Friday, 10 February 2012

Politics: a spoil sport?

In a village in Bihar, irrigation being carried out 
using diesel pump dur to lack of electricity

In India, electricity not only plays a vital role in development (like all other countries) (electricity access classified as basic amenity in Human Development Report 2001) but also in politics (unique characteristic). Electrification efforts in India started soon after the independence recognising its role in development. However, there has been a tussle between development and politics for claiming credit to electrification. This may have resulted in the constantly changing (some may say evolving) definitions of rural electrification in India. The result has also been changing focus of electrification. With development as its target, electrification first focused on rural industries. This was probably to develop the rural economy and create jobs in the sector. It must be remembered that as per census of India 2001, about 70% of India’s population lived in rural areas. This figure would have been bigger post independence. Hence, focus on rural industries and job creation would not only have fulfilled the development goals but also kept the rural voters happy.  

Later, during 1960s, with the emergence of Green Revolution and introduction of high yielding varieties of crops, the focus of electrification was shifted to agriculture. Energising irrigation pumps became a priority for the government. With focus on agriculture, politics started playing out in the fields and electricity started turning political around late 1970s. Focus on irrigation fulfilled twin political motives of strengthening food security and increasing farmer incomes. As a result of this, farmers could be organised into groups with focused voting for any one party. Electricity subsidy as a political tool was first used during 1977 elections in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The promise of flat-rate tariff during elections helped the Congress government to get re-elected. This in other ways was replicated in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, where government started offering free electricity to several groups of farmers. Subsequently, this strong political device was realised and implemented in other states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana etc. All these states offer ‘low tariff’ or ‘no tariff’ for electricity. This political move can be credited for:
  • Instilling bad accountability and management culture in the electricity sector
  • Availability of low quality power to consumers
  • Accelerated ground water depletion
Recently, change in electrification definition by Government of India in 2004 seems to have brought goals of inclusive development back to the table. The new definition of rural electrification presented on Rajeev Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna (RGGVY) website, is as follows.
A village would be declared as electrified, if :
  • Basic infrastructure such as Distribution Transformer and Distribution lines are provided in the inhabited locality as well as the Dalit Basti hamlet where it exists. 
  • Electricity is provided to public places like Schools, Panchayat Office, Health Centers, Dispensaries, Community centers etc. 
  • The number of households electrified should be at least 10% of the total number of households in the village.
This definition seeks include the poorest of the poor (dalits) in electrification coverage and also focuses on household electrification. However, the focus seems to have shifted from agriculture. The Bihar (a northern state of India) chief minster recently pointed this out that under RGGVY scheme low capacity transformers (16 and 25 kVA) and single-phase connections are installed in villages, which cannot be used for pumping irrigation water (8th March 2011 article in Patna edition of ToI). This raises questions of development, considering as per the 2001 census about 57% of the main workforce of the country is involved in agriculture and allied activities. Dubas and Rajan also point out in the special focus on the backward sections of the society may also be as a result of the growing political power of the backward rural communities. Also, growing political power of backward rural communities may be credited for the special focus of electrification on backward sections of society. Political changes have also been credited for abundaning of the predecessor scheme of RGGVY.
Much is still left to discuss about this nexus between electricity and politics. However, I will keep this for subsequent post and end by saying that this nexus between electrification and politics has had serious impacts not only on the sector, electrification efforts but also the environment (water table). Decoupling them may not be the ideal solution rather balancing them carefully may help.


  1. You raise some very valid concerns about marriage between electricity and politics. In India, perhaps very little in the development field has been left 'unpoliticised' and whether it is the National Rural Health Mission, Midday Meal Scheme or Tribal Forest Rights.

    Thanks for sharing this, I'm planning on following you on your journey :)

    1. thanks a lot Chandni. I agree completely, very little in development field (for that matter, in any field) has been left un politicised in India. This is just a snapshot.

      Well, come to think of it, its not just India. Politics at international level plays its part in beginning/ end of grants at world bank, ADB and others.