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Why India needs to give more love to off-grid power

Selco technician installing solar panel (Pic: courtesy globalenvision.org)

The vote garnering slogan for leading political parties in the 1960s and 1970s used to be roti, kapada, makaan (food, clothing, shelter). In the past decade or so, the slogan has been replaced with bijli, sadak, pani (electricity, roads, water). At a felicitation ceremony last year, Nandan Nilekani commented that even the latter slogan is passe; “Today, it’s all virtual things — it’s about UID (unique identification) number, mobile phone and bank account.” As Chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India, it’s but natural for Mr. Nilekani to evangelize UID at every available opportunity. Without an appropriate context, the comment could easily be picked up by a student of French revolution and misconstrued as “since they clearly have a lot of bread, why not some cake”? In his defence, Mr. Nilekani goes on to add “We believe soft infrastructure is as important as hard infrastructure.”

The year is 2011 and it doesn’t take a Sherlock to conclude that the slogan bijli, sadak, pani has NOT outlived its usefulness. Not just as a rallying cry but also as a proof point for superior governance — the recent landslide reelection victory by Bihar’s Nitish Kumar has demonstrated that.

According to the Ministry of Power, 84% of India’s 593,732 villages were electrified as of Dec 31, 2009. At a launch event declaring Kerala’s Palakkad district as the first fully electrified district in the country, Power Minister Sushil Shinde also made the bold assertion that “The country would become self sufficient in electricity production and electric equipment within one and a half years.”

96,106 villages in 24 months – piece of cake, I say! Also, what does “village being electrified” really mean? The original official definition was: if electricity was being used within its revenue area for any purpose whatsoever. This definition was revised in October 1997 to: if electricity is used in the inhabited area within the revenue boundary of the village for any purpose. This rather tenuous definition means a village with at least one electricity line connected to the grid. When you start looking at households, the real picture emerges – a mere 53% of rural households have access to electricity. And what kind of access? About 400 million Indians lose electricity access during blackouts – most of the affected are people in poor rural areas.

Electricity losses in India during transmission and distribution are extremely high and vary between 30 to 45%. To put things in perspective, the corresponding number in United States is 6.5%. This humongous transmission and distribution loss percentage is a sobering reminder that on-grid production increases can only happen in tandem with investments in upgrading/building of “smart grids” that will reduce the losses.

So what do you say to the village kid in rural India looking for a light to read? Umm…

Fortunately a whole host of renewal and alternative energy players have better answers and have started providing solutions to the rural market. Stay tuned for coverage of these new off-the-grid energy players.