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Time to measure Saubhagya’s success

Richa Mishra | Updated on October 01, 2021

Dependable power is still in short supply in many rural housholds.   -  The Hindu

The household electrification scheme has scored on connectivity, but there’s a need to conduct socio-economic impact audits

Almost 2.82 crore households have been electrified till March 31, 2021, since the launch of Saubhagya scheme in 2017, the Power Ministry said on September 25. Saubhagya is one of the largest household electrification drives in the world.

No doubt electrification of households is a great achievement. Besides, providing electricity also helps strengthen the vote bank. In fact, according to reports, the International Energy Agency (IEA) had lauded it as one of the greatest successes in the history of electrification, raising the bar on implementation of government programmes and almost managing to meet the target of providing power to all the unconnected.

All agree that the true scale of success for such national programmes rests in transforming consumers’ daily life while opening up a world of possibilities through easy, economical and dependable access of power to all. But the success of the scheme can be gauged only if one finds out the quality and dependability of power supply to these householders.

The scheme’s journey

The journey of the scheme started with Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY), which envisaged the creation of basic electricity infrastructure in villages. The focus of the scheme was on strengthening and augmentation the existing infrastructure and metering of existing feeders/distribution transformers to improve the quality and reliability of power supply in rural areas.

In 2017, Saubhagya was launched, with the objective of achieving Universal Household Electrification in the country through last-mile connectivity and providing access to electricity to all un-electrified households in rural areas and poor households in urban areas. While launching the scheme, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pledged to provide access to electricity and work towards equity, efficiency and sustainability in the New Age India.

The Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana or Saubhagya is funded by the government’s grant to Discoms/power departments, utility contributions and loans from financial institutions. States get 30 per cent of the project cost as loan. The electricity connection to households involves drawing a service cable from the nearest pole to the household premise, installation of an energy meter, wiring for a single light point with LED bulb, and a mobile charging point.

Status so far

While the set objectives of the scheme have been achieved, team Saubhagya has continued its work of providing 24x7 quality power supplies to all, the Ministry said. All States have been requested to launch special campaigns to identify un-electrified households and thereafter provide electricity connections to them. A dedicated toll-free helpline has also been launched for that purpose.

The intent is indeed good, but just laying the network is not enough. Audits need to be done. Even though audits do happen, they are mostly transactional — about physical presence and assets — which doesn’t indicate the overall socio-economic impact.

According to Divyesh K Sharma, Director, CUTS International, “We strongly recommend that the government engage independent consumer groups to undertake a 360-degree impact assessment of such programmes with impetus on policy convergence. An extensive impact assessment with stakeholder engagement is imperative to enhance policy mileage and outcome, rather than just technical and commercial audits.”

Citing observations from the ground, he said that what has been noticed is lack of engagement at the ground level. Sharma is not the only one pointing this out, those working at the field level also make this observation.

“A major challenge is lack of knowledge dissemination, as the beneficiaries rarely understand the incentives made available to them and electricity providers cannot effectively strategise for efficient supply management owing to lack of field data engagement,” Sharma said.

Another issue is ensuring power availability to the last mile. The scheme only targets connecting the last mile with basic electrical networks, but it does not incentivise distribution utilities to provide dependable power across all beneficiaries, say critics.

“This is despite the positive correlation between reliable electricity and an increase in electricity usage and people’s willingness to pay, as evident across the country,” Sharma added.

Besides, there have been financial anomalies too, according to reports. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) observations, covered in the media over the past two to three years, highlight major financial anomalies in the implementation of the programme by extending undue favour to the certain firms, poor implementation or inferior network.

Push for audits

In fact, the Power Ministry has been doing its bit to conduct audits and ensure seamless functioning. It has also proposed forming of District Committees.

On September 18, the Power Ministry requested all States/UTs to notify and ensure establishment of District Level Committees in order oversee all power-related schemes of the Union Government.

The committee is said to comprise the most senior MP in the district as the chairperson, other MPs as co-chairpersons, the District Collector as Member Secretary, and the chairperson/president of the District Panchayat, MLAs of the district, the most senior representatives of Central Public Sector Undertakings (CPSUs) of the Ministry of Power and New and Renewable Energy located in the concerned district, or their nominated officials, as members and the Chief Engineer/Superintending Engineer of the Discom/Power Department concerned as Convenor. But critics point to missing of consumer voice in these committees.

For success of schemes like Saubhagya what is needed is fixing accountability. While all agree that there has to be audit, most feel that it should also focus on the socio-economic impact.

The scheme itself talks about enabling people and bringing about socio-economic development, which is often reiterated by the Prime Minister. However, it does not encourage micro-enterprises or income-generating opportunities that could allow consumers to afford their electricity usage.

Critics say it fails to mobilise its target audience to interact and participate in data feedback loops, essential for last-mile delivery of power. The said challenges can easily be overcome by adopting a consultative approach.

 

Published on October 01, 2021

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