Indifferent planning, the bane of rural electrification

Indifferent planning, the bane of rural electrification

Although 5.25 lakh out of a total of about 5.94 lakh of villages are claimed to have been ‘electrified’, almost half of the 15 crore rural households have no electricity, not even for lighting a single bulb.

Rural electrification was taken up earnestly during the 70s and 80s for energising irrigation pump (IP) sets to alleviate the hazards of monsoon failure. The policy decision adopted to define an ‘electrified village’ was: “A village is deemed to have been electrified if one IP set or the the village panchayat office is electrified.”

As per this definition, the number of villages electrified rose exponentially but the bulk of the rural population continued to live in the dark. The second policy decision that caused almost irreparable damage to the programme of rural electrification was the mode of drawing the feeders to “connect a village to be electrified to the nearest village that has been electrified.”

Apparently, this seems sensible but the 11kv (HT or high tension) feeders connected villages randomly, meandering along enormous distances. As the feeders grow long, the voltages drop and a large amount of energy is dissipated as heat.

Had some basic planning been made, 11kv feeders would have been drawn over shorter distances as radially as possible. But our distribution network simply grew unplanned. Low voltages caused some IP set motors to burn out. Dismissing computers as unnecessary for planning a distribution system, ex-chairman of a SEB commented: “It can be done with a pencil on the back of an envelope.”

The third policy decision was not as thoughtless as the two decisions stated above. This was and continues to be a political decision aiming at the rural vote-bank, promising not to meter the IP sets, and  provide almost free energy to IP set users. There are 150 lakh of IP sets in operation in India today, depleting  groundwater in some states and consuming nearly 15 per cent of the total energy generated, mostly for free.

Absence of meters makes energy accounting difficult. T&D (transmission and distribution) losses cannot be measured. Losses have been redefined as  AT&C losses (aggregate technical and commercial losses) which is computed on the basis of the energy delivered and the revenue collected. The AT&C losses in India is presently 34 per cent, about three to four times that in most countries of the world.

The unflattering power situation in India today may be summarised as in an energy starved country, depending largely on coal, (causing severe atmospheric pollution), losing more than a third of the energy in sheer dissipation and commercial losses, and supplying power intermittently to the rural areas where nearly 70 per cent of the people live half of whom have no electric connections, not even for lighting.

The remedies

The Electricity Act of 2003 has been a watershed for the Indian power sector. The desired privatisation has not, however taken place. The power sector continues to be completely under the control of state governments as fiefdoms of politicians.

There are, however, redeeming features. ‘Electrified village’ has been redefined to include at least 10 per cent of rural homes and all public services like schools and hospitals. The RGGVY (Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyuthikaran Yojna) of 2004 has been effective in lighting up rural homes but nearly seven crore still await electrification.

The Accelerated Power Development and Reform Programme has helped to reduce AT&C losses from 38.5 per cent in 2003 to 34 per cent in 2008. The target of reducing the AT&C losses to 15 per cent at the end of the 11th Plan is commendable but seems to be far too ambitious. Much depends on the attitude of the states. The southern states have been doing well. The AT&C losses in Andhra are less than 25 per cent while those in Bihar exceed 70 per cent.

The projected growth of electricity in India, even if it may be achieved, is unsustainable unless loss minimisation and alternative energy sources are prioritised. Systems improvement has to be based on computer aided programmes carried out professionally, using modern devices and technology.

As for IP set consumption is concerned, some of the power companies, have reported success in metering and collecting revenue from farmers by providing quality power supply.

Entrusting franchisees to take charge of power distribution at village level is being tried in some areas down south. It must be widely encouraged and local power generation where possible, with grid supply as a standby, must grow with local entrepreneurship.
Redressing rural electrification is a moral issue. Unless it is carried out in right earnest, the Indian power sector will be failing in its duties towards the rural population.

(The writer is a retired professor, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore)

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