Hundred Per Cent Village Electrification Is No Mean Task - Let’s Acknowledge It

Hundred Per Cent Village Electrification Is No Mean Task - Let’s Acknowledge ItThese are people lifting the infra for power in a village. (
  • In 2015, Modi pledged to ensure that no village was left without access to power, and the last of the 18,452 unelectrified villages now has access to power.

    Is this a milestone to celebrate? A few questions and counterclaims to ponder over.

On 28 April, the Indian government announced that it had electrified all 597,464 villages in the country. When one of the remotest Manipur villages got electricity, the last of the 18,452 villages which were unelectrified as of 31 March 2015 got access to power - something which most of the world and most urban parts of India take for granted. This task of village electrification was completed 12 days ahead of the 1,000-day deadline Prime Minister Narendra Modi had set. Speaking from the ramparts of the Lal Qila on Independence Day in August 2015, Modi had pledged to ensure no village was left without access to power.

Until Modi spoke about the 18,452 unelectifried villages, there was hardly any discussion on this issue, let alone the data point. But since the 28 April announcement, media and social media is abuzz with various facets of this electrification drive.

Should the Modi government celebrate this milestone as an achievement and are various data points reliable? There are a few questions and counterclaims to ponder over.

Google says India has more than 6,40,000 villages, so what’s the magic figure of 597,464 villages?

The electrification drive was conducted for all revenue villages. A revenue village is an administrative unit, which has well surveyed and hence well defined boundaries. This is a term used for census purposes. The 2011 census accounts for 597,464 revenue villages, about 4,000 more than the 2001 census. If a group of people start living in an ad hoc area, not recognised as a revenue entity, such agglomerations are informal. Perhaps, Google counts them but the census data does not.

So what about electrification of settlements which are not yet classified as revenue villages?

For all legal settlements, the household electrification drive currently being undertaken as part of the Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (Saubhagya) programme will provide the connectivity.

Who electrified 579,012 (597,644 - 18,452 = 579,012) villages?

Various central and state governments electrified 579,012 villages between 1947 and (31 March) 2015 when the 18,452 unelectrified village data point cropped up. Most of this work was routine spread of power connections and not part of a single electrification programme. A large part of this work was also not owned by any single central or state government. The focus on village electrification started with the 13-month (Atal Behari) Vajpayee government in 1996. Since then, the efforts to electrify villages have been ramped up, including more than 1 lakh villages getting power during the two Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments.

So the Manmohan Singh government had a better per year run rate (1 lakh plus in 10 years) of electrifying villages than the Modi government (18,452 in four years)?

Sure! But this is modelling the problem wrong. Using a simple average (count of villages divided by count of years) assumes that the difficulty level in electrifying all 597,464 villages is the same. Nothing can be farther from truth.

As the electrification process started, power had to be taken to villages, which were much more accessible. With time, governments encountered various types of problem. The Shiyal Bet village in Amreli district in Gujarat was electrified by laying a 6.4-kilometre undersea cable. The Shadey village in the Zanskar subdivision of Ladakh required solar panels to be transported on rocky terrain, so that an off-grid power access had to be set up. The electrification of the Necha village of the Lower Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh required a commissioning team to carry heavy equipment on their backs over a treacherous Kumey river crossing.

If the physical constraints do not sound harsh enough, there’s another statistic - more than 7,000 villages of these 18,452 villages were situated in the Left Wing Extremism (LWE) districts. The Naxals operating in these districts are not known to be development friendly. Electrification of these villages was done at grave personal risk to the central government staff and contractors.

Essentially, the time and effort required to electrify a given number of villages in the past years is not an accurate predictor of the time and effort required to electrify yet-unelectrified villages in the future. The difficulty curve to attain 100 per cent electrification was exponential and not linear.

Anyone who has written a competitive exam involving percentiles should intuitively understand this. Getting to 95 percentile may not be difficult for a lot of people. But going from 95 to 99 percentile is another ball game altogether.

What’s to say that laying an undersea cable or crossing a treacherous river is more difficult than erecting a pole outside a state capital?

Although this should really not be a point of contention, but this question has been raised in social media.

Despite investing in the Rajiv Gandhi Gram Vidyutikaran Yojana, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-2 government started sliding on electrified villages count after 2012. The pace picked up only after Prime Minister Modi and then power minister Piyush Goyal redoubled the effort and focus on this activity. This data is shown in the graph below:

Source: Ministry of Power, Government of India
Source: Ministry of Power, Government of India

What is the criteria for classifying a village as electrified?

A village is called electrified if 10 per cent of the households in the village have power connections. This definition has been in place since 2004-05, around the time when the Rajiv Gandhi Gram Vidyutikaran Yojana was launched.

