A Nation in the Dark: Increasing energy access across India

A funny thing happened last week. I was flying back from Glasgow after completing my postgraduate studies to Kolkata and no sooner than fifteen minutes had I stepped into my house a familiar hum of the backup batteries told me that we had experienced a power cut. Like most other Indians quite accustomed with such an occurrence, we resorted to humour. “Fifteen minutes have an energy management student stepped in and the power’s gone!” we said. As always, the fact that we were sitting in one of the major metropolitan cities of India and yet experiencing a power cut was lost in bad humour.

A power cut (or a blackout, brownout or power outage) might be quite unknown to a western audience but is sadly quite a daily occurring in large parts of Africa and India. On the 30th of July 2012 high temperatures in the Northern part of India led to extreme levels of energy demand. Not being able to handle such a surge, the unstable distribution system collapsed like a domino chain. Within a couple of hours, 620 million people or about 9% of the global population were directly affected. It took almost 15 hours to restore almost 80% of the 32 GW capacity that had gone offline. On the 14th of August 2003, about 55 million were affected when the north-eastern grid of the United States collapsed. The outage stopped trains, elevators and disrupted the flow of traffic and water supply in parts of New York, New Jersey, etc. Developed or not, we cannot just do without energy.

Energy started controlling us ever since the day the first human lit a fire. Ages later, nothing much has changed. Modern energy controls our alarms, transportation systems, water mains, our communication systems. It allows us to be more productive, increase the daylight and improve our health and education. It is impossible to achieve the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000 without providing universal access to clean and sustainable energy. In fact, the need for a clean and efficient energy system for all is so important that energy have been included among the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved in the next fifteen years (starting from 2015). They’ve always been a close correlation between income levels and access to modern energy and unsurprisingly most of the poorer nations lack a complete coverage of energy. The International Energy agency (IEA) have however indicated that positive steps are being taken around the world. In states in the latest edition of the World Energy Outlook (WEA2016) that hundreds of millions have attained modern energy access in China and India in the recent years. It attributes this development to factors such as rapid economic development, rapid urbanisation and ongoing energy access programmes. Yet, an estimated 1.2 billion people (16% of the global population) do not have access to electricity and about 2.7 billion (30% of the global population) rely on primitive methods of using biomass for cooking.




A question arises to what can be considered as ‘modern energy’. In a rough sense of the term, it refers to sustainable energy systems which can be delivered to a consumer without affecting their health and allowing them a greater freedom to pursue their own interests. It enhances the life of the economically vulnerable in many ways. Electricity is considered to be a modern energy as it is cheap and clean at its point of use. It provides efficient lightning, increases daylight hours, provides modern and efficient irrigation and increases the shelf-life of foods by allowing for efficient refrigeration systems. Natural gas allows for clean and efficient cooking. However, it should be noted that just because the usage of an energy is ‘clean’ it might not be clean energy entirely. An increase in electricity demand fuelled by modern consumer usage and appliances might reduce direct emissions but as long as the ‘sourcing’ of the energy is not being done through renewables, hydrogen, carbon capture systems and other ‘green’ technologies, indirect emissions will continue to rise. Similarly, even as natural gas allows for a ‘cleaner’ cooking environment, it increases overall emissions. However that being said, such energy systems are definitely far better than the ones they replace. The direct benefactors are usually women and children who often have to travel large distances to collect firewood and water. Energy access allows for this effort being invested into education, greater healthcare, literacy and increased manufacturing, production due to increased daylight hours.

“Each year, around 3.5 million premature deaths can be attributed to household air pollution resulting from the traditional use of solid fuels, such as fuel wood and charcoal.”                                                  International Energy Agency – World Energy Outlook

There remains no internationally accepted definition of what constitutes ‘energy access’ or the guidelines needed to determine if a region has or doesn’t have access to the energy grid. However, through looking at global trends of electrification, some common themes can be noticed. This (as listed out by the IEA) are –

  • Household access to a minimum level of electricity.
  • Household access to a safer and more sustainable energy system.
  • Access to modern energy that enables productive economic activity, e.g. mechanical power for agriculture, textile and other industries.
  • Access to modern energy for public services, e.g. electricity for health facilities, schools and street lightning.
  • Other issues related to supply collectively referred to as ‘quality of supply’ such as technical availability, adequacy, reliability, convenience and affordability.

