Bengal launches rural electrification scheme

Bengal launches rural electrification scheme

Kolkata: West Bengal, which in Census 2001 was seventh from the bottom in the pecking order of power penetration in rural homes, has launched a Rs3,300 crore programme to build infrastructure to distribute power to six million more village households by March 2011.

The state-run West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Co. Ltd (WBSEDCL) supplies power now to some five million rural consumers, or around 45% of rural homes in the state.

Implementation of West Bengal’s 18-month rural electrification programme will result in 100% power penetration in rural households, but will increase average tariff by at least 20 paise a unit, or 1 kilowatt hour (kWh), according to Moloy De, WBSEDCL’s chairman and managing director.

Neither would WBSEDCL recover costs of distributing power to rural homes nor would it be able to increase the power tariff “by any significant margin" for rural consumers, he added.

Politicians see the programme as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, led Left Front’s desperate attempt to shore up support for itself ahead of the crucial assembly election in the state in the summer of 2011.

“Rural electrification is one of the biggest failures of this government," said Manas Bhuiyan, a Congress legislator. “Resistance to land acquisition (for industry) wasn’t the only reason for the Left Front’s setback in recent polls… Power was also a key issue."

Left Front leaders say they have been pressuring the state government to ramp up power distribution to rural homes. Matters came to a head after the April-May general election in which the Left Front won only 15 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal as against 35 in 2004. “A section of Left Front leaders even wanted the state government to appoint a new power minister," said a CPM legislator who did not want to be identified.

“It (power) was never our priority," said Tapan Hore, a leader of the CPM’s ally Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and a legislator from Birbhum district. “At a rally in Bolpur recently, some 3,000 people gave me a petition demanding power connection in their village, which is barely 10km from Bolpur town." Bolpur is the district headquarters of Birbhum.

Lack of state funding had held up West Bengal’s rural electrification for years, according to De. Earlier this year, the state government received a commitment from the Centre for funding of up to Rs2,200 crore under the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY)—a scheme launched in 2005 to promote rural electrification.

West Bengal is offering a grant of around Rs1,000 crore for the programme, and WBSEDCL has been asked to contribute around Rs150 crore.

“Turnkey contractors have been appointed and they have started work in all districts except Darjeeling," said De. “We invited bids (for Darjeeling) twice, but no one showed interest because of the political unrest there." In the rest of the state, preliminary surveys are almost over, and at some places, even “construction has started", he added.

It’s an “ambitious programme", said G.D. Gautama, principal secretary of the state’s power department. “It’s challenging indeed, but I am hopeful that the target will be met with little or no delay."

In one-and-a-half years, when the state starts supplying to six million more households, De estimates demand for power in the state to go up by only 200-300MW. “Rural homes are small consumers," said De. “We currently manage a peak load of around 3,600MW, so the additional demand is nothing."

WBSEDCL currently charges its five million rural consumers an average tariff of around Rs2.50 a unit, whereas the cost of distribution is “well above Rs5 a unit". WBSEDCL’s power tariff, which is regulated by the state government, ranges from Rs2.30-5 a unit. Small consumers pay less, subsidized by people who consume more power.

On completion of the project, average tariff will rise by at least 20 paise a unit from Rs3.49 a unit currently. “Our costs will increase because we will have to maintain and provide for depreciation of a much bigger infrastructure. Also, we (WBSEDCL) are paying Rs150 crore… These will lead to a 20 paise increase in power tariff," he said.

Because WBSEDCL may not be able to raise tariff for rural consumers, 40% of whom currently pay the minimum tariff of Rs2.30 a unit, power would become dearer for bigger consumers. “The subsidy will surely increase; bigger consumers will have to pay even more," De added.

Besides poor power penetration, rural consumers in West Bengal have been complaining for years about unstable supply—frequent outages and poor voltage. De said up to 70% of the state’s rural consumers do not “always receive power at 230 volts", but even this is being addressed through better engineering.