Every Monday, the Ministry of Power announces the latest entries to the list of ‘electrified villages’. According to the GARV (Grameen Vidyutikaran) app, the current government is almost halfway through achieving its target of lighting up 18,452 non-electrified villages. As per the latest announcements, all the villages in India may get electrified by the end of 2016. Though introduction of electricity has brought hope of a comfortable and better life for the people of these villages, the challenge is far from over.

Merely fulfilling the definition of ‘village electrification’ would not translate into electricity use which can catalyze the development of rural India. The current definition is grossly inadequate: a village is deemed electrified if 10% of its total households are electrified. Supply related attributes of electricity such as the number of hours of supply and voltage of power supplied are not included in the definition. An electrified village should also have adequate infrastructure to promote productive uses of electricity and sustain increasing demand which follows electrification. Without these, the benefits of electrification would not be realised.

Consider the situation of Nagde, a village located in Yevla taluka of Nasik. Its case could come across as an exception: both handlooms and powerlooms coexist in this village. And the number of handlooms is more than that of powerlooms. About 200 of the total 650 households are involved in handloom weaving while only five households operate powerlooms. The handlooms weave traditional Maharashtrian silk saarees called Paithani and the powerlooms produce cotton white shawl called uparna. These uparnas are presented to male guests during Maharashtrian wedding ceremonies.

Nagde was electrified in the 1960s and even today, people here face at least 6 hours of load-shedding every day. Availability of three-phase power, needed for power looms, is much lesser. For only three days in a week, three-phase power is available during the day and that too for 8 hours. For the remaining four days, the village has to be content with three phase supply between mid-night and early morning.

Though handloom weaving of paithani saarees does not need electricity as such, it is still indispensable for the weavers. As their work is extremely intricate, it is difficult to weave without a tube-light on their handloom to provide focussed light across the breadth of the saaree. To carry on with their work without disruption, 80% of the weavers in the village have invested in inverters. If one has to install a new inverter today, it would cost about Rs 14000/. Majority of the weavers arrange credit for inverters by borrowing their wages in ‘advance’ from the traders for whom they weave saarees on orders. As paithani saarees are valued highly, the ‘advance’ suffices for the investment required in purchasing inverters. However, such borrowing arrangements tie these weavers to the exploitative traders which diminishes their returns, even though their product is high value.

In contrast, powerloom industry has been almost wiped out because of the long hours of power cuts. Every week, the powerlooms in the village run for the three days when power is available during the day, as the kaarigars are not willing to work at night. Moreover, as the powerlooms have heavy motive load, alternative sources of energy like diesel or inverters are financially unsustainable. Over the last two decades, the village has seen a dramatic decrease in the hours of three-phase power supply, which in turn has diminished the number of powerlooms from 150 to 10.

The case of Nagde highlights that taking electrification beyond household lighting, and promoting its productive uses (non-farm income-generating activities in this example) would require concerted effort. The current rural electrification program, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY), does not have any mandate to encourage productive uses of electricity. A significant first step would be to incorporate such uses in the mandate.

Moreover, it is crucial to go beyond the current definition of ‘village electrification’ as a goalpost of rural electrification. Government should work towards providing quality power supply to rural population whose applications go beyond basic lighting services. In this context, apart from including productive uses among the objectives of rural electrification, it would be important to designate a reasonable minimum hours of quality supply to support productive load. Implementing agencies must also make investments to ensure that distribution network can cater to growing demand due to productive activities. A useful exercise in this regard could be to assess the current and latent demand for income-generating opportunities in rural areas. Monitoring and evaluation agencies, including the Gram Vidyut Abhiyantas in the field, should include these criteria while evaluating the progress in rural electrification.

Expansion of rural electrification at a steady rate has been hailed as one of the biggest achievements of the current government. However, the journey between electrification and development is long and arduous. There are many challenging miles to be covered beyond connections.