A master political strategist from his early Gujarat days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known to time his important announcements well. Take any of his major announcements — Jan Dhan Yojana, FDI reforms, demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes — all came just at the right intervals, with a surprise element and mass appeal that puzzled even the best of his political enemies.
Monday evening’s announcement, when Modi launched the Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (Saubhagya) electricity scheme to provide 24x7 free power to all families across India by December 2018, was no different. If implemented well, the scheme could become one of the biggest pro-poor poll planks for Modi and his team for the 2019 general elections. Rahul Gandhi-led opposition camp will find it extremely difficult to find the right antidote to Modi’s pro-poor push this time. Remember, one of the major weapons of the Congress party against Modi has been that this government has failed to connect with the poor while befriending the rich.
From its design, Saubhagya scheme looks promising to reach out to the last mile. The scheme has capital outlay of Rs 16,320 crore, of which the Centre will contribute Rs 12,320 crore. As the PM rightly said, even after 70 years of Independence, 40 million out of 172 million families still lacked access to power in India. Electrification of households is critical to lift the poor to the mainstream of the society, hence Modi has taken the right step by setting the goal in a time-bound manner.
But the challenge lies in achieving a meaningful execution of the plan. In fact, electrification of rural households isn’t new item in the Modi government’s pro-poor agenda. Shortly after assumed office in May 2014, Modi had set a 1,000-days target to electrify 18,452 villages. According to data in the power ministry’s Grameen Vidyutikaran (GARV) website, 78 percent of them or 14,483 villages have been electrified till date. But, only 8 percent or 1,179 or households are 100 percent electrified so far. The trick, here, is buried in the definition of electrified households.
According to the government definition under Deendayal Upadhayaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (erstwhile Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana), a village is considered electrified if a) basic infrastructure such as distribution transformer and distribution lines are provided in the inhabited locality as well as the Dalit basti hamlet where it exists; b) electricity is provided to public places like schools, panchayat offices, health centers, dispensaries, community centers etc; and c) at least 10 percent of the total number of households in the village is electrified.
This rule, followed since October 1997, meant that a significant number of villages were classified as electrified but electricity remained a distant dream for majority of the households in those villages. This anomaly, on account of the technical definition of the electrified villages, gave an opportunity for the Modi government to present impressive numbers although the reality on the ground was radically different.
This is the reason cases like Nagla Fatela happened. Remember Modi’s Independence Day speech in 2016 when he cited this village as an example of the government’s electrification drive? “It takes only three hours to reach Nagla Fatela. But it took 70 years for electricity to reach there,” Modi said. But a report in The Indian Express on 17 August showed that Modi’s claim about Nagla Fatela, in reality, is wrong. According to the report, 450 of the 600 homes in the village do not have power. The remaining get electricity but from illegal ‘katia’ connections, which basically means they connect their homes to a transformer meant to run 22 tubewells and, in return, pay Rs 395 for two months to the Dakshinanchal Vidyut Vitran Nigam Ltd (DVVNL), the report quoted village pradhan Yogesh Kumar. This contradiction came as an embarrassment to the government. Following this, several questions followed about the actual state of implementation of various government schemes.
The December, 2018 target Modi has set for 100 percent rural electrification is quite ambitious since only 14 months are left to achieve the target. The scheme, if successfully implemented, is a win-win for the Modi government and India’s rural poor who still depend on kerosene lamps. But, in the haste to meet the ambitious target the government shouldn’t lose the true spirit of this important exercise.
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Updated Date: Sep 26, 2017 11:08:39 IST