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India’s ‘Current’ distress

India’s ‘Current’ distress
Residents of Manki village, barely 10 kilometers from “diamond city” Panna in Madhya Pradesh, saw a bulb switch on for the first time in March this year. Sixty-nine years after India achieved Independence, electricity had finally reached the village. But their excitement was short-lived. In less than four days, the village plunged back into darkness. Two months later, power returned on May 29 but again stayed for hardly two days. Since then, Manki—where 95 percent of the households are connected to the electrical grid—has been forced to go back to using kerosene lamps for lighting.

Despite such bumpy progress, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced during his Budget speech this year that the government would achieve 100 percent village electrification by May 1, 2018. After the Budget speech, Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal went one step ahead and told a news channel that electricity would reach all remaining unelectrified villages “possibly by the end of 2017 itself”. Such ambitious targets involve a rapid expansion of grids and taking power connections to villages in the most remote parts of the country. But the experience of villages like Manki shows that being connected to an electrical grid does not mean having electricity.
 
Policy misses
 Take a look at what is considered an electrified village, for instance. According to a revision in the definition given in the Electricity Act, 2003, an electrified village is one where all public places such as schools, health centres, and panchayat offices, and 10 percent of all households are connected to the grid. This means only one in 10 households needs to have electricity supply for the village to be considered officially “electrified”.

In April 2005, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government launched the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidhyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) which provided 90 percent capital subsidy to local contractors for installing infrastructure such as distribution transformers and lines for providing electricity. As a result, the electricity distribution network reached almost 98 percent of all unelectrified villages. But since the definition was as narrow as to include only 10 percent of all households, the scheme failed to ensure complete access to electricity in most villages. Instead, villages struggled to get electricity supply for more than six hours a day and the voltage was too low to power even lights and fans properly.

 In August 2006, the government introduced the Rural Electrification Policy, 2006, which attempted to expand the meaning of electrification. It aimed at providing quality power supply to all households by 2009. It also guaranteed minimum one unit of consumption per household per day by 2012. And yet, the target is far from being achieved. According to Census 2011, only 55.3 percent of all rural households had access to electricity. The majority of the households without electricity are in six states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, and Assam. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government rode to power in 2014, changing the course of rural electrification and promising 24x7 electricity for all by 2019. Grid expansion and the role of renewable energy have taken centre stage. The government absorbed RGGVY into the new Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY) with the intention of providing a separate feeder (distribution wire) to rural households and agricultural consumers to ensure regular supply of electricity. In the past two years, most of the Rs 1,123 crore released under this programme has been used for grid expansion.

 Round-the-clock electricity for all is, however, a daunting task, considering that around 34 percent of the population was still using kerosene lamps in 2011. Even metros like Delhi and Bengaluru face power cuts every day. According to the Union Power Ministry, 8,995 villages were still unelectrified as of July 18 this year. Even if grids are expanding at breakneck speed, the quality of energy access in rural areas remains low. To evaluate current efforts by the government to electrify villages, Down To Earth visited six districts in Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh and found several impediments.

 Inconsistent supply
 The topic of electricity evokes angry reactions among residents of Alu Para village in Dhemaji district of Assam. Almost all of the village’s 73 families have electric supply. But it is as good as not having electricity at all, they say, because there is usually no power till 9 every night. “There is no electricity when we have dinner or want to read something. The supply is inconsistent throughout the day. One doesn’t even get to watch an entire movie,” says 20-year-old Manin, a resident of the village. Low voltage is also a problem.

 Cooking and studying are still done by the light of the kerosene lamp in all homes. “Our kerosene consumption has not decreased even after getting the connection. We took electricity connection to get rid of the dark after sunset but the problem continues,” says Parvati Parajuli, another resident. People spend Rs 100-200 on kerosene every month, in addition to around Rs 250 in electricity bills here.

 Residents of Dara Nagar village in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh first hoped for power when electric poles were raised near the house of Janaki Devi 25 years ago. A Dalit by caste, 85-year-old Janaki Devi lives on the edge of the village. She thought that as soon as the wiring would be done, her house would be among the first in the village to see an illuminated bulb. But the poles were not connected for several years and Janaki Devi lost her vision to cataract before she could fulfill her wish. 

Tired of waiting for the government to do its job, the village began arranging diesel generators. The generators provide three hours of guaranteed electric supply every evening for Rs 100 a month. A few months ago, Dara Nagar was officially electrified with 35 of 350 households getting electricity from the government. But residents prefer their private arrangements. “When we require electricity, it doesn’t come. The private generator is reliable. It comes on time and goes on time,” says Swaraj Mal Arya of the village.
 
Faulty metering and charges
 Installation charges vary widely in different states. Sometimes, these charges differ from one village to another within the same district. While people paid Rs 875 per connection in some villages of Bihar, the charge was as high as Rs 4,000 in Assam’s Dhemaji district. In Jharkhand, villages were charged in bulk from Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000 in different places. Odisha was the only state where all five villages visited by Down To Earth reported free connections.

