The central government claimed India had achieved “full electrification” in April 2018, but evidence from VV’s network of correspondents proved otherwise. In this piece, we revisit our #Battigul (no electricity) campaign to see if the situation has changed.
PM Narendra Modi claimed on Twitter that every village in India had access to electricity on 28 April 2018. But more than a year later, electrification still remains an unsolved issue for many in India’s rural areas. Most egregiously, the definition of “fully electrified” is highly problematic: to be deemed “fully electrified”, only a meagre 10% of households in an area need to have working connections. Given this very broad definition, the government has repeatedly declared the success of India’s electrification program, which has mostly fallen under the umbrella of its “Saubhagya” initiative. But the program is plagued with problems. Some villages are so rural that they have effectively fallen off the map for electrification and other government programs. Meanwhile, those that have been “electrified” have connections which are erratic at best and almost completely unreliable at worst. India’s public electrical distribution companies (DISCOMs) are starved for resources and funding, and illegal, unpaid connections are commonplace. Has rural electrification under Saubhagya and its predecessor schemes really lived up to expectations? In this article, we review a grassroots campaign that sought to draw attention to the realities of electricity access in rural India.
The week after the Prime Minister’s bold statement on Twitter, Video Volunteers launched a campaign to test whether the claim of “full electrification” was true or not. To do this, we put out a call to our network of 200+ Community Correspondents and asked them to corroborate this news from their own villages by sending videos or photos of the situation on-the-ground. To get more data, we also put out a notice to the public through a simple video message asking them to tell us if they didn’t have electricity in their village, settlement, or house. Our appeal was sent out via a Hindi-language video over Whatsapp and Facebook, and we encouraged our CCs to share the post widely among their communities. We reported on how profoundly people are affected by a lack of electricity in this report, which summarized the testimonies we received.
Methods & Results
In our appeal, we asked people to send in photos of themselves holding a placard showing the name, district, and state of their village. This medium gave us the raw info along with a face to put to the issue. Many of the responses we received were poignant: “I am 22 years old and my village has not had electricity for years,” said Shobha Bharti, a young woman from Salahpur Khanik Sarai Village, Uttar Pradesh.
We also published 21 unique video stories by our Community Correspondents, which were all posted to the state-specific Facebook pages run by the IndiaUnheard network. Besides this, we received #Battigul-labeled photos from 28 additional villages, as well as notifications from a further 27 villages within our network through other means.
What did our 21 videos show? In total, we directly documented approximately 10,550 individuals who lived without electricity, spread across over 24 villages, which were located across 17 districts in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh. In 11 cases, people’s houses had otherwise-functional electrical connections, but were not receiving electricity for any amount of time. In some of these cases, electricity worked briefly after the installation of the home connections but stopped after a short time, often only a few months. In total, after 10 weeks VV had documented 106 cases where villages or homes lacked working electrical connections. Of these, 74 responses were from within our own network of correspondents and 32 responses were from outside sources.
Although the results of #Battigul were published in August 2018, VV has continued to produce stories on electrification issues. Since September 2018, VV has published over 105 stories on power and electricity, often covering areas that are nominally “fully electrified” according to government data. Of these, 15 videos led to impact where the underlying issue was resolved. In the last 3 months alone, we have published 33 new videos on the topic, demonstrating that a lack of electricity is a continuing hardship for many.
Based on #Battigul data, the average length of time that villages suffered from electrification problems was nearly 8 years, according to residents’ own accounts. Some of these villages have existed for 20 or 30 without working electricity.
What are the hardships these people face due to a lack of electricity? According to those interviewed in our #Battigul videos, students encountered extreme difficulty in their studies, resorting to gas lanterns in order to read books and write their assignments. In 3 cases, residents reported having to travel to nearby villages just to be able to charge their mobile phones. Others were forced to rely on solar-powered charging devices to power their phones and other small – but essential – electronics. Some expressed fear over wild animals (including snakes) entering unseen into their homes at night.
