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Will PM Modi's 'Saubhagya' bring light to all homes?

Under Saubhagya scheme electricity connections will be provided to all urban and rural areas Photograph: (Others)

New Delhi, Delhi, India Oct 10, 2017, 06.26 AM (IST) Niharika Tagotra

PM Narendra Modi, recently announced the Saubhagya, that is, the Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana scheme, under which electricity connections will be provided to all “willing households” across the urban and rural areas. With an outlay of over Rs 16000 crore, the scheme is expected to cover the 40 million families which still lack an electricity connection, by December 2018.

The Saubhagya initiative correctly identifies two major problems plaguing India’s power sector: Overstressed Discoms facing high supply costs and poor households facing high costs of power connection and supply.

To bridge the gap between supply and demand, the government has decided to provide the BPL households with free electricity connection and the APL households with an electricity connection priced at Rs 5000, payable at the rate of Rs 500 per month, to be recovered by Discoms through the electricity bills. Besides, for households located in remote and inaccessible areas, not connected to the grid, the government would provide a solar pack of 200-300 watt peak (WP), including a battery bank, five LED bulbs, one DC fan and one DC power plug.

Inefficient billing practices and electricity theft continue to plague the power sector in India.
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The Saubhagya initiative aims to achieve last mile connectivity, a problem with roots in the inefficient management, billing and metering system at the level of individual households and villages in India. The lack of access to electricity stems from the fact that most households do not have the required money to pay for the electricity connections and for the subsequent electricity bills.

While the first problem is resolved by central government’s announcement of free electricity connections to all, the second problem still remains unresolved to a certain extent. Inefficient billing practices and electricity theft continue to plague the power sector in India.

While the government has promised to set up prepaid and smart metering systems for the households to be covered under the Saubhagya scheme, the initiative effectively leaves out those households which are electrified but are still running on older versions of electric meters or paying flat bills for hefty power consumption.

The problems of electricity theft and inefficient usage also continue to stare the policymakers in the face. Besides, the idea of sustainable and clean energy access becomes redundant if the consequent increase in power demand is met through a proportionate increase in the use of coal-fired power plants.

Suitable billing mechanisms must be designed which can gradually render the older version of electricity meters obsolete.
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To pursue the idea of power security holistically, therefore, the government will need to rely on three key technological pillars which can prove to be a major disruption in the country’s electricity sector. First, the government will need to promote the use of smart and pre-paid meters in rural and urban households by incentivising their use and taxing their non-use.

Suitable billing mechanisms must be designed which can gradually render the older version of electricity meters obsolete. Aadhar based linking of power connections and generation of e-bills for power use can go a long way in checking for power theft and pilferage. Dwellings for urban poor and slum dwellers, not covered by the existing grid infrastructure, can be provided with the aforementioned solar packs to cover for their daily use and related activities.

Second, the government will need to provide a major policy push for rooftop solar power panels over the next couple of years. The technology, if adopted on a mission mode basis, promises to bring down the cost of household electricity bills, reduce the overall dependency on thermal power plants and finally achieve the INDC goals that the country has set for itself by 2030.

The government will also need to discontinue the practice of providing free electricity to certain groups of agriculturists and industries.
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Besides, the provision of rooftop solar plants will help improve the reliability of power supply, reduce fluctuations and minimise the AT&C losses plaguing the grid-connected power infrastructure, as the point of power generation and power consumption will lie in close proximity. This will, in turn, provide a major push for the use of electric stoves and reduce overall dependency on LPG cylinders. The government will also need to discontinue the practice of providing free electricity to certain groups of agriculturists and industries.

This step will push up electricity bills for a short time for the given entities. However, the holistic implementation of the power policy promises to bring down tariffs and improve the affordability of electricity supplied.

Third, the government needs to provide a greater impetus for research on the upcoming Carbon Capture Storage/Utilisation (CCS/CCU) technologies that can help the existing thermal power plants produce clean energy, without rendering them completely obsolete in the face of increasing role for gas based and renewable power plants. While there has been a renewed focus on the use of such technologies globally, these are yet to make any substantial breakthrough in India.

The NDA government, to its credit, has successfully overcome the supply side barriers, such that the country has gone on to become a power surplus nation from a power deficient nation in the course of three years. The focus must now and has already begun, to shift to demand-side management. This will require a major disruption and a complete overhaul of our existing power consumption practices. Only then can the country envisage a successful 24x7 power supply for all scenario.

Niharika Tagotra

Niharika Tagotra Phd Researcher, International Politics, JNU, New Delhi

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