This July, I spoke with a farmer in Angul district, Odisha. During the kharif season, most of his 45-acre farm is devoted to paddy, but during the rabi season, he grows a variety of pulses, oilseeds and vegetables. He is currently president of the village watershed committee, working to implement an impressive programme to halt soil erosion and water runoff. He pointed out newly constructed contour and farm bunds that would recharge groundwater and increase soil moisture, thereby increasing farm output.
As we walked through the fields that are part of the watershed programme, we came across an array of metal rods intended for a new electricity tower. While some homes in the nearly two-dozen hamlets that constitute the village have electricity, there is no power in the fields for agriculture. He had no explanation for why there was no “zameen ki bijli”, but he was very aware that electrified irrigation pumps could transform farm production, particularly during the rabi season from October to March. Diesel-powered pumps are poor alternatives.
Much of the public debate about rural electricity has focused on how cross-subsidies and free power have led to inefficient water usage, bankrupt distribution utilities and environmental damage. These negative effects of energy overuse need to be addressed, particularly in parts of the country with acutely depleted aquifers, like Punjab.
Often omitted in the debate, however, are the rural expanses that have the opposite problem: not cheap power but a complete lack of it. Inattention to rural electrification in some regions has meant that many farmers continue to have limited access to electricity for either household use or irrigation. In much of southern and western India, more than 90 per cent of households use electricity to light their homes, while fewer than 50 per cent do so in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. Similarly, while there are 91.1 electrified tubewells per village in Maharashtra and 93.9 in Punjab, there are six in Bihar, 3.1 in West Bengal and only 1.6 in Odisha.
There are a number of technological and managerial experiments underway in the rural electricity sector. Thanks to steady price reductions of photovoltaic technologies, new micro grids are emerging throughout northern India. But since sunlight, their energy source, is variable, they require substantial investment in battery storage. So, their cost continues to be high. On average, the unit cost of energy from such micro grids is far higher than the cost of grid power. Renewable sources are a growing component of energy supply and vital for reducing fossil fuel dependence, but their costs need to be shared fairly.
Elsewhere, innovations in distribution management aim to reduce the high administrative costs of rural electricity provision by leasing out parcels of territory on a “franchise model”. In the Central Electricity Supply Utility distribution zone in Odisha, for example, franchisees have taken over the work of reading meters, billing and collections. Any improvements to the bottom line are split between the franchisee and the utility. Solutions like these will undoubtedly play a role in making rural energy more efficient. It is less clear, however, that these kinds of solutions alone will make rural energy access more equitable.
Over the past decade, funds from the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana have been used to extend the grid. The problem is that even while wires now reach thousands of new villages, there is no guarantee that electricity will flow through them. Distribution utilities — under pressure to improve their finances and reduce cross-subsidies — have little incentive to sell power to farmers since agricultural tariffs are lower than those for industrial and commercial consumers. The problem of cold wires is particularly evident where franchisees have been given the responsibility for rural distribution.
The long history of electrification in India and elsewhere suggests that political support is essential to providing rural power. Before Independence, apart from the public sector “Ganges grid” in the United Provinces and a few small projects in the north, the largest investments in rural electrification were made by government-owned utilities in the south, in princely Mysore and Madras Presidency. Elsewhere, rural electrification began only when the state electricity boards were established after 1948, but the progress was regionally uneven. In some states, governments underfunded rural electrification, whereas in others, particularly places with vocal agrarian constituencies and active farmers’ movements , governments pushed SEBs to take electricity to the countryside.
A renewed political commitment will be essential to address the latent energy needs of the millions of farms and more than 30 per cent of Indian households that remain without electricity. Some have proposed cash transfers to poor and rural households so they can afford higher tariffs. A better alternative is the one proposed by civil society organisation Prayas, which suggests allocating the country’s lowest-cost power generation exclusively for poor consumers. A similar strategy could be used for under-electrified rural areas, which would help align costs of production with tariffs. Without this or similar initiatives, electricity access will remain limited or non-existent in much of rural India.
The writer, assistant professor at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle, is author of ‘Electrifying India’
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