Access is life

Technology and infrastructure ringfence opportunities in India, as our - largely successful - electrification stories shows us, though, the key to success lies in putting the citizen at the centre

A rechargeable solar lamp [image: Smallest Forest / Flickr]

The scramble for vaccines has highlighted the Digital Divide in India. The Financial Times ran a story headlined: India’s Covid vaccine rollout favours the wealthy and tech-savvy. This is not a new story in India, not even during the pandemic. Last year, as lockdowns forced the closure of many schools, the people left out were often of poorer communities – adivasi and Dalit populations dependent on public schools, with little in the way of infrastructure.

Probably nothing exemplifies the implications of unequal technological access so much as health infrastructure. As the coronavirus moves into rural areas, we have reports of people dying of mysterious fevers. These will remain mysterious because there is little infrastructure for tests, and even fewer trained staff to deal with these things. This is an old story for India. Speaking with a member of the US Center for Disease Control staff based in India, I was told that she could find little data regarding the acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) cases in eastern Uttar Pradesh. 80% of the mortalities had happened without a test determining the cause.

AES is a symptomatic description. It merely describes the fact that there is severe swelling of the brain. This could be caused by multiple reasons. The underlying disease in the vast number of cases remains unidentified.

A few years ago, as a cousin of mine looked after his father in Banda, southern Uttar Pradesh, he told me the difficulties. It was not just that a dialysis machine was not available, it was also that few trained technicians were available at the hospital. Much of his treatment took place in Chandigarh, almost a thousand kilometres away from his home.

Access to technical infrastructure is key to lives and livelihoods. Maybe more importantly the ability to have that infrastructure serviced is the only way to make sure it actually serves the people. In our interview this fortnight, Dr Palit of TERI explains one of India’s great success stories, of almost universal electrification of households, as well as how far we have to go. At the centre of the interview is the issue of design. Is the infrastructure designed in a way to merely tick of numbers, or is it designed to actually provide service to the people? The example of the successes and problems of electrification show that if you do not design for the latter, even achieving the first will remain an illusion.

This is central to India’s debate on how to respond to the climate crisis. Is it about ticking off global benchmarks for Global Zero, or are we trying to make the best possible future for our population? In its own way the choice is a false one. As the effects of Cyclone Yaas show, in a warming world, the scale of disasters that Indians face will only increase. The Indian Ocean is the fastest warming ocean in the world, and as it heats, cyclones are becoming both more intense and more frequent. Furthermore, some things are simply playing out in favour of a more climate appropriate response. As the price of renewable energy keeps falling, it just makes good financial sense to invest in less carbon-intensive form of growth.

The problem is that this is not enough. There is already enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to keep warming the world. One of the already observable impacts in mountainous areas is the outmigration of people to find employment as their livelihoods – largely based on agriculture – fail. Uttarakhand is a particularly stark example of this, as large numbers of the young move away from their mountain villages to try and find some means of sustenance in the plains. “According to a 2018 survey… 734 villages in the state have become uninhabited since 2011. These villages are spread across all 13 districts and are often referred to as ghost villages.”

Nor is the problem isolated to mountain areas. As the sea heats, it rises since warmer water expands and the glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic melt. India has one of the longest coastlines in the world. We claim more than 7,500 kilometres in length, while the CIA World Handbook assigns us 7,000 kms. This gives us either the 15th or the 18th longest coastline. The people that inhabit this region are often poor, and their lands are being swallowed up as the sea rises. They are losing their livelihoods as saline water makes their fields infertile, and they have nowhere to go. The human tide of misery, from mountainous areas, from the sea, and even from central India where farms that are dependent on rainfall for irrigation become more prone to drought, is coming our way. As an article in our reading list states, this migration is causing more refugees than any war.

As India’s success in electrification shows, we can handle the world’s biggest challenges. As its problems show, we must do so bearing in mind a design that puts service delivery at the centre of our model.


Dr Debajit Palit is the Director, Rural Energy and Livelihoods, at TERI. He has worked there since 1998 on projects related to renewable energy technologies – design and implementation, resource assessment and energy planning, clean energy and rural electrification policy and regulation, monitoring, impact assessment and capacity building. He holds a Master's degree in Physics and a PhD in Energy Policy. His thesis was on "Towards Convergence of Grid and Decentralised Electricity Solutions for Effective Rural Electrification".

Q. We claim to have electrified all our villages, but many people in rural areas have intermittent access to electricity, if at all. What is the real picture of how many have uninterrupted, regular supply of electricity?

A. There are four facets to electricity access. The first is extending connectivity to all villages. The second is to connect each household in the village. The third is to provide reliable, round-the-clock electricity along these connections, and the fourth is to make sure there is a responsive service network that takes care of metering, billing, collection, problems, and maintenance.

We have done very well on the first since 2005. At that time around 80% villages had connectivity and less than 50% of households had connections. The passage of the Electricity Act in 2003 made the Central Government also responsible for extending electricity supply along with state governments. This policy has remained unchanged under all governments so far. After the National Rural Electrification Programme was launched in 2005, we made rapid progress, with around 108,000 completely unelectrified villages connected in 8 years or so.