This is how the definition of an electrified village has evolved:

Before October 1997: A village where power was used for any purpose whatsoever was called electrified.

After October 1997: A village where power was used in the inhabited area in the village was termed electrified.

After 2004-05: The 10 per cent threshold came into the picture, along with other criteria like power access to community areas in the village and access to power in Dalit basti of the village.

More details of the definitions are in this Swarajya article.

Before 1997, if a village had a single bulb hanging from a tree, it would be called electrified. The probability of an electrified village having no household with power connection is non zero, thanks to these pre-1997 efforts! The Modi government has simply followed the 2004-05 definition. This is another area where newly minted experts aren’t aware that mundane governance rules were not coined for the first time in 2014.

Is this the right definition and shouldn’t the Modi government have changed this definition?

The Modi government has been blamed for not making the leap from substandard metrics, their collection, and actions against these metrics to an instant utopia. Strangely, much of this ‘constructive criticism’ has come from people who did not vote for the government in the first place.

Regardless, the Modi government is now focusing on household electrification, having put up the necessary infrastructure at village level. Once the household electrification is complete, the definition of what’s an electrified village will automatically become redundant.

So government has put up poles and cables, but there’s no electricity flowing through them?

This objection is best countered with a popular Twitter phrase - #NoShitSherlock.

For electricity to flow there has to be proper infrastructure in place. The infrastructure is the necessary condition, getting power is the sufficient one. It is not unusual in the world of hard sciences like physics for the necessary condition to precede the sufficient condition.

Of course, there have to be efforts to ensure that the infrastructure is actually being used. There is no doubt that the state governments which run most of the power distribution operations (discoms) in India have to provide reliable and cost-effective power supply. This is also a problem area as discoms have been making huge financial losses. Ultimately, the discoms have to clean up their act and ensure that actual power availability is ensured.

How many Indian villages have all households with power connection?

The number of villages with 100 per cent household power connection is estimated to be about 50,000. Recently, the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan launched a 100 per cent household electrification drive (along with adoption of six other central government programmes) in 20,000 villages.

The Saubhagya programme focuses precisely on this household electrification aspect.

When is the Saubhagya programme expected to be completed?

The Saubhagya programme is expected to be completed by end of 2018. This is the target set by Modi to bring power to all households in the country. The obvious implication here is legal households - yet again, if there are unauthorised constructions or unknown hamlets, quite likely a state government discom will refuse a metered connection to such entities.

The progress of the Saubhagya programme can be tracked on the portal -

Shouldn’t the household electrification be straightforward?

Congratulations - that thought exactly mirrors what this March 2005 letter by then National Advisory Council chairperson Sonia Gandhi said.

Sonia Gandhi’s letter
Sonia Gandhi’s letter

She wanted the Manmohan Singh government to complete household (not just villages) electrification by 2009. Let’s hope that Modi and Power Minister R K Singh complete this activity, which Gandhi describes as being close to Rajivji, her late husband.

Can we now classify the electrification of the last 18,452 villages as an achievement?

The electrification of the last 18,452 villages was definitely an achievement. Prime Minister Modi created a shared vision and a well-defined goal. Then power minister Piyush Goyal went after the task in a planned and methodical manner, ensuring that progress or lack thereof was measured and reported. The current Power Minister Singh saw this programme over the finish line.

The four key reasons why the Modi government deserves accolades for completing the village electrification programme are:

Problem definition: Modi discovered and quantified the problem in a way that the ecosystem dealing with it clearly understood the magnitude and gravity. He made it clear that 100 per cent compliance was the way to go.

Vision: Modi set an ambitious vision to complete village electrification in 1,000 days. This was critical because the work was meandering for the last three years. The deadline also galvanised central and state agencies towards a common goal.

Transparency: The government made the whole process transparent reporting the progress of village electrification on the GARV app. The app provided drill downs on progress at state - district - village level, and depicted the stage at which the electrification process was for each village. The app also gave phone numbers of the person responsible for working in a given village in case concerned citizens had to contact them directly.

Scale: The government capacity is always a bottleneck for executing large transformation programmes in India. The Rural Electrification Corporation – the nodal agency for the village electrification programme - did a great job of planning and executing the work.

There is enough cause to cheer for #PowerfulIndia and celebrating 28 April as an important milestone in India’s development journey. The nitpickers will continue their task. Those who demand real-life change from the Modi government should now keep an eye on the Saubhagya portal and the next d-day: 31 December 2018.

Aashish Chandorkar writes on public policy, politics, and current affairs. He is based in Pune. He tweets at @c_aashish.


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