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Rural electrification: Taking forward the Saubhagya vision

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By Surobhi Mukherjee

Government launched the 'Saubhagya' scheme in 2017 with an aspiration to provide electricity to all households in rural areas and poor families in urban areas. It intends to expedite rural electrification, both through technology and dissemination of information, with a scope of 'providing last mile connectivity and electricity connections to all un-electrified households in rural areas'. The power sector and the Saubhagya scheme can go one step ahead by assuring quality power supply apart from assuring 'electricity to all'. The recent on-field experience in Chhattisgarh could provide insights as to where policymakers can step in to fill the supply-side gap and increase rural electrification. In a power-surplus state like Chhattisgarh, with installed capacity of 13526.7 MW, the Har Ghar Bijli scheme faces its own challenges. There is a need to reduce inefficiencies in the current framework and bring in multiple stakeholders, including the police and the masses.

It is to be noted that "An electrified village is defined as one that has the following: (i) provision of basic infrastructure such as distribution transformers and lines in the inhabited locality, (ii) provision of electricity in public places like schools, panchayat office, health centers, dispensaries, and community centers, and (iii) at least 10% of the total number of households in the village are electrified". Considering the 10% threshold, all districts in the state are electrified (as on October 10, 2017). The scheme aims to target un-electrified households in the village. Household progress for electrification indeed shows a positive relationship with Balance Un-electrified Households (BUHs).

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There are two perspectives to look at supply-side challenges faced by policymakers. One is a scientific perspective, where the iron content in the soil generates fault current, creating high impedance, which disrupts the transmission of electricity and makes the electrical system function improperly. The accompanied graphic shows district-wise percentage of Balance Un-electrified Households before Saubhagya scheme was launched in the state (arranged in ascending order). Dantewada, Rajnandgaon, Kanker, Bastar, Narayanpur and Durg are some of the districts with rich mineral deposits, especially iron. The rural electric distribution systems are impacted and access to electricity is affected.

Even if there exist provisions for basic infrastructure like distribution transformers or a certain percentage of total number of households are electrified in a village, it does not translate into accessibility. Hence, issue of impedance fault is relevant when it comes to questions of continuous and quality supply of electricity. Monitoring the low current that generates high impedance fault, therefore, becomes necessary.

It is to be emphasised that the scheme has tried to plug gaps from consumer-side and provisions exist to approach the household, encouraging the BPL and poor households to avail electricity connection. In this regard, percentage of additional households being electrified due to Saubhagya Rath campaigns, camps, control centres, etc, have been higher in Balod, Balrampur, Kanker, Jashpur, Baloda Bazaar and Bilaspur.

The second perspective is highly debatable. Some districts in Chhattisgarh, being inflicted with extremism, lack basic infrastructure, including electricity transmission towers and distribution transformers. Bastar, Dantewada, Narayanpur, Gariyabandh, Bijapur and Sukma are the affected Districts with maximum percentage of BUHs. Therein lies the need for the role of police and confidence-building with the masses, where the former's engagement in the interiors of such inaccessible districts has led to increased accessibility and utility provision to some extent. The Saurabh Rath Campaigns, etc, alone cannot explain percentage of electrified household addition as correlation with BUHs is small.

Problems like less revenue realisation due to pilferage in distribution, transmission and distribution loss, technical losses caused due to I2R & transformer losses, and the aforementioned High Impedance Fault calls for upgrading material properties, better distribution infrastructure, and wide spatial distribution of meters and so on.

Government allocated `16,000 crore for Saubhagya in Budget 2018 and Union Budget 2019, emphasising outreach of Saubhagya, with increasing importance of renewable energy. Yet, India still being a country which is heavily reliant on thermal power generation, provisions ought to be made to reduce inefficiency in the current framework and ensuring basic infrastructure in villages required for electricity (like in Aspirational Districts), which would leap Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana one step ahead by assuring quality supply of power as well as access to electricity for all. The experience in Chhattisgarh is a case in point, wherein lack of power availability is not a contentious issue, but revenue loss, faults and accidents caused due to transmission and distribution are relevant. The enhanced benefits could be passed on to the consumers in form of lower- cost accessibility.

(The writer is Assistant Director, Ministry of Finance. Views are personal)