It’s Time to Shift the Rural Electrification Goalpost

The highly outdated ‘10% figure’ needs to be increased, while the government’s focus must be shifted from electrifying villages to ensuring that rural households have access to electricity.

Measuring access to electricity has to move beyond standards proposed in 2004. Credit: Asian Development Bank, Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Measuring access to electricity has to move beyond standards proposed in 2004. Credit: Asian Development Bank, Flickr/CC BY 2.0

New Delhi:  In 2011, as per Census data, Madhya Pradesh had 45 lakh rural households (out of a total of 111 lakh households) that were un-electrified or used kerosene as their primary source of lighting.  In early 2016, the state reported that the number of “balance un-electrified rural households” was a little higher at 48.22 lakh, out of which 12.20 lakh households have been “sanctioned under ongoing works [sic]”.

What adds to the confusion is that if one goes by the Ministry of Power’s 2004-05 definition of what constitutes rural electrification, Madhya Pradesh’s villages have achieved anywhere between 97 -99% electrification.

The obvious explanation, for the slight difference between 2011 and 2016, is that the rate at which new rural households are increasing in Madhya Pradesh is outstripping the rate at which the central and state government are electrifying villages.

The less-talked about issue, when it comes to how Madhya Pradesh has electrified over 95% of its villages and yet a good chunk of its rural households remain un-electrified, has everything to do with India’s standards for what constitutes “rural electrification”.

A short history

From the 1980s to 1997, a village was deemed to be “electrified” if any electricity was being used within its “revenue area” for any purpose. This was as bare-bones as a definition gets. After 1997, this definition was slightly tweaked to state that a village could be classified as “electrified” if any electricity was being used within the “inhabited locality” of the village’s revenue boundary.

In early 2004, in accordance with the Electricity Act, 2003, the first NDA government completely revamped the standards by which rural electrification should be judged. This new goal post, which still applies today, over 12 years later, consists of three major criteria:

1) “Basic infrastructure such as a distribution transformer should be made available within the inhabited locality of the village’s revenue boundary”. This standard was inserted after it became apparent that many states played fast and loose with the status of electrification by simply connecting multiple villages with single line or setting up a solitary utility pole without a transformer.

2) “Any public place such a school, panchayat office, health centre, dispensary, community centre etc, should be able to avail of power supply on demand”. The logic here first and foremost was that critical institutions such as health centres deserve a constant supply of power. Secondly, it assumes that people who live in villages prefer to congregate in public places; thus the prioritizing of electricity to communal places such as “community centres”.

3) “The number of households electrified should be minimum 10% for villages which are unelectrified, before the village is declared electrified”. This essentially states that the minimum criteria that needs to be fulfilled before a whole village is declared electrified, is that 10% of its households need to be electrified.

The most troubling criteria is the 10% figure: there is a wealth of data and reports(and one particularly exhaustive study carried out by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW)  and Columbia University) that shows while India’s villages continue to reach almost 100% electrification, its rural households lag behind.

“It’s high time to revise this definition,” Debajit Palit, Associate Director, The Energy and Resources Institute, told The Wire. “You look at how long it takes to change standards and definitions, and it is usually once every 10 years. By that standard, we’re at 12 years since the 2004 guidelines and definitely due for a change.”

If the 10% figure does change, how high should it go? Most energy think-tanks and stakeholders The Wire spoke to agreed it should be anywhere between 40% to 60%. The ultimate purpose of increasing the minimum number of rural households that need to be electrified, in order for the whole village to be deemed electrified, is to start shifting the government’s focus from villages to households.

For instance, the second criteria of the 2004 guidelines implicitly prioritizes a sort of communal electricity arrangement in India’s villages, which, in turn, perversely justifies the 10% criterion. The decision to avoid a household perspective when it comes to electrifying villages, CEEW CEO Arunabha Ghosh believes, is wrong.

“We should not make the mistake of thinking urban spaces are overly individualistic when it comes to electricity, thus wanting home-specific solutions, and that rural communities are communitarian and want only public lighting,” Ghosh said, while addressing an energy convention here on Monday. “Rural households want quality power as well.”

What next?

That said, the government is unlikely to retrospectively change its definition. A Renewable Energy Ministry official told The Wire, that if the 10% household standard was revised to 40% or 50%, India’s ‘96% electrification of all villages’ statistic would have to be revised downward to somewhere around 70% — which would be politically controversial.

Palit suggests that standard for rural electrification could instead move from a strictly unidimensional metric to a more wholesome, multidimensional standard that takes into account factors such as how many number of hours (in a day) a village receives electricity. The CEEW for example, in its 2015 report on access to electricity, in India proposes a three tier system in which households would be classified based on the quality of power supply received.

“For starters, the Grameen Vidyutikaran application’s dashboard could start displaying the number of rural households that have been electrified. The idea is to create a better system of accountability and pressure for both central and state actors who play a part in carrying out rural electrification,” Palit says.