Rural electrification scheme

Unrealistic initiative

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi , flanked by Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and Power Minister R.K. Singh, at a function in New Delhi on September 25 where he announced the Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana scheme to supply electricity to poor households. Photo: PTI

A switchboard, an LEL bulb, and an electricity meter are part of the kit installed in a village household under the rural electrification project at Anandapur in Uttar Pradesh in April 2016. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The Prime Minister’s announcement of a rural electrification scheme sounds hollow in view of the government’s track record in implementing earlier schemes and conflicting data on households to be covered.

On September 25, the birth anniversary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh icon Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, there was anticipation and curiosity in equal measure among Delhi’s political circles as word spread about an impending announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mark the occasion. Social media platforms were abuzz with speculation about the content of the announcement. By evening, when Modi mounted the dais at the Deendayal Urja Bhavan—a multi-storeyed building with a glass facade that serves as the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) corporate office in New Delhi—it became clear that the announcement would not be on the lines of the shock-and-awe demonetisation decision in November 2016. As it turned out, Modi’s announcement was about ensuring round-the-clock electricity access to the poor.

Since people’s curiosity had already been whetted, the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana, or Saubhagya scheme, which he announced was more widely discussed than any of his recent speeches.

Modi was at his evocative best: “Even after 70 years of Independence, there are more than four crore households which do not have an electricity connection. There are 25 crore households in India and four crore of this would mean nearly 20 per cent. Now imagine the life of people living in these four crore households. They are living in the 18th century. Imagine how your life would be if electricity is snatched away from your life; how you will survive? More than 125 years have passed since the great scientist Thomas Alva Edison invented the bulb. While exhibiting his invention, Edison had said, ‘We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.’ Which means that electricity will be made so inexpensive that only the rich will burn candles. This is an extremely sad and regrettable fact that four crore households do not even have electricity, let alone having a bulb. In those households, even today candles are burning. Dhibri and lalten [kerosene lamps] are burning. In these poor households, even today children face problems when they study in the evenings. They study in the light of the kerosene lamp.”

Modi went on to recall his own childhood experiences. “When I was young, I too studied this way. Elders would advise against studying under the light of the oil lamps as this hurts the eyes, breath may stop, too. I said, ‘What should I do?’ They said use castor oil to light the lamp. I have studied under castor oil lamps to get ahead in life. So I wonder how those four crore families will be able to manage. Forget comforts, women in the household have to cook in darkness and so most of them feel the pressure to cook before the sun goes down.”

Having set the tone of his rhetoric, Modi sketched out a few, even if limited, details of the scheme. Under the Saubhagya scheme, the government will provide free electricity connections to all poor rural and urban households across the country irrespective of whether the household is in a slum or in some inaccessible area. The Prime Minister said that the poor households without electricity would be exempted from paying installation charges for electricity connections and that government officials would themselves visit these households to provide the connection. The government would incur an expenditure of around Rs.16,000 crore in implementing the scheme, he said.

Explaining the progress made in the implementation of the scheme to provide free electricity connections to around 18,500 villages in 1,000 days, which he had announced in August 2015, the Prime Minister said less than 3,000 villages were left to be connected under the initiative and that they would get electricity connections within the stipulated time frame.

In the days following Modi’s speech, as the Ministry for Power released more precise details about the Saubhagya Yojana, commentators and power sector watchers gave a more realistic assessment. It has emerged that the latest scheme is a slightly reworked version of the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DUGJY), launched in July 2015, which itself was an upgraded version of the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, launched by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2005.

Under these two schemes, targets were set for villages while the Saubhagya scheme focusses on covering all households. As per law, even if 10 per cent of the households in a village have electricity connections, the village is considered to be electrified. So, technically, even if all the villages are electrified, it may not imply that all the households have power connections.

Modi said in his September 25 speech: “Brothers and sisters, in New India, not only will electricity reach every village but also every household will get power.” A subsequent statement from the Power Ministry said that States and Union Territories “are required to complete the works of household electrification” by December 31, 2018. It also said that the beneficiaries of free connection would be identified using data from the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC), 2011. Un-electrified households, not listed in the SECC data, would be provided electricity connections under the Saubhagya scheme, but each beneficiary would have to pay Rs.500 to the power distribution companies in 10 instalments. All households would be obliged to pay power usage charges.

The deadline for the goal of electrifying each one of the estimated 25 crore households appears to be unrealistically ambitious for two reasons: a) official data give conflicting information about the number of households in India and those without electricity; and b) the government has been giving multiple deadlines for existing electrification schemes/initiatives, all of which have not been met. For instance, while Modi said that about 20 per cent or 4 crore households out of a total of 25 crore did not have an electricity connection, NITI Aayog’s data tabulated in April show that of the more than 17 crore households, more than 13 crore are electrified. In other words, nearly 25 per cent of the households are not electrified. Similarly, the electrification status sheet given under the GARV dashboard in the Power Ministry website is different from what Modi claimed or what the NITI Aayog recorded.

Several commentators have pointed out that former Power Minister Piyush Goyal had mentioned May 2018 as the deadline for providing power to all households and May 2017 for all villages. Both deadlines are now redundant as the Power Ministry, within days of the Prime Minister’s speech, announced December 2018 as the new deadline for provision of electricity to all households. The government’s performance record so far in implementing such an ambitious promise has also been, at best, mixed. Problems of implementation in remote areas, for instance, have not been overcome. Modi mentioned in his speech that government officials had raised these concerns with him. However, he asserted that he would ensure the implementation of the scheme in right earnest and on time.

“I once again congratulate the country about this measure taken to transform the lives of the poor, remove darkness from their lives and for the creation of a new India,” Modi said. Hectic work in changing the narrative and popular perception of the government has been evident since then.