100% rural electrification is not enough

Reliable power supply is crucial. Discoms need to address requirements of social and commercial activities

It is highly likely that the Central government declares that all houses in India have electricity connections. As per the latest reports on the Saubhagya website, only around 20,000 households in Chhattisgarh remain to be connected. But while we celebrate, it is also necessary to register that this is just a good beginning. The connection challenge may have been met, but the supply challenge remains. To improve the quality of life and to aid economic activities, it is essential to ensure affordable, reliable electricity supply.

This has largely been neglected in the rush to reach household connection and village electrification milestones. Supply is managed by cash-strapped distribution companies which have no financial incentive to supply to the rural poor.

A supply-focussed rural electrification drive is required to overcome this problem. This drive is necessary to accelerate the transition away from the current poor levels of supply and service. Once there is noteworthy improvement, there will be pressure from consumers to hold the distribution companies accountable for supply quality, and this momentum will sustain itself.

Beyond connections

As the focus has been on connections, there is limited data on problems with electricity supply quality. Available data indicate that metering, billing and payment complaints dominate the list. There are inordinate delays in issuing bills for newly connected households, mistakes in bills, meter faults and difficulties in bill payments. Delays or mistakes in bills lead to very high bills, which small consumers find tough to pay, thus leading to disconnection.

The second complaint is about power outages. Government reports indicate 16 to 24 hours of supply in rural areas. Consumer surveys and sample measurements report much lower hours. One survey by SmartPower reports that half the households experience eight hours of power cut in a day and nearly half the rural enterprises use non-grid supply options. The nationwide village survey by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017, indicates that only half the villages get more than 12 hours of supply.

Data from Prayas’s Electricity Supply Monitoring Initiative, from 200 monitors across 23 States, show that half the locations experienced outages of more than 15 hours per month and 2-4 interruptions per day in rural areas.

Community services

Other than homes, rural electrification should also ensure access to agriculture, small business and community services like street lighting, schools, anganwadis and health centres. Agriculture gets only seven to eight hours of supply in most States, mostly during the night, with frequent interruptions. Frequent interruptions also discourage operation of commercial enterprises in rural areas.

Revenue of the distribution company can increase only if more such consumers use electricity. Before the consumers lose faith in the grid supply, it is necessary to take steps to improve the quality of supply. Government surveys report that in 2017, 40 per cent of schools and 25 per cent of health sub-centres do not have electricity connections. It is necessary to enhance the rural distribution infrastructure, which in many cases is just sufficient to meet household demand.

Supply drive

There is a need to track post connection parameters like issue of first bill, hours of supply, distribution transformer failure rate and growth of non-domestic consumer connections.The Integrated Power Development Scheme (IPDS), which is presently urban focussed, should be extended to rural areas. Power from stranded generation capacity, depreciated plants and unutilised capacity can be provided at concessional rates to distribution companies for reliable supply in designated rural areas.

State distribution companies could improve metering and billing and deploy bill payment centres with support from panchayat offices, post offices or health centres. Complaint procedures can be simplified through mobile applications and public hearings.

Distribution companies should be financially penalised by the regulatory commissions for poor quality of supply. To promote economic activity, small enterprises with consumption of about 300 units should be assured affordable tariff.

For community facilities like health centres where reliable supply is crucial, schemes to deploy kilowatt size solar plants with battery backup could be planned. Technology-led initiatives like prepaid meters, smart meters and direct benefit transfer should be attempted as pilot projects before scaling up.

The writers are with Prayas (Energy Group). This is one of three articles on challenges facing the Indian energy sector.

Published on March 26, 2019

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