Modi’s Electrifying Promise Is Simply Impossible to Implement
Reality about the extent of electrification on the ground shows why PM Modi’s ‘Saubhagya’ scheme may face hurdles.
Reality about the extent of electrification on the ground shows why PM Modi’s ‘Saubhagya’ scheme may face hurdles.(Photo: Vibhushita Singh/ The Quint)

Modi’s Electrifying Promise Is Simply Impossible to Implement

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at a BJP meeting in New Delhi on Monday evening, expectations were he’d announce measures to haul India’s sickly economy back on its feet.

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An Algerian Gets Twice the Amount of Power Supply

Then, Modi said his government would deliver electricity to every Indian within 14 months. 14 months to solve a problem that’s remained insoluble for 70 years? Or does the man have a plan? How likely are Indians watching Modi on TVs powered by tractor batteries likely to see this promise fulfilled?

Some numbers, which Modi is clearly unaware of, might help. The World Bank publishes a list of how much electricity the average citizen of each country consumes every year. The latest complete set lists 137 countries; India figures at a miserable 109. The average Algerian gets twice the amount of electricity than us; the average Lithuanian four times.

Also Read: Modi Promises Free Electricity for Poor Under ‘Saubhagya Yojana’

(Infographic: Erum Gour/ The Quint)

Gauging the Extent of Electrification

India’s electricity bureaucracy routinely publishes reports about the electrification of states, cities, towns, districts – even villages. These reports present a cheerful picture of steadily growing electrification across vast swathes of the country.

For example, government numbers show that 96 percent of the villages of Bihar, a state consisting of 100 million people, are electrified. Any Bihari will laugh in your face if you quote this number to her/him.

The government measures electrification when an electricity line, connected to a source of power, passes through an area. But, as a friend who hails from Sitamarhi tells me, “As soon as overhead cables are strung, they are stolen and sold as copper scrap.” This makes sense – and profits.

Copper fetches a good price. Otherwise, the cables are useless. This is because in this area (as in much of the state), all transformers have burnt out. Transformers gradually ‘step down’ high voltage electric currents to levels that are usable for households.

Myth vs Reality

The broken down transformers have also been sold off as steel, iron, and copper scrap. Bihar power utilities know it is pointless to burn fuel to generate power, which only few will get. With no cable, no transformer, and no juice, these areas are dark after sunset. Nevertheless, they are officially ‘electrified’.

This is part of the reason why – though 96 percent of Bihar villages are electrified – only 56 percent have any kind of access to an electricity connection. These numbers come out of a study of six of India’s largest states, carried out by a team from the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), Columbia University, and a foundation for sustainable energy, published in 2015.

The report covered 714 villages in 51 districts of Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and Bengal. Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state with 200 million people; with 80 seats in Parliament, it is also politically the most influential state.

So, the government has a piece of paper that says 99 percent of UP villages are electrified. Alas, the study quoted above found only 60 percent of households had access to electricity.

(Infographic: Erum Gour/ The Quint)

It’s the same story elsewhere, except Bengal, the best performer, where all villages are supposedly electrified. Here, 81 percent of households get power for 20 hours a day, and 93 percent for four hours or so.

Others fare far worse. In Jharkhand, only two percent of homes get power for 20 hours daily. In UP, this is five percent of households; in Bihar, eight percent; Odisha, 23 percent, and Madhya Pradesh, 26 percent.

In rural Bihar, only one in five households use electricity as the main source of illumination: the other 80 percent make do with kerosene lamps.

Referring to India’s mythical electrification numbers the report says:

These (numbers) do not provide a sense of the true deprivation experienced by the households.

Yet, this system endures, propped up by a huge scaffolding of graft and sloth. Shortly after winning elections and coming to power as the Chief Minister of Punjab in 2002, Captain Amarinder Singh made electricity free for farmers.

Pressed on why he did so, he said:

(Neighbouring) Haryana gives free power to farmers. So I campaigned for free power, to put our farmers at par…

Political Economy of ‘Power’

This is a classic example of a race to the bottom among the states. It has seen one government after another promising free – or near-free – power to vested interests like big farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu, driving finances of electricity utilities to the ground.

Unsurprisingly, utilities of UP, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana are the biggest drag on power finances. So in 2015, Modi launched a mindless scheme called UDAY, which transferred the debt of bankrupt utilities to bankrupt state governments, without any other reform. In May 2017, the Reserve Bank of India reported that UDAY had bloated state deficits.

Modi boasted that Gujarat became a solar-energy pioneer under his watch. So what? UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan – all ruled by BJP singly or in coalition – are the darkest states in India.

That is why those familiar with the messy political economics of electricity, which has beaten state-owned and private utilities hollow in India, gawped at Modi’s outlandish promise and his 14-month deadline.

The deadline will pass. So what? Modi will hope his voters will forget he made this promise, just as they forgot his campaign pledge to bring ‘black money’ back from abroad and deposit Rs 15 lakh into every poor person’s account.

Also Read: Zero Power Cuts in UP: Who Deserves the Credit, Yogi or Akhilesh?

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached @AbheekBarman. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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