That the government of India’s recent initiatives in the power sector have started bearing fruit is undeniable. It is for this reason that the ministry of power and renewable energy (RE) has been graded as one of the most performing ministries at the Centre.
With the increasing availability of power in the country resulting in a fall in prices and the gradual easing of transmission constraints, it is clear that the milestone of 24×7 supply to all parts of the country is around the corner. The big question, however, is to ensure supply of power, even if it is not 24×7, to all and here, the objective of “power for all” set by policymakers comes under scrutiny.
Both Central and state governments have recently been applauding their rural electrification programme. As per government of India estimates, out of 5,87,464 villages in the country, only 18,542 were not electrified at the beginning 2015-16. Of these 14,813 were to be electrified through the grid while 3,639 were to be electrified off-grid through RE sources. Till March 2016, 6,479 villages have already been electrified and the rest are to be electrified by December.
In the states, this figure stands between 95 to 100 per cent with the exceptions of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. States like Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu are already claiming 100 per cent electrification. Even states like Bihar, UP and Rajasthan claim to be touching 99 per cent. The glaring issue in the light of these figures is that by the Centre’s own admission, the number of households without electricity in the country stands at a staggering seven to eight crore. In UP, this figure is about two crore.
This contradiction comes from the definition of electrified villages adopted by the government of India. According to the rural electrification policy guidelines of 2004, a village is classified as electrified if basic infrastructure like distribution transformers, poles and distribution lines are provided in the locality, including one “Dalit basti”, and if electricity is provided in one of the public places like schools, panchayat offices, health centres etc and the number of households electrified are 10 per cent of the total number of households in the village.
Prior to October1997, the definition was that a village should be classified as electrified if electricity is being used within its revenue area for any purpose. After October 1997 and till the arrival of the present policy in 2004, a village was deemed to be electrified if the electricity is used in any of the inhabited localities, within the revenue boundary of the village, for any purpose. Thus, even though a village may appear in the electrified list of villages, the actual number of households getting power may be a mere 10 per cent.
The recent controversy over whether Nagla Fatela village in Hathras district, now famous because of its mention by the prime minister in his Independence Day speech, was electrified in 1985 or 2015, is, in a way, an outcome of this bureaucratic juggling.
Further, as per the existing practices of the electricity supply code applicable in different states, all households within 40 metres of an electrical pole are supposed to take their connection from the pole. This leaves a large chunk of the population located within the “electrified village” but outside this 40-metre limit. Coupled with this is the problem that even in electrified hamlets, not all the households within 40 meters of the distribution lines/poles, take the connection.
Thus there is a situation where people wanting to take connections cannot get it because they are situated more than 40 meters away and those within the area refuse to take connections and instead use what is commonly known as “katia” to take illegal connections. This results in double the trouble: First, the revenue of discoms does not increase and second, the dissatisfaction among the villagers grows.
If you look into the numbers as per the census, there were 22.66 crore households in the country out of which only 16.58 crore had connections. Of these, 30-40 per cent are unmetered. Those with unmetered connections get electricity at very cheap or subsidised rates as they are billed either on a per connection basis or a per kilowatt basis. The discoms, it is widely believed, use this as an opportunity to load most of the stolen electricity into the consumption of this category. This is also the cause for the poor financial health of several discoms.
A three-pronged strategy is required to tackle this problem: One, people who fall within 40 metres of the poles should be persuaded to take the connections. Apart from persuasion, a legislative approach could be to charge the households within the 40 meters an electricity cess, as is done in the case of water provided by the municipal corporations.
Two, power department officials should ensure that people within the 40 metres range take connections. One barrier to taking these connections is their cost, which should be reduced and charged in instalments, especially from low-income applicants. Three, an extensive assessment of how much investment is required to let the electricity network go up to all the households. This investment should be made on priority basis, as it would bring more revenue to the discoms and it may reduce the tariff burden on existing consumers.
If the investment on expanding the network to each household is too high, governments may consider encouraging private micro-grids and mini-grids. In several states, off-grid micro and mini-grids are a reality. In UP and Bihar, where the grid coverage is poor, 70-80 such projects have already come up. Many other states are following suit.
Simultaneously, the Central government has come up with a draft mini-grid policy which should give a big boost to them in the country. The need is to have a coordinated plan to extend the existing grid and to set up more mini-grids in remote villages. This would require not just coordination but active collaboration among the states and the Centre. Only this can turn the dream of “power for all” into a reality.