The energy consumption in any household is dictated by the availability, affordability and specific usage characteristics. Thus, any energy system needs to be able to supply energy specific to the usage pattern while being affordable. This balance is necessary for a shift to a sustainable energy system. While a policy aimed at extending energy access should promote energy affordability, it should also make sure that ‘cheap’ energy does not promote overconsumption and wastage (Rebound Effect) while allowing for a slow transition towards cleaner and more environment-friendly fuels.


Increasing energy access has always been a major problem for the Indian economy. In 1950, India had just 1.7 GW of installed capacity with only 3,061 villages with an access to electricity. A countrywide programme aimed at increasing energy access has been going on since then with varied degrees of success. While it can be acknowledged that the target is indeed high, the rate of electrification have been woefully slow at times and often contrasting central and state regimes means the success differentiates across state boundaries. So while Bihar has 31% of rural households with access, neighbouring West Bengal has 70% of households with electricity access (2014 figures).


Groundwork into electrification started soon after independence with the Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) being set up in 1969 to work with state and central electricity boards to secure financing for rural electrification and irrigation pump-sets. The Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutkaran Yojana launched in 2005 was the first directed approach towards increasing electricity reach in Indian villages. With a change in the central government with the BJP coming to power, this was replaced with the DeenDayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojana in 2014. The new scheme essentially separated the agricultural and non-agricultural components of supplying power, increased importance of maintaining a strong transmission and distribution sector and primarily pushed for including all Indian villages in the energy grid by 2016 end (we’re going to miss this deadline).

However a problem remains with getting a realistic definition for ‘electrification’. The Indian Government used to define it as “if electricity is used within its perimeter or revenue area for any purpose whatsoever”. This definition has since been updated to “if the basic infrastructure such as distribution and transmission facilities exist; electricity is provided to public places like schools, panchayat offices, health centres, dispensaries, community centres, etc.; the number of electrified households electrified should e 10% of the total number of households in the village.” This effectively means that a village is listed as being electrified if only 10% of its residents have access to an electricity connection. This is quite alarming. Firstly because this means the status of being ‘electrified’ is being pushed forward without ensuring complete electrification. The Indian government calls a 100% coverage as ‘intensive electrification’ and lists them out separately (but advertises the former). Read more about it here. The second point to be looked at is determining if the consumers can actually afford the energy. India is a land of subsidies and the low energy prices make it possible (with additional support in cases) for the economically vulnerable to access the energy. The question remains regarding the usage. The LED light distribution scheme by the government have allowed a mass-market distribution of a demand management system and India aims to incorporate a modern smart-metering system. However, appliances are often quite costly and the low electricity prices do not help in reducing the need for better food storage, cooking facilities, etc.

The 92% electrification achieved status is not a win against poverty. It is but just a battle won with miles to go before we achieve every citizen’s right to have access to clean, sustainable energy. Hurdles remain in the form of gathering finance as well as convincing citizens to shift to newer and better energy systems. The latter can be seen as a rise in electrification rates not producing a similar rise in energy consumption rates. Financial schemes such as Ujjwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY) and Integrated Power Development Scheme (IPDS) aim at increasing energy access while improving the power systems in the country. I will come back to the financial schemes in a separate post.

Written by Sagnik Ghoshal

Please leave your comments and opinions.

Data sources:

Image 01 – World Energy Outlook (IEA)

Image 02, 03 – Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (IEA/World Bank)

Image 04 – Central Electricity Authority

Image 05 – World Energy Outlook (IEA)

Further Reading:

India Energy Outlook (World Energy Outlook Special Report) 2015 by International Energy Agency [September, 2015]


World Energy Outlook 2016 by International Energy Agency [November, 2016]


Sustainable Energy for All: Strategic Framework for Results |2016-21| by SE4All [June, 2016]


Energy Access in India – Today and Tomorrow by Council on Energy, Environment and Water [June, 2014]


The Impact of Energy on Women’s Lives in Rural India by World Bank Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme [January, 2004]






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