Rural Electrification in India: Problems, Progress, and the Power of Citizen’s Media

In September 2017, the Indian government launched the Saubhagya initiative, with the ambitious goal of achieving 100% electrification in all of India’s villages by a target deadline of December 31, 2018.[1] Under the program, connections are offered free-of-charge to all households, regardless of BPL (“Below Poverty Line”) or other status.[2]

Power line
Rural electrification in India has come a long way in recent years, but sill has room for improvement.

My host organization, Video Volunteers (VV), promotes community-based journalism from underrepresented communities in India. The main way VV does this is by training and maintaining a network of over 200 community correspondents who report on hyperlocal issues that otherwise receive little or no mainstream media attention. One of our major thematic areas is power and energy, and in May 2018 VV launched a campaign known as #BattiGul (Hindi: “no electricity”).

The purpose of #BattiGul was to solicit stories from those living in unelectrified areas – whether individual households or entire villages. Stories were collected by VV’s network of community correspondents, as well as through a social media campaign on Facebook and WhatsApp. Respondents were asked to submit photos or videos of themselves that included the name and location of their village, alongside a statement of “In our home/village, there is no electricity.” The goal was to give a face to those who might otherwise be lost beneath the statistical juggernaut of booming electrification numbers.

As part of my work, I recently revisited the results of the #BattiGul campaign in order to measure its scope, successes, and overall impact. In summary, we documented a total of 106 unique cases spread across eight states. Based on the video responses which included interviews with locals about their villages (and their populations), I determined that we documented a minimum of 10,550 individuals who were affected by a lack of electricity. This number does not include those living in places where we received only photos, as many of the areas we reported on are not designated as “census villages” that have available population records.

Naturally, such a campaign can’t capture all cases, since being able to report a lack of electricity through photo and video requires electricity itself. Nevertheless, VV received some 32 responses from outside of our own network of correspondents, indicating the effectiveness of social media outreach even in places with no reliable electricity – people in these areas still depend on their mobile phones for much of their livelihood. A common thread among our respondents was that many relied on solar charging kits to power their mobiles, or in worse cases they would have to travel to nearby villages with electricity just to get a full battery.

The campaign was important to VV for another reason, in that it generated a large number of stories under our recently-launched “Mojo” (mobile journalism) platform. The advent of cheap smartphones with improved photo & video capabilities has reduced the need for expensive, dedicated recording equipment, which would otherwise pose technical and financial barriers to would-be journalists.[3] VV correspondents now regularly submit video stories through this platform to our series of state-based Facebook pages, which compliment our existing IndiaUnheard network which targets a more national and international audience.  While the #BattiGul campaign was last updated in August 2018, in the nine months since then our correspondents have pitched 103 new stories that document electrification issues. Clearly, the platform is being met with acceptance and enthusiasm among our network of reporters. Most encouragingly, out of all of our published stories on power & energy, 97 of them have led to measurable, verified impacts that solved the original problem faced by the community.

India has made great strides in rural electrification even in the last two years, up from 86% coverage in October 2017 to over 95% by October 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.[4] But even in areas with the right infrastructure, electricity can still be fleeting. It is not enough to have all the wires, poles, and transformers in working order; the electricity supply itself must be able to meet consumer demand. In this regard, there is still work to be done to improve the reliability of existing connections, particularly in rural areas that may often face power cuts averaging eight hours per day.[5] As a small part of that work, Video Volunteers helps advocate on behalf of communities who are otherwise still “in the dark.”

References:

[1] “Government Launches Saubhagya Scheme for Household Electrification.” The Economic Times, 25 Sep. 2017. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/government-launches-saubhagya-scheme-for-household-electrification/articleshow/60828887.cms (9 May 2019).

[2] “Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana – Saubhagya”. National Portal of India, 22 Oct. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.india.gov.in/spotlight/pradhan-mantri-sahaj-bijli-har-ghar-yojana-saubhagya (9 May 2019).

[3] For more on mobile journalism, see Reilley, Mike. “Mobile Journalism.” Journalist’s Toolbox, 17 Mar. 2019. https://www.journaliststoolbox.org/2019/03/17/mobile_journalism/

[4] “IEA Finds India’s Rural Electrification One of Greatest Success Stories This Year.” The Economic Times, 12 Nov. 2018. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/energy/power/iea-finds-indias-rural-electrification-one-of-greatest-success-stories-this-year/articleshow/66583514.cms?from=mdr (9 May 2019).

[5] Sreekumar, N., et al. “100% Rural Electrification is Not Enough.” The Hindu BusinessLine, 26 Mar. 2019. Retrieved from https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/100-rural-electrification-is-not-enough/article26645721.ece (10 May 2019).

Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Connor is a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in Politics and a minor in South Asian Studies. After completing a summer language program in Urdu at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Lucknow, he returned to India in 2017 as an intern at the Center for Experimental Social Sciences in Pune. By serving as a Clinton Fellow with Video Volunteers in Goa, Connor is eager for the opportunity to work full-time in the social development field in India. After completing the Fellowship, Connor hopes to attend graduate school in order to continue pursuing a career in research and international development.

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