The unlit side of India’s rural electrification

Vasudevan Sridharan / DW No Comments Share:
Vendors use solar powered lights for customers at an open air evening vegetable and fruit market in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad September 10, 2009. Reuters

While the Indian government celebrates its success at having electrified every village in the country, not all households are assured of a constant and consistent power supply. DW’s Vasudevan Sridharan reports.

On April 28 this year, Leisang in the eastern Indian state of Manipur became the last of the 597,474 inhabited villages to switch from kerosene-fueled lamps to light bulbs. The government, which has allocated about $11 billion towards electrification programs, hailed this milestone with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaiming on Twitter that “every single village of India now has access to electricity.”

Yet millions of Mr Modi’s countrymen are still living in darkness despite the ruling administration’s jubilation and its electoral promise in 2014 to ensure power for everyone.

External experts treat the government’s claims with caution as “village electrification” does not necessarily mean all households enjoy a power supply. A village is considered “electrified” even if 10 percent of its households and public facilities such as schools and health centers have the necessary infrastructure to access power. It does not even guarantee that there is a power supply; the mere setting up of poles and wires in a village is enough to fulfill the concept of electrification.

Saswata Chaudhury, a fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute, told DW that while this was a good achievement, more work needed to be done on the rural electrification front. He argued that there has to be a clearer definition of village electrification and if not, “household electrification” should be a better gauge.

Mr Chaudhury also pointed out that studies across the world suggest rural electrification will not only have a direct impact on sectors such as health, education and connectivity but also on climate change commitments as more people transition to using cleaner fuel. He added that the last few years were equally significant since last-mile connectivity was difficult and many villages are located in remote areas.

About 300 million Indians did not have access to power when Mr Modi became prime minister. He declared in November 2015 that the last 18,000 villages (approximately 3 percent of all India’s villages) would get electricity within 1,000 days, setting an ambitious deadline in place.

Criticism from several fronts forced the federal ministry of power to issue a “clarification” that the definition of village electrification “does not imply restricting household electrification only to 10 percent.”

“As per recent reports from the states, household electrification levels in rural areas is more than 82 percent ranging from 47 to 100 percent across various states,” the ministry explained.

According to government data, an estimated 30 million households are still off the grid and the government aims to provide them with power before the end of 2018. Experts say this would be an arduous task as that would mean the administration would need to pick up the pace of electrification from the present 300,000 to roughly three million households per month.

The power supply in India is overseen by state administrations, which have frequently manipulated the utility services for their political benefit — even at the cost of making a financial loss and accumulating debts.

“As a milestone, it is very significant and we should celebrate this as a country,” Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer of the think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water, told DW. “But, is that sufficient? Of course not. The definition [of village electrification] does not even guarantee that there will be actual supply of electricity.”

“Think of it as a highway that has been built, with roads to some of the houses in an area. And then you’ll have to wait and see if there is actual traffic on the road.”

Ghosh added that the latest milestone marks only the completion of the first phase of electrification, while the second phase should ensure there is connection to all households across India.

“The third phase should be quality, affordable, durable and reliable power flowing through those wires in homes. Only then can we actually say there is electricity access to all.”

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