Electrification or power highway?

On an average, 16.5 villages were electrified in India every day since August 15, 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a deadline of 1,000 days to complete electrification of all nonelectrified villages. A total of 18,374 villages were electrified, of which 2,762 are through their own off-grid network. It is no mean achievement considering that the last in the line villages to come on-stream were the toughest to get on to the bright side of India. 

Can the feat really be described as 100 per cent village electrification? To give an analogy, think of a village where a railway track is laid or a school building is constructed. Can the village be considered linked by rail unless an actual train runs on that track and provides services on a regular basis? Or education is said to have reached unless teachers take classes and students are in attendance, culminating into an examination? 

The government has clarified the definition of village electrification is a “legacy issue” — it mandates electrification of at least 10 per cent of the households in a village, but does not imply restricting household electrification only to 10 per cent. “As per recent reports from the states, household electrification level in rural areas is more than 82 per cent ranging from 47 to 100 per cent across various states,” the ministry of power said in a statement. It said the government moved out of this dichotomy and launched the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (Saubhagya) to achieve universal household electrification in the country by December 31, 2018.

The clarification was in response to criticism that by achieving 10 per cent electrification, 100 per cent can be claimed. According to the Union government’s own count, 31.3 million households are yet to be electrified. That is not to say the effort put into bringing power infrastructure to 18,374 villages was a small achievement. 

This achievement alone, however, does not translate into 100 per cent electrification — it only means creation of a power highway or connectivity. The reason is, no power or intermittent low grade power supply is equivalent to no electrification. It will, therefore, be important to constantly monitor the actual flow of power especially to the newly electrified villages. From here on, the task would be as daunting as putting up poles and transformers through head loading of material up to 10 days in 102 villages of Arunachal and Manipur. 

Is power actually running into these new highways? The energy requirement across the country during 2017-18 was 1,212 billion units (kilowatt/hour) which was more or less met with only 0.7 per cent deficit. The Central Electricity Authority estimates 1,265 billion units to be generated in 2018-19, which translates to a mere 4.3 per cent increase over the requirement last year. Most likely, the increased supply will go into meeting the additional requirement of those who already had electricity. Though the government argues that efficiency measures have contributed to subdued demand, it is clear that the rural electrification wave is not reflecting in increased power consumption.

The distribution companies that fall in the domain of state governments need to be prodded and monitored for energising the connections as and when individual households opt for it. This is also important since unutilised infrastructure is more prone to damage and redundancy than a set-up which is being put to use.

To incentivise the distribution companies to supply power, tariff or, alternatively, charges topped up with government subsidy, have to be such that it is viable and in line with the cost of power procurement and supply. If that is not achievable then the situation could be as bad as in small cities and towns that depend on diesel generated power because distribution companies cut power instead of incurring losses on supply. A new customer is always more prone to go back to their earlier ways than adopt and pay for something that does not come easily.

Then there is the issue of affordability. If power tariffs like LPG supply under Ujjwala programme is not affordable, there could be a situation where customers do not want to buy power. 

Moving from a stage of power connectivity to that of real electrification will be a trickier task unless it is backed up by changes in the Electricity Act that guarantee a certain quality and quantum of power. Delhi has moved towards this through penalising power cuts but replicating it in other states that sit on huge distribution losses is certainly more challenging.

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