The universal electrification of Indian households started as a mission to electrify all Indian households in April 2005 named RGGVY (Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikiran Yojana). Its objective was to provide electricity access to all rural households in every nook and corner of the country with a free connection to Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. Later, as per CCEA (Cabinet Committee for Economic Affairs) approval, the whole plan of household electrification was subsumed under the new scheme naming it as Deendayal Upadhayaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY) in August 2013.
Thereby, the scheme headed off with great momentum to provide electricity services to the Indian villages and towns. In fact, on April 29, 2018, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi declared that all Indian villages were electrified. Fortunately, it would have been a great accomplishment for India to lit up and energise its villages and towns endowed with electricity services.
It is a well-established fact that the socio-economic benefits of electricity services are profoundly effective. From switching of a household in lighting a polluting oil lamp to non-polluting electric bulbs, increasing a student’s study hours for their better outcomes, reduction in children’s and women’s health pollution-related diseases, the extension of business hours for generation of higher income, increase in productivity and profit of a firm by switching to electric tools and machinery to empowering of women through their access to reading, watching television and knowledge achievement through access to various media.
Overall, access to electricity is an impetus for a better quality of life. But by July 2018, criticisms from different corners and media platforms started pouring in claiming that some villages in India were still yet to access electricity services. This critical observation sprang up as there was confusion in the definition put forwarded by the Ministry of Power, in which they claimed that a village is said to be fully electrified if 10 per cent of the households had electricity connection wherein other public places such as schools, panchayat office, health centres and community centres had electricity connection. Intuitively, for a village resident, an electricity connection would mean having access to it for the use of its household, not only the dangling wires above his head wired around the village roads.
Additionally, even the central rural development ministry (Govt. of India) found in its separate survey of 2018 that 14,700 villages were without electricity connection drawing larger opprobrium. Promptly, with great efforts by March 2019, 99.99 per cent of the households in India were electrified as per the Saubhagya dashboard (Ministry of Power, Govt. of India).
Contradictorily, electricity service delivery became a hot issue thereafter, with both the rural-urban households witnessing electricity cut-offs for hours which are very often associated with shortages-load shedding and harsh weather conditions. Coupled with that as per my recent survey on electricity bills in different areas of rural Assam (interiors villages of Mazbat, Nikashi, Bengtol, Kachugaon in BTR, Assam), it was shocking to hold a consumer bill of more than Rs.65000 for a BPL household.
While for the different regions combined, the average consumer bill turns out to be around Rs 2,500 for a month. It was a wonder, ‘how a BPL household could have an electricity bill that high which lights up only two bulbs at night?’ Researching on this I found the problem lies with both the supplier i.e. Assam Power Distribution Company Limited (APDCL) and the consumers.
The APDCL started sending bills to the consumers until recently in 2021 while the electricity connection to those households was provided in 2016. Back then, households were only charged a lump sum amount without proper meter readings (ranging from Rs.100-200 per month). But suddenly in January 2021, personnel from APDCL visited households for meter reading in an attempt for accurate billing.
Consequently, the electricity bill fell off as a bombardment for the households, charged for the whole units consumed from initial connection till date (This incidence occurred at different points of time for regions mentioned above). On top of that consumers were added with surcharges for payment defaults. On the other hand, the consumer households did not have any clue of how they were being charged that high, leading to default payments for months, which attracted them additional surcharges.
As a result, the households and the department (consumer-APDCL) are presently caught in the whole trap. At this juncture, the government’s commitment to sustainable development goals (SDG) for ensuring affordability and accessibility of electricity services looks gloomy.
The rural households are not only energy-poor but overburdened with energy bill indebtedness. However, the world is pushing for digitisation of the economy and with rapid progress and penetration of IT services; demand for energy services is estimated to grow by many folds in the coming decade.
The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Bodoland University, Kokrajhar, BTR, Assam