Power for all with ‘one nation, one grid and one price’ is a powerful slogan, albeit difficult to back. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s campaign to provide electricity connection to four crore households by next year-end is a positive. After having driven the initiative to take power to over 640,000 villages, the proposal to cover four crore families is an ambitious target.
It’s but natural for Modi’s pathological opponents to snigger at the proposal. They would undoubtedly raise questions about the intentions of BJP-led NDA in this Rs 16,320 crore project soubhagya. While the Centre would bear the major chunk of the cost, only 10 per cent will be contributed by states in this mammoth drive to be spearheaded by state-run Rural Electrification Corporation.
Apart from instilling confidence in the four crore families that have hitherto lived in darkness, access to electricity would translate into making water available, facilitate education of children under LED bulbs, make living more comfortable and lead to huge cumulative economic benefits. Equally, there’s no denying that Modi is targeting these very families to garner votes for the ruling alliance.
Not too long ago, Arvind Kejriwal romped home to power with the promise of free power and water to a huge chunk of his electorate in the national capital region. Similarly, he managed to slash power bills by half for more that 30 per cent consumers in Delhi. UPA had also assumed power for two successive terms at the Centre after encashing on the promise of providing 100 days compulsory work for those below the poverty line in rural India. Education and healthcare as electoral slogans for re-election to a third term did not work for Congress-led UPA in 2014 because of the alternative socio-economic right wing narrative offered by Modi.
Garibi hatao was again a powerful slogan through which Indira Gandhi emerged as the undisputed charismatic leader, aided by the glorious political heritage of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Having provided a corruption-free, fairly clean government for over three years, the prime minister has done well for himself by making electricity an electoral weapon ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections and assembly polls in five states.
However, the obvious limitations of this project cannot be overlooked. For instance, when Modi claims that India was power surplus vis-à-vis darkness of 2012, he may have only stated some home truths. While over 20,000 mw fresh capacities have been added annually in the last four years, the fact is that most power plants — coal fired, gas run or naphtha fuelled — are running at about 55 per cent plant load factor.
This not just makes the capacities grossly unutilised, but the power availability would be that much lower. The average Rs 3 per unit cost of power may perhaps make the electricity connection ineffective given the poor purchasing power of BPL families in particular.
Electricity connections may turn out to be like cooking gas linkages, which were provided with all good intentions. Not many BPL families may afford to buy gas cylinders at over Rs 900. If cooking gas is not affordable, gas stove and connection may not mean much. Over 1.5 crore bank accounts may have been opened under the Jan Dhan Yojana, but unless the account holders see some cash in these accounts, it does not make much difference to their lives.
Unless, electricity is sold at subsidised rates to BPL families, providing power connection alone may not work. One way of getting over this limitation is to extend the direct benefits transfer scheme to power. Through this, a chunk of power bill may be subsidised.