Lighting Rural Homes – A Commitment Only Partially Honoured

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Lighting Rural Homes – A Commitment Only Partially Honoured

Barun Barpujari | October 17, 2020 14:36 hrs

We in cities and towns get terribly upset when there is load shedding and we are forced to make do with our inverters to supply to a restricted load. But do we ever pause to reflect that many in a large number of distant villages and remote areas do not have any access to electricity even today? The promise to light all homes by 2019 is with good intent and it is hoped that it will come true in real sense someday. In real sense means it is available when required, viz. between 5 pm to 11 pm. 


But, let us look at the practicality of this intent at present in the backdrop of our capability, true desire, and the effort being made to turn this noble intent into reality, at least in Assam and the North-East states of India. 


It is one thing to draw a power supply line to a remote location but another cup of tea altogether to maintain and sustain the network consisting of lines, sub-stations and transformers etc. The harsh terrain of this region, coupled with natural calamities like repeated floods and landslides do not make it any easier to maintain these grids. Moreover, in view of the sparse population in the remote locations and hence low demand, grid-based power supply is economically unsustainable. And this reduces the pressure from the commercial standpoint to maintain the grids with due urgency. 


To add to this, there is also the issue of availability of power – against an installed generating capacity of 280 MW (about 15 percent of total peak demand), the generation is just around 150 MW. Of course, power can be imported from other states, but at a cost. Thus, reaching steady, sustained power to the remote locations of Assam in the immediate future appears to be a pipe dream. While a serious and sincere effort to reach electricity to remote households must continue, a different strategy/ approach would be more pragmatic to light up homes in remote areas in the immediate and interim period. It is unethical to promise and then deprive the residents of remote villages of electricity just because they do not have the voice to demand the same.


In the absence of electricity supply, the poor people and those living in remote areas use crude wicker lamps (bottles with wicks inserted through the stopper go as kerosene lamps) for meeting the lighting needs. Inhalation of smoke emanating from incomplete combustion of kerosene is highly detrimental to health. During the winter season, with doors and windows shut, the environment inside the house becomes viciously polluted and this air is inhaled by the inhabitants with consequent adverse impact on their health. Women and children, who largely remain confined indoors after dusk, are the worst sufferers. It is also reported that in India, about 2.5 million people, including   350,000 children, meet with kerosene related accidents. 

This is another very important aspect that needs to be kept in mind.


Providing a clean, safe and reliable source of power/ lighting would obviate the above problems while having the undernoted additional benefits,


(i) Womenfolk and artisans may engage in income-generating activities like weaving, making handicrafts, and food products like “pithas”, pickles, fruit juice etc. after completing their daily household chores, thereby supplementing the family’s income; this is essential as the income from the family’s generally small agricultural landholding is not adequate to support a family to meet the obligations of higher education of children, medical requirement etc.

(ii) Children may study after sunset under improved quality lighting. Improved education would provide these children with a more level playing ground in a growing competitive environment. The digital model of education would also reach these children to supplement their learning efforts.

(iii) Facilitate implementation of the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) announced recently.

Much is made of India’s demographic dividend. However, this would only accrue if the youth are healthy and skilled to participate meaningfully in the country’s growth process. And it must not be forgotten that a large section of the youthful population resides in remote villages. And this discussion is in the backdrop of the Union Government’s clarion call for AtmaNirbhar Bharat!


Grid-based power, on a steady and sustained basis, may reach remote villages sometime in the distant future. In the interim period, these communities would be well served by solar solutions such as solar home lighting systems, micro-mini solar grids, and even solar lanterns. Such solar solutions have had wonderful success stories across the country, in fact across the globe. They are likely to work here as well. In due course, these mini-grids may be connected to the grid to boost power supply voltage towards the tail end of the grids. It is acknowledged that some work towards the electrification of villages through solar solutions has been done. 


However, a more systematic approach to cover the remaining large number of villages within a specific timeframe needs to be undertaken in real earnest. Much can be achieved if the intent is genuine. 


For example, the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan driven aggressively by the Central Government has succeeded to put in place a large number of toilets across the country thereby reducing the practice of open defecation. A similar intent and approach by the Govt. of Assam with regard to reaching electricity to individual homes in remote areas, either through grid-based power supply or through off-grid/mini-grid renewable energy solutions will yield considerable success and benefit to the people. However and very importantly, the development of the ecosystem to maintain these solar solutions must also be taken up simultaneously. 


It is reported that Assam has a hydropower potential of the order of 541 MW against which only 2.00 MW has been harnessed. In all probability, this too is not functional at present. The hilly areas of the State also have good small hydropower potential as small streams can be harnessed for decentralized power generation through small hydro development. APGCL has reportedly identified 93 small hydropower plant sites with a total potential of 159.37 MW. AEDA had also identified 6 small hydropower plant sites having a total potential of 2.21 MW. 


As reported, presently there is no operative small hydropower plant in the state. Due to lack of road communication in the difficult terrains where most of small hydro sites are located in the state, the tapping of this resource has become difficult. Putting in place all-weather roads to these locations could facilitate harnessing this potential to provide power to neighbouring villages. This certainly cannot be a tall order considering the possible benefits to be accrued. The Governments, in the past as well as the present, have done very little towards this end. This needs to change.


Assam should also seriously consider harnessing the huge potential of hydrokinetic power from the mighty river Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Tapping green power and energy, including biogas from agriculture wastes etc. should be a priority area of development for the state government. Assam could contribute immensely to India’s Renewable Power agenda.


Perhaps AEDA, which has done some exemplary work, could be vested with the responsibility of putting up mini/micro- grids in villages that consistently do not receive electric power between say, 5 pm to 11 pm to begin with. Thereafter, the remaining villages could be taken up in phases. Of course, AEDA would need to be adequately staffed to take up this responsibility.


It is also important that the beneficiaries be brought out of the expectancy of receiving all conveniences for gratis. Nothing should be given free for people to realize the value of the goods or services provided. There has to be an ownership feeling which is only generated from paying for goods and services provided.


Meanwhile, the corporate sector operating in Assam may also be encouraged to take up the electrification of remote villages through solar solutions as part of their CSR initiative. 


Some time back, the installation and commissioning of a 35 KW grid-interactive solar PV power plant along with some other renewable energy facilities at Raj Bhawan made the news. While AEDA needs to be applauded for this effort, it would be more meaningful if the Govt. directs its efforts in the future towards systematic electrification of remote villages through solar and mini-hydro solutions, as mentioned earlier in this article.


Food for thought!


(The author is the former Executive Director of Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. The views expressed in the article are his own.)
 

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