 Many below-poverty-line (BPL) families in Aliaspur village of Bihar did not apply for connections because they claimed they were being charged for the application form. According to rules, BPL families are exempt from paying the one-time connection charge. In sharp contrast, families above the poverty line from the same village were not charged at all. In Assam’s Na Pam Kuli village, some households admitted to drawing electricity through illegal connections because they could not afford to pay the connection charge of Rs 3,500.

 Problems in metering were also reported in many villages. In Adhupur village of Bihar, none of the houses has a meter and billing is at best ad-hoc. In Odisha, some people were sent electricity bills even though they did not have electricity connections. 

 “After several months, power bills were generated in the names of these residents. Those who were left out were being shown as beneficiaries of rural electrification,” alleges Manoranjan Pradhan of Agranee, a non-profit working in Mayurbhanj district.
 
Lack of accountability
 In Jharkhand, the availability of the contractor and repairpersons determines if electrified households are satisfied with their energy access. For example, all households in Bijaiya and Chunglo villages are connected to the grid. They also report 12 hours of electricity per day, albeit erratic and unreliable. But when things go wrong, the residents are left to fend for themselves. In Bijaiya, people complain the contractor can never be found when needed. “Our wires are often cut by miscreants from nearby villages where several electricians live. We have spent more time without electricity than with it after installation,” says 70-year-old Radha Devi.

 The condition of Chunglo is no better. The village paid a local contractor Rs 20,000 for installation of electrification infrastructure and had to plead with him to get the job done. But he left behind poorly installed poles and sub-standard wiring. The village is now vulnerable to power cuts during rains and thunderstorms. “We get no support from our local contractor. He has stopped answering our phone calls and the repairs have to be done locally at the villagers’ expense,” says Sanjay Mandal, a resident. 
 
Data gaps
 Down To Earth also found gaps in record-keeping of electrified and unelectrified villages. In Uttar Pradesh, Karanpur and Fateh Nagla are considered electrified when only eight percent and six percent of the households respectively get electricity. In contrast, 25 percent of the households in Narottampur get electricity, but the village continues to be recorded as “unelectrified” by the government. 

 In Gurji village of Madhya Pradesh, some 30 households have been connected to the grid, but there is no supply of electricity from the government. The village depends instead on solar power provided by a Corporate Social Responsibility programme of Reliance Foundation. Despite no electricity from the grid, the village is marked as “electrified” in government records.
 
Inaccessibility challenge
 Unelectrified villages in dense forests and in the mountains are proving to be a challenge. Erecting electric poles and laying the wiring in such areas is difficult. Consider, for instance, the flood-prone villages of Assam where despite electricity connections, power cuts extend for several days in bad weather. 

Bihar’s Akilpur village, located on the banks of the Ganga, is cut off from the rest of the block and residents are not hopeful of seeing electricity in their homes anytime soon. “Government officials have been coming to survey the village for over two years now, but nothing has come out of it,” says Bacha Singh, brother of village head Vinod Singh. Akilpur is listed as an “under progress” unelectrified village in government records. Around 50 households manage to get electricity from solar panels for two to three hours a day. The remaining 900 households depend entirely on kerosene, some buying as much as 15 liters a month.

Odisha, on the other hand, presents the dual challenge of dense forests and scattered tribal hamlets. More than 3,500 villages and 16,000 small habitations had not been electrified either under the UPA’s RGGVY or the NDA’s DDUGJY by March this year. 

 However, the central monitoring system for rural electrification put the figure of unelectrified villages at 2,133 as of May 31, 2016. In Mayurbhanj district, where more than 39 percent of the geographical area is hilly or covered by forests, electrification is moving at a slow pace. Power infrastructure in three hamlets near Nabakishorepur village is ready, but they are not yet connected to the grid. 

In Dileswar, a tribal village electrified under RGGVY, residents complain that power infrastructure was erected only along the main road of the village, leaving residents living along the outer edge deprived of energy access. Similipal Biosphere Reserve, which includes a wildlife sanctuary, a national park, and a Project Tiger reserve, is home to 64 villages inside the sanctuary and about 1,200 villages on the periphery. Grid connection is almost impossible in the case of some villages, whereas uninterrupted power supply in others is a difficult task. Such remote and inaccessible villages make a case for decentralised solutions.

 In the past, the lack of reliable returns from supplying electricity to rural parts was a matter of concern for power distribution companies. Rural consumers expected free power from the government just like the agriculture sector which got virtually free electricity. But things have changed. Our survey shows that rural consumers are capable of and willing to pay for electricity. They are already bearing the cost of kerosene because of erratic power supply. If villages were to get reliable and good quality power, they would willingly foot the bill.

 (The views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth magazine.)
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