On the eve of 2019, the dashboard of Saubhagya scheme reflected 95% achievement of the target, indicating remarkable progress in a relatively short period of time.
By Bigsna Gill and Astha Gupta
Achieving 100% electrification in India has always been a prime focus area of the government, considering the development objectives such a step can secure and support. The last few decades have seen both the central and state governments put in the effort and resources to augment electricity access, especially in rural India, by initiating a number of schemes and programmes, such as the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) and the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY).
In April 2018, the country achieved 100% village electrification—its first major milestone in this regard. This effectively means that now every village in the country has the requisite infrastructure and the network connectivity required to achieve the next major milestone, which is universal household electrification.
Reflecting a well-planned and phased approach towards electrification, the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana, known as the Saubhagya scheme, was announced in October 2017, with the express aim of enabling 100% household electrification in the country by March 2019. Additional incentives were available to those states who would achieve their electrification targets by the end of December 2018, and, in fact, many states have successfully managed to do so. At the time of its announcement, the scheme aimed to electrify over 30 million non-electrified households in India.
The world’s largest rural electrification programme of its kind, what sets the Saubhagya scheme apart is that its scope of interventions expand beyond the village-level infrastructure development and electrifying the below poverty line (BPL) households, to include all the non-electrified households in the country, taking a granular and targeted approach towards achieving universal electrification. In essence, the philosophy behind this scheme is to “leave no one behind.”
The commitment of both states and distribution companies (discoms) in supporting and executing this initiative and pushing the boundaries to electrify each and every household is commendable. States such as Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha have already achieved the 100% mark, while some other states, including Chhattisgarh, Assam and Rajasthan, are soon approaching their targets as well.
On the eve of 2019, the official dashboard of the Saubhagya scheme reflected a 95% achievement of the target, indicating remarkable progress made in a relatively short period of time. It is not just the number of connections that needed to be covered, but also the geographically widespread and challenging areas that these numbers were distributed across, and all of that made this an especially demanding task in the given time frame.
Being the primary implementation agencies for Saubhagya, the pressure on the discoms to make things happen has been immense, especially in states with a large number of households to cover. A study by TERI in late 2018 revealed that the discoms dealt with many real-time issues on the ground—from human resource availability and management, to delays in material supply and the overall coordination of activities within existing capacities. The study highlighted the various process improvements and technology enablers that the discoms had adopted to enhance their efficiency and resilience. Some of these include development of advanced IT-based energy and revenue management systems to improve consumer interface and revenue collections; creating a customer-centric approach to services through the use of mobile applications; expediting distribution transformer replacements; capacity building of newly outsourced manpower; and intensifying monitoring and governance for better transparency and accountability. States, on their part, have invested in strengthening their network infrastructure and making sure that all the connections are metered.
At the same time, some challenges are anticipated post the implementation of the Saubhagya scheme. The discoms are already beginning to grapple with managing their enlarged network and consumer base. Revenue sustainability is a concern, given that the majority of new connections lie in the rural areas and recoveries will be highly dependent on metering, billing and collection efficiencies. Equally, considering the socio-economic status of the beneficiaries under the scheme and the prevailing misconception that the electricity service would also be free, the discoms are anxious about recovering payments timely. In addition, the lack of adequate skilled resource to keep theft in check and ensure minimal network breakdowns is an expressed concern. All these factors will impact the discoms’ efforts to keep the aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses within the desirable range (of 15%), which is a necessary condition to avail benefits under the Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojana (UDAY). Together with the pressure of ensuring 24×7 power to all, they will be under immense pressure to contain the losses.
At this juncture, the Centre and states should be applauded and commended, along with the discoms, whose commitment to work together has led them to achieve a vital and challenging objective in a very short time. Moving ahead with this momentum, it would be valuable for the discoms to share and learn from each other’s experiences and innovations, to strengthen their processes and systems and set the path towards providing sustainable electricity services for all.
Gill is a multidisciplinary researcher and fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Gupta is lead country analyst and coordinator (India) at the International Energy Agency (IEA)