connection stands a little over 24 lakh. Since Assam has nearly 52 lakh households, clearly almost half the households in the State are still without electricity. This agrees with the Union Power Ministry data identifying Assam as one of the laggard States with the likes of Rajasthan, Bihar, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha — when it comes to electrification of households. The figure for Assam was shown to be only 55 percent households having electricity. This is the reality, and such proportions are not to be glossed over by misleading claims. In December last year, the Assam Power Distribution Corporation Ltd (APDCL) claimed to have met its target of “100 percent electrification of revenue villages”. However, it was admitted unofficially that around 160 villages were yet to be connected to the grid as these were either eroded, uninhabited or in forest areas. Last month the State Power Minister informed the Assembly that while 4,073 revenue villages have been electrified as on February this year, all such villages will be covered only in the ongoing 2018-19 fiscal.
Overall, the country has nearly 3.7 crore households still wallowing in darkness. It is estimated that the government will have to scale up the electrification pace at least fourfold from present 30,000 households to 1,33,000 households daily. Presently, governments tom-tom their “success” in rural electrification on the basis of last mile connectivity to a village through power poles and transformer, lighting up its public places like local administrative offices, health centres and schools — and needing only 10 percent households to be electrified to fulfil the criteria. Nothing is said about how long and regularly these 10 percent ‘fortunate’ households get their power supply. In fact, there are many households that shrewdly decide to do without power connection despite having the electricity grid nearby. Media reports have quoted a 2015 study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in power deficient States — which found that among half the households without power, as many as two-thirds had not opted for electricity connection because they did not wish to pay installation charges and monthly dues for erratic power supply! The same study reportedly found “significant lag” between the time when electricity was first brought to the villages and when all the village households actually got electrified, with lag of around 15 years in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and over 25 years in Odisha.
The parliamentary standing committee on Energy (2013) had recommended that instead of mere power connectivity to a village, its actual power requirement should be assessed and State power distribution companies (discoms) should provide electricity to remaining households. But discoms are saddled with chronic losses in providing subsidised power to farmers, while battling transmission losses and power theft. Various schemes have been undertaken since 2001 by successive NDA and UPA governments to strengthen discoms, including the latest UDAY scheme with State governments taking 75 percent of the discoms’ debt and banks restructuring the rest. But the results have not been encouraging so far, forcing the Modi government to roll out Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (SAUBHAGYA) scheme last September to provide free electricity connection to BPL/APL households in rural and urban areas by March 2019. Significantly, the scheme pushes for solar photovoltaic (SPV) based standalone systems to power households in remote areas, a mobile app to help apply for new power connections, and meter the electricity supplied. The larger problem will however have to be addressed — that India remains one of the most power-deficient countries as per the latest World Bank list, while the Power Ministry estimates that it would require 28 gigawatts of generation capacity to light up all households in the country. Inefficiencies like under-utilized capacity, fuel bottlenecks and endemic leakages make this challenge far bigger. All these require hard-headed and farsighted responses, which are ill served by misplaced claims made for political consumption by the powers-be.