At TERI we evaluated this connectivity, and found that often not many households in these villages were being connected, though. Connections to Below Poverty Line (BPL) families were free, but at times it was difficult to tell who was really BPL versus Above Poverty Line (APL). APL families often did not take connections. Maybe they were not sure of the electricity supply, or its sustainability. In which case they would have the bill and little else.

By 2014 all except around 20,000 villages in remote areas were covered, and this was done quickly. This sometimes required decentralised solutions, like solar microgrids or solar home systems. In 2017 the Saubhagya Scheme was launched, and in 18-20 months roughly 30 million households were connected, aiming at the second aspect. There are about 500,000-1,000,000 households not connected. These are either those reluctant to get connections, or are of homes far outside the revenue villages.

In twenty years, we achieved near universal electrification. This was a huge achievement, and is globally recognised. In 2005-06 25% of the global unelectrified, or 400 million people, lived in India. Since then, we have provided electricity access to around 600 million (keeping in mind population growth).

Q. What are the challenges that remain?

A. The key problem is what happens between the 11 kV feeder to the household. This is where the link breaks down from the government built high tension wires to the local village. In some ways the question of centralised or decentralised power generation is irrelevant if local service mechanisms do not work. It does not matter if the electricity is coming from the main grid, or from a locally set up mini grid if the Division or the subdivision office is unresponsive and technicians are unavailable.

There are examples where it can work. The Chhattisgarh state government set up mini grids, but their real achievement has been prompt after-sales service. In villages, people are often unable to go the long distance to petition subdivision or division level officials. They often do not know how to navigate the bureaucracy. It costs them time, and that time is costly, because normally they would have used it to work and earn their living.

Q. Would “sweat equity”, for example with locals working to maintain micro-hydro projects in remote hilly areas, or maintain solar projects, help?

A. To an extent. The government had a franchisee-based electricity distribution policy that it put in place. This could be anything like users’ associations, self-help groups, or local entrepreneurs. They would buy electricity in bulk from the utility and sell to customers (within a price range set by regulators). They would have a 10-15% margin, and it was an excellent business model. We surveyed this in Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and other states in 2008-11. Services were being provided, and there was increase in collection efficiency and most importantly a high level of consumer satisfaction. It is in the interest of the electricity distribution utilities to improve the customer service delivery through local organisations like franchisees and generate enough revenues (through improved billing and collection efficiencies and reduced distribution losses) to invest in infrastructure improvements.

Unfortunately, this was discontinued in most places. Some state governments complained of the arrangement. Now the only thing that happens in many states is that meter reading and billing are outsourced. These have done little in the way of increasing earning or reducing technical losses. More importantly the people have no ability to deal with issues that arise. They cannot fix or maintain things, and if there are problems with service, they can do nothing. The centralisation of delivery helps nobody.

Q. Are there other ways that people can be incentivised to be part of the solution, like selling electricity to the grid?

A. This is part of the PM KUSUM scheme, which supplies solar panels to farmers for the use of water pumps and other essentials. There is the option of selling the power to the grid if they have excess electricity. Unfortunately, there is a real problem with the finances of most distribution utilities. They may not be in the position to buy this electricity.

Solar power in urban areas has a different, though related, problem. The people and organisations, who can afford to set up solar panels, and potentially sell power back, are the creamy consumers. If they are out of the grid, who will subsidise the electricity rates for the poorer consumers?

We need to think of finances, maybe create a fund that can manage these financial difficulties. But because electricity is a concurrent subject in the Constitution, this will require states and the Centre working together, and that is sometimes challenging.

Q. Are we going to meet our renewable goals as we expand our electrification programme?

A. That should actually be easy, if present trends continue. Over the last few years, we have largely only been adding renewable energy to the grid. There have been few, if any, new coal plants. The one main challenge is storage price, and by 2030 this should also be cost effective. Renewable energy just makes good financial sense at this point of time.

Q. Is there something we are missing?

A. Robust data. We do not have enough monitoring to build a realistic model of what is happening and why, or to evaluate the health of the network. You can install a prepaid smart meter and that tells you what is happening in the home, but not what is happening between the 11kV line to the household, the state of the transformer and the LT network, the last link. Electricity given free in rural areas to farmers is not metered, we don’t know what is happening there. We just cannot plan properly with big parts of the data missing.

A second thing is a focus on change management, especially in distribution companies. We put in reforms, and these are top down. As someone in such a utility remarked, what is the incentive for him to change how he works? This means that these reforms remain superficial. In the late 90s when we did a lot of electricity reform, we backed this with change-management training that helped people working in these companies understand that the changes were to their benefit. Even when Gujarat undertook similar changes, many of which were also included in  the UDAY scheme launched in 2015, it was accompanied by a great deal of training.

Without that, it is hard to convince people. Our problem remains centralisation of delivery and services, and a lack of engagement with the people – whether in distribution companies or those they serve.