We also documented two Anganwadi Centers (AWCs) that lacked working connections. The backbone of India’s rural public health service, Anganwadi Centers provide critical educational, medical, and nutritional resources to children and their families. Schools in these villages are also affected, and children suffer summertime heat without working fans. AWCs are unable to stockpile sensitive medical supplies, such as vaccines and certain medicines that are vulnerable to high temperatures and require refrigeration.
Some of the villages we documented still lacked electricity despite being specifically targeted by other government electrification programs. In one instance, the village of Karahanpur in Uttar Pradesh received electrical poles and household electrical switchboards under the Deendayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojana, but wires were never installed to bring electricity to people’s homes – even after residents themselves paid Rs. 290 per household to the government. The people of Karahanpur continue to wait for electricity, more than two years later. In four other villages, three in Uttar Pradesh and one in Madhya Pradesh, residents continue to receive electrical bills despite a complete lack of electrical service.
Defining “electrification”; inconsistencies in Saubhagya
As part of its “100% electrification” initiative, the government launched the Saubhagya Dashboard, an interactive website which is supposed to document the process of electrification on a village-by-village basis. It claims to note the electrification status of all census-designated villages in India on a state and district-wise basis, with month-by-month progress reports since the site’s inception in Oct. 2017.
Taken at face-value, it looks as though the government’s work is complete: as of March 2019 (the last time it has been updated), the Saubhagya site shows that India is 100% electrified, save for three districts in Naxal-affected Chhattisgarh that remain “partially electrified.” There are several problems with this claim.
For one, as mentioned above, the government uses a tenuous definition of “full electrification”. To earn this status, a village need only have 10% or more of its households with working electricity. Villages with less than 100 residents are also not counted. Finally, only those villages which are “census-designated” are counted under the Saubhagya scheme. In other words, if a village does not appear in the 2011 Census of India, then it wasn’t counted. This excludes recently-settled areas, as well as villages in exceptionally remote or treacherous areas that have been passed over by census officials.
The data obtained through the #Battigul campaign suggests that many areas have been uncounted: we documented 29 villages across 6 states that were excluded from the Saubhagya database, meaning that 24.5% of the villages VV received information from were not included in the database. Of these, 16 were not census-designated villages, and 13 others were excluded from the database for some other reason.
In an official release from the Press Information Bureau, the government revised its original deadline for full electrification from December 2018 to March. 2019. In the same press release, it stated that “Hundred percent household electrification [has been] achieved in 25 states,” yet later in the same document acknowledged the existence of unelectrified villages and households in some of the same states, particularly Uttar Pradesh.
Why else might we doubt the effectiveness of the scheme? The central government itself does not generate electrification numbers – these are instead reported by individual state governments, many of whom run their own electrification programmes. A damning report from January 2019 showed that 25 states helped meet their electrification targets under Saubhagya by simply cutting household targets, thereby raising the ratio of “fully electrified” villages versus officially non-existent unelectrified ones. The government attempted to justify the discrepancy in another press release, stating that mismatches could be explained by multiple census households sharing single connections and electrification conducted under earlier, non-Saubhagya schemes. To date, the government has not provided the public with any data to verify these claims.
Finally, the Saubhagya program has not monitored villages’ electrification status once they initially received electricity under the scheme. Because VV has documented several cases where existing electrical connections were cut without notice, it is entirely possible that villages nominally electrified under Saubhagya are now in the dark once again.
The United Nations includes access to affordable, clean energy sources as its 7th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). South Asia, including India, remains one of the two most electricity-deprived areas in the world, alongside sub-Saharan Africa. While its efforts to electrify India’s rural areas are commendable, the government has sacrificed the wellbeing of many rural residents by prematurely touting “100% electrification” in the name of political expediency. As the Battigul campaign has shown, rural electrification remains a daily issue for thousands of India’s villagers, no matter the official claims to the contrary.
Article by Connor Staggs, a William J. Clinton Fellow of the American India Foundation.