In villages with microgrids, everyone’s waiting for ‘real power’

Activist Sunanda Patwardhan was in her office in interior Jawhar district, one morning last year, when a local Warli woman angrily demanded to see her. She had just returned from Mumbai and what she had witnessed left her incensed. “Two-three fans in one room, tubelights, many bulbs, moving pictures, mixer, fridge, washing machine, everything can run on their grids, and ours? Even the light that comes from our bulbs is weak,” she fumed.

Patwardhan tried to console her, saying she would have to pay more than the flat rate she paid now for electricity. “I don’t know all that. What I do know is we are being given less and they are being given more. Tai (sister), you fix it,” she said as she stormed off.

Patwardhan smiles. “She knew even without an education and without knowing any science, that the electricity that comes off the microgrid is not the same,” she says.

Inequality from access to electricity comes in many forms. One is the lack of access itself and the second is access to a watered-down version. The first allows consumers’ free reign of use, the latter requires consumers to consider the collective good. The first comes from privilege, the latter from the interminable wait to be hooked up to the grid.

When Tulsabai Sankhwad, 42, became sarpanch of Arjapur, in Biloli, Maharashtra, her first act in 2015 was to give electricity to the Masanjogi gully, a narrow strip of slums, the nomadic community had been consigned to since the 1960s. For the first time, there are streetlights along its narrow lane, and in her house, a tubelight, a bulb, and a mixer. The electricity is not constant. As evening falls, they still sometimes sit in the dark, but that it comes on at all is a big change.

One of the small repercussions of enforced representation policies in local body politics has been the widening of access to power, real power.

“Whether the electricity comes from the conventional grid or the solar microgrid, to the recipient, electricity is electricity,” says Debajit Palit, associate director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) for rural energy and livelihoods. In Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, Palit tells of villages that differentiate between “asli bijli” (real electricity) and “chhoti bijli” (little electricity).

“They join the queue of people who keep waiting for the government grid,” Palit says. The distinction between ‘asli’ and ‘chhoti’ bijli or electricity emanating from microgrids, or solo solar panels that provide enough power to charge just one mobile phone or one low watt bulb, is commonplace in the villages of the have-nots. The terms are self-explanatory: renewable electricity is temporary, a stop gap arrangement.

Remarkably, there is no real study conducted on the factors that influenced the distribution of electricity amongst villagers and towns over the past 70 years. But even as the push to reduce the queue intensifies, it is apparent that those in line have lived with many deprivations.

Some indicators are available in a paper titled, ‘Inequalities in LPG and electricity consumption: The role of caste, tribe and religion.’ Authored by Vibhor Saxena, economist from the University of StAndrews,and Prabir Bhattacharya, Herriot-Watt University, UK, they used data from the 68th National Sample Survey Organisation data (2011-12) of 87,753 households, to identify inequalities in access to electricity and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) amongst scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Muslims. Saxena and Bhattacharya point out that since the aim of electrification was to increase food output until 2004, households remained neglected. Because irrigation was the priority, wealthy and upper caste farmers had prime pickings and everyone else relied on theft and leakages.

“In the urban areas too, it is claimed that the supply of electricity is least interrupted in those areas where the members of high-income social groups generally live,” the paper points out.

Major factors influencing lack of access are linked to location. Scheduled castes, tribes and Muslims have lived in socio-economically backward locations, remote areas, or where urban, in ghettos. In rural areas, they live in segregated areas. Lack of law enforcement in urban slums allows for illegal access to electricity but also results in penalties.

Using econometrics, the authors quantify how “the impacts of education, household income, age and other determinants of access to modern energy goods may be unfavourably skewed against marginalised social groups.” They considered access to a ration card, the household’s main occupation, average age of members, size, ownership of dwelling, and ‘ceremonies’ over the last 30 days, the logic being that families that have held ceremonies consume 109KW of electricity while the average consumption is 87KW.

Ration cards are found to enable access to public goods and services and those with them are found to consume higher electricity. Households, whose primary occupation is agriculture, consume 6.2% less electricity than non-agricultural households. The authors outline how it is all interlinked.

Access to these depends on higher income, higher education levels, better health of members, which, in turn, depends on access to clean water and cooking fuels, which is linked to access to electricity.

What is significant is, after accounting for income and education, there is a difference in the likelihood of access between caste and social status. This indicates the prevalence of social bias. The study indicates that even amongst the marginalised groups, the scheduled tribes have the lowest probability of access.

According to the study, “In the case of electricity usage, scheduled tribes have the lowest predicted outcome followed by scheduled caste households. Muslims households have a predicted outcome larger than all social groups, including upper caste households.”

Predicted probability of electricity usage rises as we move from illiterate to highly-educated category households. Estimates of discrimination are more likely to be relevant for scheduled tribes and castes than Muslim households, the authors conclude.

At the policy level, while there are many schemes and interventions to overcome inequalities in general, the authors call for pointed interventions in access to electricity for marginalised households.

The issue of equitable access across caste and community lines has been neglected, and due to the push for complete electrification, is becoming less critical, says N Sreekumar, a Hyderabad-based analyst at Prayas.

“We believe that there are political pressures to decide which 10% gets electrified first and the routes of the electricity lines. But with the drive for 100% electrification, this question is less critical,” he says. As connectivity proliferates, microgrids will soon take on the supporting role.

Ashwini Chitnis, also an analyst at Prayas, points out that the issue most renewable grids are facing today is how to stave off redundancy and play that supplementary role.

“There is no doubt that connectivity to the main grid allows consumers greater freedom of usage and is also more cost-effective as it spreads the cost over a larger consumer base. The microgrid is not sustainable in terms of cost for heavy usage.”

As the march towards 100% electrification picks up pace, the issues of sustainable and equitable use, remain. The long-term solution will be for renewable energy sources to feed into the main grid, experts say. So far, it’s been one or the other. A determined blending requires an understanding of the lack of equity, and that has not been quantified. As for consumers, who hope to consume as equals, the never-ending cycle of consumption is triggered to the point of inclusion. Everyone’s waiting for asli bijli now.

Source- Hindustan Times