The news of electrification of 18,452 villages out of 5,97,464 that had stayed dark till 2015 has been met with some compulsive criticism from the opposition and other detractors. Stating the obvious, they claim that the pitiably low target of 10% households receiving electricity now being enough to consider a given village electrified has made this ‘feat’ possible. Recalling the promise by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, delivered through his Independence Day-speech in 2015, one does not, however, find that he had vowed to make power reach every household so soon. In that speech, he had clearly stated that there were thousands of villages that had not witnessed even the laying of cables and erecting of support pillars. And this job, callously left unfinished by all the previous governments, would be accomplished by May 2018, he had said. The Ministry of Power, its officials, and the engineers and technicians it employed have met the target with the deadline still two weeks away, and they hence deserve our congratulations. No less commendable are our security forces that ensured that this basic infrastructure is in place, as the final phase of electrification involved Maoist-infested and insurgency-ravaged territories, with the last village being electrified being Pakol in the Churachandpur district of Manipur. Some compulsive critics name a few remote villages and claim the project has not benefited them; they are lying. Shortly after the drive began, the ministry had launched a mobile application, using which any village that remained untouched by the project could be reported and the gram abhiyanta (village engineer) would promptly service the hamlet. If these critics were sincere about serving the have-nots, they should have used the app. State governments have had, since last year, a coal procurement app as well.
The minimum requirement of infrastructure got the focus required because of a paradigm shift in power management when the second BJP-led NDA government came to power. From the UPA government’s stress on production, it moved the thrust to access. Without this, tens of thousands of villagers would have continued to feel that their part of the country did not matter in the scheme of things of New Delhi. If 1,275 villages did not have access to electricity in the beginning of this government’s initiative, now they have it. As many as 1,236 were uninhabited and 35 were grazing reserves. Around houses that are no longer lit up by oil lamps, villagers are hopeful, if some of their neighbours have ‘seen light’, they will see it, too. And it’s not just households. Importantly, the agricultural fields, office installations and factories — many special economic zones are located in far-flung areas — have got electrified finally, too. The last phase would electrify the panchayat office, health centre, dispensary and community centre of every village. This will boost the local economy. Given that the newly electrified villages mostly house the poor; it is important that they are able to pay the power bills. Therefore, the need for a vibrant local economy cannot be overstated.
In his address to the nation on 29 April, the Prime Minister did not say the mission of electrification was accomplished. He did acknowledge the fact that the unfinished tasks are making electricity reach every household and then ensure that all Indians get power supply 24×7. That translates to serving 40 million families in rural and urban areas by March 2019 under the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (Saubhagya). To supply electricity to 87% of the 36.8 million homes across 24 States identified last October as still devoid of power, the government must unhesitatingly involve private players in generating the deficit megawatts and building a nationwide network of cooperative lines supplementing the national grid or off grid solutions. But this will not be possible until the regional parties cease to exploit electricity as a political tool, waiving off consumers’ bills. This populism cost State distribution companies an accumulated debt of almost Rs 4.1 trillion until March 2015. India seriously needs regulations to curb devastating economic policies.