Rural India’s electrification story have travelled a long distance from the initial village driven electrification programmes (1950s to 1990s), to small targeted household electrification drives (1980s to 2005). A new era in the rural electrification drive saw concerted efforts under Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) in 2005. RGGVY aimed to provide free electricity connections to rural households below the poverty line (BPL) while creating rural electricity infrastructure.
Over the last couple of years, the introduction of electrification programs like ‘Saubhagya Scheme’, Integrated Power Development Scheme (IPDS) etc., have been able to at least ensure that even the last village in the country is electrified (However, rural India still reels under considerable electricity deficits and power cuts.)
However, the challenges faced by processes in electrification still remain endemic and are practical hindrances towards providing smooth functionality of electricity.
- Poor infrastructure for electrical transmissions – having a poor electrical infrastructure is the biggest challenge of rural electrification. Problems like ageing transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure, huge T&D losses, absence of any sort of power supply infrastructure in many places. The north-eastern part of the country is considered as one of the major hurdles in obtaining the status of a completely electrified country.
- Transmission & Distribution (T&D) loss – Dismal conditions and inappropriate maintenance of existing T&D equipment/infrastructure, and rampant power theft has led to huge T&D losses in India. With growing power demand and huge T&D losses have given rise to the power deficit scenario in the country.
- Electricity Theft – Every year India losses around $16.2 billion due to power theft, which is one of the highest in the world. There are various types of electrical power theft, including tapping a line or bypassing the energy meter etc. Therefore, use of new age technology to stop and track the theft becomes very crucial.
- Metering and billing issues - There is significant evidence in rural areas of supply being given without proper meters, meters not being read and bills being issued without proper meter readings over a long period of time. Further, there are also instances of billing delays with significant lags in issuing the first bill after connection. Consistent delays in billing increases the bill amounts, making it unaffordable for many consumers. This increases the likelihood of non-payment and build-up of arrears which leads to disconnection of the consumers. Once connections are given, reading the meter, issuing bills and collecting the money is the function of the distribution company. However, agencies such as the Rural Electrification Corporation (REC), implementing major rural electrification efforts as well as regulators are not tracking metering and billing status for newly electrified households even though it is crucial for retention of the connections.
- Ensuring Un-interrupted power supply – Problems like load shedding, frequent interruptions, DT failures & long restoration periods halt domestic as well as industrial activities and lead to build-up of trust deficit amongst consumers and increased de-electrification from the consumer. Therefore, ensuring an uninterrupted power supply becomes an important part of the whole electrification process.
- Affordability issues – Supplying power to a village becomes un-meaningful if the residents of that area can’t afford it. High prices of electricity discourage many poor families to discontinue the usage of electricity which ultimately fail the purpose of the whole initiative. That’s why the government has taken many steps in this direction like providing concessionary tariffs to consumers identified as Below Poverty Line (BPL) and households using less than 30-50 units per month etc.
- Safety concerns with growing connections: Accidents arising from electricity shocks and fires due to electricity short-circuits have been steadily increasing over the years and reports indicate that most of these accidents happen in rural areas. Poor construction and maintenance of rural distribution network is an important reason for these accidents. Therefore, proper and timely maintenance become an integral part of the process without which sustainable electrification cannot be claimed.
Along with the issues mentioned above, there are other larger issues and perspectives that hinder quality electrification services, like unrealistic political commitments, lack of institutional capacity, and lack of technical knowledge. Also, social commitment and ethics sometimes are of paramount concern.
Also, off-grid electrification should be motivated. However, our government policies emphasize on-grid electrification. While talking about rural electrification, focusing on renewable energies in developing countries like India could think on lines of cleaner, cheaper and more democratic way of improving the quality and standard in remote areas.
Though there are still some voids that need to be filled, the Indian system is diligently working towards bridging the gap. For now, the fact that all the villages in the country have been electrified is a significant feather in the cap, though we might feel that it should have happened earlier. However, until we overcome the above-mentioned challenges, we cannot call ourselves a completely electrified country.[Courtesy Sunil Tayal, http://bweducation.businessworld.in ]