How every village got electricity and why that is still not enough

New Delhi: The announcement that every village in India is now electrifiedhas spawned a political fight over who should get the credit and why the task of putting an electric pole in every village has taken so long.

A mere 3,000 of more than 5 million Indian villages had an electric pole in 1950. The coverage of India’s power network would remain poor for the next two decades. The real leap forward (See Chart 1), in terms of geographic coverage, happened in the early to mid-1970s when Indira Gandhi rode to power with her “garibi hatao” slogan. Only 18% of India’s villages were electrified in 1970. By the mid-1980s, there was an electric pole in two-thirds of the villages.

Under Indira Gandhi’s various tenures, the rural electrification drive consistently reached nearly 20,000 villages every year. Thus, the pace of electrification achieved by the Narendra Modi-led government is fairly modest when viewed historically, although many of the villages that got connected to the grid after 2014 were particularly hard to reach.

Except for the coalition government era of the 1990s and the final years of the previous Congress-led regime, nearly every other government has expanded rural electrification at a reasonable pace. Why then does access to electricity still remain beyond the reach of so many Indians?

The answer to that lies in the curious way in which governments have defined electrification over the years. Until 2004, a village was certified as electrified if power was being used within its inhabited area for any purpose whatsoever. In 2004, the Congress-led government mandated that at least 10% of homes need to have a connection for the entire village to be termed electrified. The electrification rate promptly plummeted, indicating many villages did not even have a few households with power supply (See Chart 1).

But with the government mandated to provide at least some household connections, the amount of electricity an average Indian consumes started improving at a slightly faster clip after the mid-2000s. (See Chart 2)

It is on the basis of these minimal household-level connections in each village, using a legacy definition from 2004, that India has now achieved total electrification. But nearly one-fifth of India’s rural households (an estimated 31 million) still do not have access to electricity, with Uttar Pradesh alone accounting for more than 13 million homes that remain in darkness (See Chart 3).

The Modi government is now committed to reaching these households through the Saubhagya scheme. Until this push addresses the complete mismatch between actual power consumption by Indians and claims of electrification, the benefits of electrification will remain largely on paper.livemint