Reality check of The Telegraph
In 2017, the Centre launched the Saubhagya scheme. Its target was to provide free electricity connections to households in rural areas and also to the urban poor by the end of 2018. It also promised to distribute LED lamps to newly electrified households. And this when people are still having to buy kerosene lamps or diesel generators because there is no regular power supply in their electrified homes. Those who have got solar photovoltaic-based standalone systems under the scheme are better off – there is no need for maintenance of meters, overhead and underground wires, and transformers.
The Saubhagya site has figures to show what percentage of every state has been electrified to date. States such as Gujarat, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh are 100 per cent electrified, it claims. Goa, Puducherry and Andhra are also part of the list.
A recently retired power ministry official, however, laughs at these figures. “Statistics of households covered are routinely juggled by state governments. There is no organised system of collecting data. They don’t reflect the reality,” he says.
The Telegraph attempted a reality check. Villagers from randomly selected states tell us their experience of living in a “power surplus” country. Punjab is 100 per cent electrified but rural areas don’t have a 24×7 power supply. In Jajja village of Hoshiarpur, villagers suffer power cuts two to four hours every day. A technical fault takes at least a day or two to be fixed. In Bengal, a state with 98.61 per cent electrification, parts of tribal villages on the Indo-Bangla border – south Jamalpur, Naogaon, Akhirapara – remain un-electrified. At Binshira village in Hili block of South Dinajpur, the frequency of loadshedding has gone down but whenever there is a power cut, the state electricity board takes days to address the problem. In Godda district of the BJP-ruled Jharkhand, more than 80 per cent villages are electrified but they don’t get more than four hours of power supply daily. In Nawagarh village, 30 kilometres from the industrial town of Dhanbad, power is available for not more than 14 hours a day. Every summer and every monsoon, gusty winds snap wires or topple transformers leading to outages for weeks, sometimes months. In Semari Dumari village in Bettiah district of Bihar, power supply is impeded at the slightest hint of storm or rain. “Plus, the voltage during the evenings is very low. It is very difficult for children to study in such conditions,” says Tanju Devi, a village social worker. At Hatmulla village of Kupwara in Kashmir, residents get electricity for five hours by day and four hours during evening. Things get worse during the harsh winters.
This has been an ongoing process for many years. It got a boost in 2005, when the Congress-led UPA government launched the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana. But there were inordinate delays, cost overruns, frequent burnouts due to installation of transformers without adequate capacity and lack of effective monitoring at all levels. In 2015, the scheme was subsumed by the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana.
Over 300 grameen vidyut abhiyantas or GVAs, most of them electrical engineers, have been appointed by the Union power ministry in rural districts of various states to assist state distribution utilities in the electrification of villages. The Telegraph called over 37 telephone numbers of GVAs displayed on the Grameen Vidyutikaran website. About 10-11 went unanswered. Of the 25 people who answered the calls, 10 said they were not associated with the project anymore or have been transferred to another state. Some said, yes, every village in their district was getting electrified, and a handful admitted on conditions of anonymity that electrified villages in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh do not have regular power supply.
Questions have been raised about the government’s promise to light up every household by December 2018 even if it “electrifies” them on paper. According to the former power secretary, Anil Razdan, it is not realistic a target. “Power has always been a political subject in our country because it is the state government that decides where to supply and how much,” says Rakesh Nath, former chairman of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA). The CEA advises the government on policy matters and formulates plans for the development of electricity systems.
Barring cities such as Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, Agra, Surat and Ahmedabad, where power distribution is privatised, it is the state discoms that buy power through long-term power purchase agreements with central and state-owned generating stations, private generators and the Power Exchange India Limited.
Razdan points out that distribution companies are already grappling with huge aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses – the measure of overall efficiency of the distribution business. It seems large transmission and distribution losses, corruption and subsidies rolled out by state governments to influence the “vote bank” lead to such huge losses in the first place.
For obvious political reasons, state discoms supply electricity at tariffs that are way below the cost of purchase. Plus, losses are incurred due to power theft and defaul- ting consumers.
One of the reasons the rural poor are hesitant to pay is that they often see discrepancies in their bills. “Sometimes, villagers are falsely charged Rs 100 for a month – it is a huge amount for them,” says women’s activist Renuka Ikka. She is referring to residents of Rampur Puthamura village in Nagri block of Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district. Tanju Devi adds, “Our village was electrified in 2016 but people are getting bills for 2014.”
Supplying power to rural households is a loss-making proposition for discoms. Pramod Deo, former chairman of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC), says, “The distribution companies buy only as much electricity with which they can meet 80 per cent of the total demand.” The CERC is a key regulator of the power sector.
“Discoms should be financially supported to provide supply. This will be needed till there are sufficient paying consumers in rural areas,” says Sreekumar N. of Prayas, a Pune-based non-profit advocacy group which focuses on energy, health and education.
For distributing power to all by 2019, discoms need to bear the expenses for infrastructure – build substations, instal feeders, transformers and meters. But the investment cost has to be recovered through consumer tariffs over the next five years. If a state buys power at Rs 5 per unit, the operation and maintenance of present and additional infrastructure along with repayment of capital expenditure could raise the cost to Rs 9.15 per unit. Keeping the accumulated losses in mind, the cost of supply can go up to Rs 10.65, which is unaffordable for consumers. Besides, it will be politically counterproductive, especially with the elections approaching.
Nath adds, “Discoms prefer to sell the surplus power to the central power exchange instead and that too for at least Rs 6-8 per unit more than the stipulated rate, especially during elections.”
In 2015, the central government launched the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojna (UDAY) scheme to help the loss-making discoms. The losses in some states increased instead as compared to 2016-17. “Things will go worse next year as bijli remains a popular sop of political parties in election year. No one is bothered much about revenue collection,” Deo warns.
According to UDAY, some states have recovered big-time in a span of six months. The AT&C losses in Punjab was 32.63 per cent as on December 2017, but currently, it is at 18.21. Similarly, Jharkhand was at a loss of 39.27 per cent in December 2017, but this has now come down to 31.78 per cent. “As I said, figures are often forged,” reiterates the former power ministry official.
But keeping all the power politics aside, if the government is genuinely keen to light up every household, experts say, it must focus on promoting efficiency, optimum utilisation of generation and transmission capacity, shifting of overhead lines underground – because they are vulnerable to lightning strikes and storms – improvement of storage capacity of substations, laying of new feeders and setting-up of new distribution transformers. It must also monitor the functioning of transformers and generating stations.
“We have been able to meet Delhi’s peak power demand, which touched 6,934 MW on June 8, by taking some of these measures,” says a senior official of BSES, the Reliance-owned discom that supplies power to over 4 million Delhi residents.