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Power for All: The Road Ahead for India’s Rural Electrification Drive

India's rural electrification drive | Image credit: Reuters

India's rural electrification drive | Image credit: Reuters

As India seeks to build on its past achievements in the electricity sector, quality service delivery electricity, improved customer experience and better financial health for the DISCOMs should take the centre stage.

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Jaideep Mukherji

Over the past decade, India has witnessed remarkable progress in providing universal access to electricity. The Government of India has set out to achieve the objective of 24x7 affordable 'Power for All' with a commitment of improving the quality of life of its citizens. However, the achievement of this objective faces one of the monumental task of ensuring sustainability of rural electricity supply down to the last mile. This continues to remain a major challenge for the second most populous country in the world. Numerous initiatives undertaken in the past to bring in sustainable access to electricity in rural India have not yielded the desired outcome. As a result, the objective of enhancing electricity service to customers and improving the viability of the last mile electricity service delivery remains majorly unfulfilled.

Strengthening India’s electricity delivery model

A major reason for this is the existing systemic flaws and operational inefficiencies at the distribution level where the state-run DISCOMs play a crucial role in supplying power to the last-mile customer. However, our experience in the mini-grid program has shown that improved electricity supply leads to positive payment behaviour among customers which, then, contributes to enhanced viability of rural electricity supply. Quality of electricity supply is a critical determinant for enhancing the financial health of the DISCOMs. We introduced an Energy Services Framework (ESF) based on past learnings from both on-grid and mini-grid eco-system. Unlike the traditional electricity distribution model, ESF provides a robust framework incorporating rural customer centric focus, sound governance principles, a balanced approach to risk-reward sharing mechanisms, best in class operating practices and prudent regulatory mechanisms to ensure operational efficiency and better financial performance.

Placing customer engagement at the centre of energy delivery

Engagements at the grass-roots level with rural electricity customers will not only improve the quality of the services, but also, will create ample economic opportunities in the form of jobs, micro-enterprises, and modern agriculture practices. Models such as this has immense potential to be replicated throughout the country for enhancing our rural electrification mission. Although India has achieved universal electrification in 2018, a large majority of people in rural India are still unable to have reliable and affordable electricity. The Energy Services Framework (ESF) incentivises the electricity demand growth, leading to improved customer service quality and reliability. A major issue plaguing the power sector (downstream) was weak customer engagement and poor service quality. As India looks to usher in a new era of growth in the power sector, innovative and proven models like this needs to find wider adoption and acceptance. Additionally, ESF ensures that DISCOMs operations are sustainable, implying that better financial performance and increased revenue inflow. The framework also believes that there is a greater role for the Electricity Regulatory Commission in ensuring that the last mile electricity services is customer centric and it provides quality and affordable electricity for all.

For example, we partnered with the State Governments and DISCOMs in the states of Bihar and Odisha to validate the ESF and make sure that it has potential in improving the state of electricity access in the states. The interventions made under ESF programme led to a sizable improvement in electricity access, reliability, and quality of service.

Improving electricity access through community engagement

Women Self Help Groups (WSHGs) have immense understanding of the villages they live in and the issues they face. WSHGs have been instrumental in polio vaccination or creating village level awareness around social issues. As the rural electrification drive gathers momentum, it is important to think about innovative and indigenous solutions to address the existing gaps. Engaging WSHGs will not enhance the community engagement and encourage adoption of new connections but also timely bill payments and grievance redressal. For example, we introduced an initiative called ‘Bijuli Didis’ selected from the WSHGs who work as electricity service agents. This kind of innovative practice to improving rural electricity access will have multiple benefits. It not only provides those engaged a livelihood option but also helps in creating a localized electricity distribution service. Such engagements with village level WSHGs will bring in a new dimension into electricity customer service to rural communities with improved customer experience and service quality.

As India seeks to build on its past achievements in the electricity sector, quality service delivery electricity, improved customer experience and better financial health for the DISCOMs should take the centre stage. The strong positive correlation between service quality and electricity demand clearly outlines how quick wins can be achieved by redirecting DISCOM’s focus towards enhanced electricity access and customer engagement. Small steps such as engagement with local communities, innovative localized service delivery models and increased customer centricity will not only help DISCOMs reap rich financial dividends but will also ensure reliable access to electricity for 1.3 billion Indians.

The author, Jaideep Mukherjee, is the CEO of Smart Power India.


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