Is 100% electrification another myth before polls?

As with most govt schemes, real efficacy of Saubhagya scheme remains unclear & there is reason to question  if the real goal of power for all was traded in for election rhetoric 

By Shweta Miriam Koshy
Published: Wednesday 02 January 2019
Credit: Getty Images

On the eve of New Year, the government declared 25 states (and union territories) as having achieved 100 per cent household electrification. It was achieved under the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (Saubhagya), launched in September 2017.

Under the scheme, electrification activities have picked up steam—the monthly rate of electrification reached an unprecedented 33 lakh households in just October 2018. However, as with most government schemes, the real efficacy of the programme remains unclear and there is reason to question whether the real goal of power for all has been traded in for election rhetoric.

The minister of state (IC) for power and new & renewable energy, RK Singh, singled out Uttar Pradesh (UP) for its accomplishment, handing out special appreciation to Shrikant Sharma, UP energy minister.

The state, at the start of the programme, accounted for the largest population without access, amounting to almost half of the national target. While there is no doubt that the achievement is significant, the state has electrified only 60 per cent of the initial target of 1.2 crore unelectrified households, ambiguously claiming that the rest were ‘unwilling’.

Government's definition of ‘unwilling’ encompasses the unoccupied households, migrating population, and large joint families occupying a single dwelling—which resulted in the initial overestimation of households to be electrified.

However, our survey found a comparable number of instances where beneficiaries rejected connections because of their inability to pay monthly bills. Not surprisingly, these households were classified as ‘unwilling’, and added to the section of electrified households, thereby inflating the numbers. This gross misrepresentation must be acknowledged.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found a few other flaws while travelling to Shamli in UP, a comparatively rich district that apparently achieved its 100 per cent target well ahead of the New Year deadline.

Saubhagya, while focusing on household electrification targets seems to have ignored the larger objective of providing electricity access at a reasonable cost—one of the primary problems with the scheme. A large fraction of surveyed households were unable to pay their monthly bills, which, on average, amounted to almost 1/6th of their annual salary.

Several of them lose out further because of the very definition of ‘Below Poverty Line (BPL) households’—since all above poverty line (APL) consumers are charged for their electricity connections. Even under the lowest power tariff slab, beneficiaries struggle to pay monthly bills because the primarily agrarian population’s income staggers throughout the year, irregularly. Although there are provisions for late payments, the associated surcharge only adds to their woes.

CSE also witnessed instances of seasonal labourers (who are out of town for months on end) who had been charged for usage for the period they were away—another major drawback of the scheme.

Next is the issue of metering which ensures that consumers pay what they use. The lack of meters at households electrified under earlier schemes has resulted in large number of consumers paying meagre fixed monthly rates. This unfair advantage does nothing to wean poorer consumers from stealing electricity.

Another issue is that the substandard power supply only serves as a disincentive. The surveyed households complained about recurring power cuts; voltage fluctuations and how electricity was seldom there when needed. A candid official went as far as to say that even this supply quality is unsustainable, asserting that supply would take a hit post-elections.

Saubhagya, in its promise of 100 per cent household electrification, assured that remote households too would benefit under its ambit. However, recent Lok Sabha questions show that work continues to lag in all 196 identified locations.

Saubhagya has further added to the woes of Distribution companies’ (DISCOMs). As the intermediary, the financially struggling DISCOMs end up bearing the brunt of the costs. A DISCOM official, on the condition of anonymity, says that they were inadequately accommodated within the central and state budgets.

The officials also talked about the pressure from people, high in the pecking order, to finish tasks before the end of the year—leading to consumers being forced into accepting connections.

DISCOM’s already low billing and collection efficiencies was further hit by the inability of newer consumers to pay bills. The Aggregate Transmission and Commercial (AT&C) losses, too, have taken a hit, greatly affecting the quality of supply.

The quick nature of handing out connections could mean compromising on the infrastructure; though the lack of finances explain the shoddy work, the government cannot escape the blame.

The March 2019 deadline is an attempt to coincide electrification goals with those of the “24X7 Power for All” document, to provide electricity to all from April 1, 2019. With the upcoming elections and the need to deliver on the promises, the government seems to be keen on showcasing the “success” of 100 per cent electrification, even if the ground reality remains tangled.

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