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India is a predominantly rural country. Almost 70 per cent of its 1.2 billion
people reside in over 600,000 villages. However, there is a lopsided equation
when it comes to the contribution of the rural populace to the share of GDP.
So, even with 70 per cent of the people in rural areas, the contribution of
agriculture, which is the mainstay of their gainful and productive economic
activity, has been steadily declining. It stood at about 13 per cent in 2012/13.
With the decline in the contribution of agriculture to the GDP, there have been
corresponding fall-outs like increase in rural joblessness and migration to the
urban areas. To enhance the status of civic amenities in the rural areas has
been one of the ambitious goals of the development process. Apart from
raising the standards of living in rural areas, this process is also aimed at
preventing migration to urban areas, as this process also stretches the limits of
the infrastructural facilities in cities that are already bursting at the seams.
But this process that has earned an acronym - PURA (Providing Urban
facilities to Rural Areas) - has hit a severe roadblock due to energy shortages.
Technically, the process of rural electrification has made great strides, but
there are issues related to individual connectivity, quality of power and its
duration of supply that continue to adversely impact both the quality of life
and rural productivity.
Having self-contained villages is an old Gandhian idea, propounded at length
by the father of the nation in his concept of gram swaraj or village republics.
But it is the advent of solar power technology that has provided the economic
feasibility aspect to this route of empowering the rural folk. Though his ideas
were formulated in the middle of the 20th century, these have become viable
only in the 21st century. Now, the possibility of using renewable sources of
energy like solar power, wind and biomass/gas-based power generation can
lend an entirely new dimension to the Gandhian concept of village-based rural
development and people's empowerment, with the added advantage of
harnessing science and technology for humanitarian purposes.
Currently, it takes five to six years for all conventional power projects to get
started and there is a further time-lag before the power actually reaches the
remote villages. But all the sources of renewable energy - solar, wind and
biomass - lend themselves to the setting up of power projects at a fast pace.
The raw materials are all locally available and there is virtually no restriction
on their supply. Indeed, each village can have its own power station with the
villagers being empowered stakeholders. This can be networked into the grid
systems of the state-owned or privately run utility wherever feasible or operate
as a stand-alone system. Both the models could be self-sustaining with all the
advantages of green power and eco-friendly operations.
This route of renewables for empowering rural India has an enormous
potential considering that nearly 40 per cent of the 1.2 billion-strong
population do not have much of a realistic hope of accessing grid power in the
near foreseeable future. The renewable route also offers a fresh avenue of job
creation, as the task of operating and maintaining these facilities can be
effectively achieved only by locally trained personnel. With self-help groups
gaining wider currency in the rural landscape, there is considerable scope to
extend the activity of power generation and maintenance to this network of
home-grown groups. Over the years, they have inculcated a sense of
community participation and financial discipline as well a strong
microfinancing base.
The renewable route is also becoming increasingly doable as the initial costs of
installing the devices are coming down gradually. So, a solar device that would
cost upwards of $2 per watt a few years ago, is now down to 50 cents a watt. In
this backdrop, the need of the hour is to put in place a policy framework that
enables a tripartite partnership to flourish - the industry, the consumers and
the state/regulatory authority.
A creative, forward-looking policy with the right sets of checks and balances
and initiatives would not only solve the problem of providing power to rural
India, but also in a manner in which the villagers would be empowered from
being helpless, literally powerless entities. They would enjoy the benefits of
uninterrupted power supply along with some respectable gains from their
participation in the power-generation project - solar or bio mass. For them,
the transformation from helpless, powerless rural folk living in darkness after
dusk to powerful citizens who are also power producers would be nothing
short of a revolution. The Gandhian dream of villages being self-sufficient
entities would also be realised.
Now to put in place an action plan, the government can take a two-pronged
approach. The first one being "grid connected power" and the second, "off-grid
power". In case of grid connected power, the government policy can be to
provide power first to the village or community and the balance, if any, to the
grid. For this, the local state distribution company (discom) will have to
contract with the village or group of villages, at the rate at which the discom
will buy power. This rate can be a flat rate for a fixed period of, say, 10 to 15
years. The revenue earned from this can go to the local village panchayat, or
any other local community, which can be used for further development of the
community, like building schools, hospitals, etc., and also maintenance of the
renewable energy plant. Some parts of India have small pilots running on this,
but not on a large, organised scale. The challenge with this approach would,
however, be that the state distribution or transmission company will have to
build the last-mile connectivity till the village, which can be a significant cost.
The second approach is the off-grid option. For this, the government or
financial corporations with government backing can give an initial grant to the
village or group of villages for an off-grid installation. This off-grid installation
can be a solar plant, small water hydro, biomass, etc. Depending on the
amount of power produced, each household will have a limited capacity which
they can use.
Any usage above the maximum would lead to disconnection of that household
from the power being supplied. The advantage here is that this will not only
give power that is produced locally, eliminating the need for last-mile
connectivity, but it also has the potential to provide employment to local
youth. The revenue stream here would be the payment that each village house
makes to the panchayat for what they use.
In order to limit the usage, prepaid meters can be given to the villagers. The
entire logistics can be run by the local panchayat, with the panchayat owning
up the security and equipment of the local power station. This off-grid option
is feasible for areas that are so remote that it does not make economic sense to
connect them to the grid. There are high level policies existing for off-grid and
on-grid installations. What is required, in case of on-grid, is for the local
government to take up the initiative and propagate the same in its area.
However, in case of off-grid, the private sector needs to step up to make the
business case and sell the same to local governments with the government
supporting with bank financing to the local communities so that the initial
capital costs can be covered.
With this public and private sector support, rural areas can turn around with
non-conventional sources of power.