Critical reading on the environment of India, 28.05.2021, compiled by Shambhavi Madan

  1. How India is handling human to animal transmission of COVID-19 (or not) : The interconnectedness of the environment needs to be considered in the country’s pandemic response. Increased interfacing between humans and animals allows for more pathogens to be exchanged and enabled; viruses evolve by creating new variants in animal reservoirs. However, the environment ministry has so far only issued a single page advisory on COVID-19 management of wildlife that has been criticized as ineffective and inadequate in arresting zoonotic transmission. Shekhar Kumar Niraj, special secretary, Tamil Nadu Forest Department: “Wildlife managers can’t execute what’s in the advisory because there’s simply no capacity development for it..” The underpaid and overworked forest staff face numerous issues: rural areas are now the worst affected by COVID-19, no frontline status for vaccination, several difficulties in getting samples or monitoring symptoms in free-ranging wild animals. Meanwhile, a disease ecologist warns that even seemingly unaffected species can become reservoirs to new variants. 

  2. More Cyclones Batter India's West Coast But States Slow To Build Critical Infrastructure: IndiaSpend assesses the implementation of the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project (NCRMP), which involves development of physical infrastructure and early warning systems funded by the World Bank along with the central and state governments. Cyclone Tauktae, the second severe cyclonic storm to hit India's western coast in less than a year, is further evidence of cyclones increasing in frequency in the Arabian Sea, yet none of the west coast states has met targets for building cyclone shelters, all-weather roads and embankments. It is also important to incorporate climate science findings into local action plans. As Harjeet Singh, from Climate Action Network International asks, "Existing buildings need to be retrofitted based on available scientific data. How are we preparing for sanitation and public health issues that follow due to floods that follow cyclones?” 

  3. Increased farm work negatively impacts women's nutrition: study: High engagement in agriculture coupled with no relief in domestic activities has led to decline in nutrition levels among women in rural Maharashtra, according to a study co-authored by an alumnus and director at Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition. To make sure policies align with the ‘feminisation of agriculture’, the study argues in favour of labour-saving strategies in agricultural and domestic work such as women-friendly farm mechanisation, alongside structural reforms such as land ownership. A stronger policy response is needed in India where women constitute over a third of the farm labour force, especially as India’s agriculture sector is also heavily impacted by climate change which then disproportionately affects women.

  4. Climate disasters ‘caused more internal displacement than war’ in 2020: Among the 55 million (at least) internally displaced people recorded by the end of last year, according to figures published by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Committee (IDMC), there were 40 million new displacements that took place during 2020 itself - the highest annual figure in 10 years. Of these, the IDMC report said, 30 million were a result of floods, storms and wildfires.

  5. A “do or die” agitation against coal pollution in Odisha: For more than a decade, the villages near the Kulda opencast mine in Odisha’s Hemgiri block in the Sundargarh district have been fighting without respite against the incessant coal dust pollution from the 3000 dumper trucks of coal which daily pass through their villages. Their many attempts at legal recourse included opposing the expansion of the mine’s capacity citing non-compliance with multiple conditions that had been imposed on the project earlier--including regular medical camps, control of fugitive emissions along the road with mechanised sweeping and spraying, and creation of a thick green belt in the downwind direction of the project site. Despite all this, the environment ministry recommended further expansion of the Kulda mine’s capacity in January 2021. The villagers finally launched a “do or die” agitation in the same month, which continues even as the local administration is cracking down on them. The coal pollution grievously impacts not only the physical health of the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities residing near the mines, but their livelihoods too as it affects agriculture and forest produce. The mine is operated by Mahanadi Coalfields Limited.

  6. Bihar highly vulnerable to climate change, says study, but lacks action plan: According to a recent assessment of climate vulnerability for adaptation planning by IIT Mandi, IIT Guwahati and IISC Bangalore, 14 out of 50 most vulnerable districts to climate change in India are in Bihar (along with Jharkhand and Assam, the three states cover over 60% of the most vulnerable districts).  Bihar is unique in its vulnerability to hydro-meteorological disasters as its northern part faces annual floods and the southern part is prone to droughts--and urgently needs a prioritised action plan.  However, along with limited resources, the state also suffers immense political apathy-- previous sectoral action plans by the state government and the UK’s Department for International Development to tackle climate change have either been cast aside during policymaking or withdrawn for “unknown reasons”. 

  7. [Charts] A long road to 2030 for India's import-heavy solar power sector: Large-scale adoption of renewable power, including a serious push for solar, is crucial for India’s clean energy transition goals. India is targeting about 450 Gigawatt (GW) of installed renewable energy capacity by 2030 and, of that, a lion’s share – 280 GW (over 60 per cent) – would come from solar. However, the Indian solar industry relies heavily on imports of important components such as solar cells, modules and solar inverters, spending billions every year as India’s domestic manufacturing capacity is not enough to fulfil the demand. While a May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency stressed upon how the shift to a clean energy system relies upon the supply and refining of crucial minerals, currently only a few countries - like China, who accounts for over 80% of India’s import bill for solar PV cells/modules - have a strong presence in these segments. India needs to not only ensure a long-term policy addressing these gaps so that a pandemic or geopolitical disputes can’t derail its clean energy plans, but also ensure not to increase mining activities for these metals that cause more social and environmental conflicts.