India lights up
The current government had drawn upon an ambitious plan for country-wide electrification, hoping to reach every household in the process. Called the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana, 'Saubhagya', the objective was clear – to encompass all rural areas in the country with efficiently laid out electric service, lighting up households that do not see light once the sun sets. Electrification of that scale in itself is a mammoth task. And, bringing India's size and rural composition into the picture can have people cough up on the very thought. Yet, the Government of India, through its carefully drafted and directed scheme, set the goal to light up the country on an optimistic note. Under the Rs 16,320 crore Saubhagya scheme, the government was able to reach 2.2 crore families by December and plans to access the remaining 78 lakh households by February '19. No doubt, a task of this level, undertaken with a strict timeline, has been one of the cornerstones of the Narendra Modi government. Urban corners of India have always contemplated how rural lives survive without electricity – a basic need in the contemporary world. Movies like Swades have highlighted the metaphorical and real darkness that prevails in rural India and still, governments have come and gone without paying heed to this basic necessity of the 21st century. In that sense, we do owe credit to the current government for at least acting upon this widespread plan. As Swades showed us that a single person can electrify a village all by himself, it fostered a possibility – government-level intervention was possibly the distant dream. There may have been bold promises regarding electrification but they were only brilliantly articulated to be a part of respective election manifestos at best. However, Modi got bijli into the lives of millions of people, and that deserves applause – despite the existing lacunas. Now, with the primary target of ubiquitous electricity nearing its culmination, the government is all set to bring in reforms in the power sector to augment the "24x7 Power for all" commitment. 24x7 Power for all requires expansion and strengthening of infrastructure for power generation, transmission as well as distribution. A regulatory framework is also needed to supervise power expansion and ensure ceaseless power. Further, the government tends to provide consumers with an option of choosing service providers to suit their power requirements, as a part of the power sector's reform agenda in 2019. There is an expectation that the surge in power demand due to Saubhagya's successful implementation will benefit the under-utilised power assets. However, as the ambitious plan becomes a reality, so will the hindrances and issues that accompany it. And, in that list, the foremost concern is coal deficit — or rather, the improper distribution of coal. The 'Harnessing and Allocating Koyala (Coal) Transparently in India' (SHAKTI) framework was designed to efficiently regulate coal as per state requirements in the country. The policy intends to provide coal linkages to power plants which lack fuel supply agreements (FSAs) through coal auctions. This new coal linkage policy for power plants is supposed to help producers ensure fuel supplies in an organised manner. However, a High-Level Empowered Committee (HLEC) constituted under court directions has recommended a review of certain flawed provisions of Shakti. An equitable and ownership-neutral stance is desirable for the coal allocation framework that it seems to be missing. Thermal plants have displayed huge coal shortage, making way for imports and thus making power expensive despite an aggregate rise in coal production. Lacking an adequate supply of coal will disable these thermal plants in sufficing the requisite demand which would defeat the reliable and quality supply of round-the-clock power.
Making coal mining competitive while bringing in a regulator for supervision would ensure transparency and commercial discipline. According to power ministry data, India has emerged as a net exporter of electricity this year. The energy deficit has come down and the energy availability has gone up. However, power statistics will be drastically hit by the prolonged shortage of coal – especially since thermal plants are the biggest contributors. While reforms are necessary to tend to the hindrances in the power sector, electricity and coal still go hand in hand. India is emerging as a solar power hub with an increasing appetite for renewable energy. Though plagued by the cost-effectiveness and obstacles in its transmission, renewable energy can still be the lynchpin in not only serving as a long-term replacement for the coal-reliable power sector but also in minimising environmental damage, especially in the era of Climate Change. Eventually, any foresight resembles a drastic transformation towards renewable resources for a collective interest of mankind in regard to the environment. India can focus on integrating renewable energy (solar, wind) while it spreads its electricity network to light up the entire country using a tremendous supply of power – through traditional reliability on coal.