All villages electrified, but last-mile supply a challenge

  • After making huge strides in power sector, India now needs to streamline its distribution
  • With electricity reaching all of India’s 597,464 census villages, it helped prepare the nation for achieving universal electrification

Utpal Bhaskar
Updated29 Dec 2019
A village is declared to be electrified if 10% of the households can access power.pradeep gaur/mint
A village is declared to be electrified if 10% of the households can access power.pradeep gaur/mint

Leisang village in the Senapati district of Manipur etched its name in India’s socio-economic history by becoming the last village to be brought onto the national power grid at 5.30pm on 28 April 2018. The seminal moment of electricity reaching all of India’s 597,464 census villages also marked the culmination of the marquee Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY).

The last village to be provided with grid electricity access was also in Pakol village in Manipur’s Churachandpur district.

With an undeniable link between poverty eradication and the spread of electricity use, DDUGJY laid down the physical infrastructure for providing round-the-clock power to rural households and adequate power to agricultural consumers. The feeder separation for rural agricultural and village households will also help stem load shedding by distribution utilities, which is expected to bring benefits such as improved crop yield and socioeconomic development of rural areas.

DDUGJY also helped India prepare for achieving universal household electrification, with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government launching the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana or Saubhagya scheme for electrification of every single household.

The promise to electrify all un-electrified villages within 1,000 days was made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech on 15 August 2015. DDUGJY involved feeder separation, strengthening of the sub-transmission and distribution network, metering at all levels, and setting up of micro grid and off-grid distribution network. The state-run Rural Electrification Corp. (REC) was the nodal agency for executing the 75,893 crore scheme.

“It was extremely tough because these villages couldn’t be reached for decades. Some of them were inaccessible mountain-top villages, while others were in forest areas. These were villages India had forgotten about. It was both an opportunity and a challenge,” said P.V. Ramesh, former chairman and managing director, REC.

In 1950, only 3,000 Indian villages had electricity. The last of the unelectrified villages were in remote locations in Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In 102 villages, it took between 1 day and 10 days to carry the infrastructure equipment on foot.

“It was a collaborative effort of the state governments, the central government, and the private sector. This was successful because of meticulous planning, coordination and synchronization of various elements. The Prime Minister was himself monitoring this closely. All the chief ministers had committed themselves in those days, where the last mile was still to be reached. There was strong political, bureaucratic and technical commitment,” said Ramesh.

Rural electrification has been the holy grail for successive governments. While around 1,500 villages had been electrified during Independence, it was 481,124 in 1991. As many as 63,955 villages were provided electricity in the 10th five-year plan (2002-07) and 45,955 villages in the 11th plan (2007-12). Around 97% , or 579,012 of Indian villages were electrified by 31 March 2015.

A village is declared electrified if 10% of the households can access power, along with public institutions such as schools, the panchayat office, health centres, dispensaries and community centres. The scheme didn’t cover habitations such as hamlets.

To bridge the final frontier in providing electricity access, the 16,320 crore Saubhagya was put in play for providing universal access to electricity to willing households. “In that sense, Saubhagya was tougher than DDUGJY given that there were seasonal challenges—there were areas where one couldn’t’ work round the year. We also drew lessons from the experience in Bihar, which had launched the Har Ghar Bijli Yojana in November 2016 to provide electricity to more than 5 million households,” said Ramesh.

However, problems remain considering that the state-owned electricity distribution companies (discoms), which are responsible for supplying electricity to households, are in a perilous financial condition. These discoms owe 74,848 crore for the power bought from generation companies (gencos) at the end of October. Of this, 67,237 crore is the overdue outstanding amount.

This comes amid headwinds faced by the Indian economy, with growth in the September quarter slowing for the sixth consecutive time to 4.5%, the lowest since March 2013, as manufacturing output contracted. The Centre’s revenue collection numbers have also raised serious concerns in the backdrop of the Reserve Bank of India lowering its real gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast for 2019-20 from 6.1% in the October policy to 5%.

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