Sunday , 23 September 2018
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Households’ Long Wait For Electricity

BINAYAK DATTA

ON April 30 this year   Indians woke up to a big bang yet again. Countless messages on the Twitter: ”India attains 100 per cent electrification!”

Just to remind readers, three  years ago right from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his Independence Day address to the nation,   Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised: “Team India would electrify all remaining 18,500 villages in 1,000 days.” And so it has been  – with the electrification of Leisan village in Manipur!

I was just wondering this would have been in my recent memories in our country: one of those scarce occasions when the nation saw a promise being made by the top leadership directly before the public,  and the promise being carried out and results achieved on schedule!

Pace is slow

Do remember: of our 6.5 lakh villages, 6.3 lakh were already electrified over the past 66 years.  What was left was just 18, 000 villages. So by simple logic,  the pace of village electrification had certainly not increased. If it had been for instance 10,000 villages electrified a year then it was just 6,000 now – but then what’s so different?  The difference squarely lay in the resolve, in setting up of a goal, in affixation of priorities and in the verve to achieve it – a culture which certainly abounds the corporate world here but is sorely missed in governmental actions!

And I hail it, yes I hail it, even though critics might frantically hunt for falsity to be dug out from the data and to put them on the Twitter. I also overlook bits of inconsistencies on the numbers between the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Jyoti Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana as also some errors in compilation of data received from states. Remember also, that the task was to take electricity to the most interior and inaccessible villages spread across 19 states located in the hitherto unreached hilly slopes, deep gorges, in the midst of dense forests and in some cases even infested with dreaded extremists.

The first mile is achieved;  Julien Smith would have said again, as he did in his ‘The Flinch’: “…No one has a problem with the first mile of a journey. Even an infant could do fine for a while. But it isn’t the start that matters. It’s the finish line.” And he adds: “…The Flinch is why the lazy actor never gets discovered because she never really sweats to make it happen. It’s why the monolithic company gets wiped out by a lean startup  because the big company culture avoids the hard questions…” And we have seen too much of this ‘Flinch’ everyday, everywhere around us!

Difficult task

The more difficult task now lies ahead. It is actually the villagers that have to have electricity  not just the ‘villages’ only on paper, or in the dusty files of the Central Electricity Authority of India. According to a World Bank publication, till 2016, 84.5 per cent of our population was covered under electrification, just for benchmarks amongst our tribe – Brazil, Russia and China had 100 per cent, South Africa was at 84.2 per cent and amongst our next-door neighbours Pakistan has 99.1 per cent, Sri Lanka stands at 95.6 per cent  and Bangladesh  at 75.9 per cent. This only proves how much more, we still need to do! Around 31 million households today are still without electricity even as we rejoice over attainment of the first mile. And the target for this is March 2019.

A huge amount of money – around Rs 70,000 crore – has been expended over the last three  years as also external loans availed by the Rural Electrification Corporation Ltd to the tune of $650 million  – and it would only make sense to see the total fruition of the programme as fast as possible – which is  100 per cent  cover of our population under electrification.

New challenges

I think we need to focus on some important aspects as regards electrification of villages. First and foremost is the quality of power supplied. Villages will now expect more as when there was no head  there was no any headache either – now there will be! Goa, for example, was amongst the eight states where 100 per cent  electrification came under the previous ‘Bharat Nirman Yojana’ back in 2010. Till today the quality of power supplied is simply abysmal – even last week we have had outages for  six  times in 18 hours! According to the Union government’s own data as of December 2017, only six  out of 30 states had 24 hour-power supply in rural areas and over 50 per cent  of ‘electrified’ rural households don’t even get 12 hours of supply in a day.

Another facet of the electrification is the cost of power supply;  and here  the extensive use of solar and wind power is the answer. The cost per unit for solar power reportedly at Rs 2.44 per unit is much less than the cheapest conventional source. Of the 18, 000 villages, 3,000 are on solar micro-grids and maintenance programme of which have to be in place.

The sector is plagued by transmission thefts and distribution losses. India is amongst the countries with highest transmission and distribution losses. According to World Bank data, the world average is 8 per cent:  in India we have 19 per cent  and in Goa 21 per cent  (intra and interstate). Strong actions are warranted to bring these losses down to world averages in the first step.

Line maintenance is in difficult terrain.  There has to be an elaborate breakdown and complaints handling mechanism in place,  otherwise deep discontent would emerge in no time.

And lastly I must say that an efficient billing system for the villagers must be brought about. At the end of the day providing benefits to citizens is not enough – it is important the citizen knows as well, at what cost the benefit comes to him!

The first mile  now been achieved – now the last mile stares at our face and let us show our grit once more much across Julien’s ‘The Flinch’ to see each of our children from villages doing his studies under an electric lamp and a fan!

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