India’s progress in electrifying rural areas – first villages, and then households – has been impressive. According to the 2011 Census of India, the rural electrification rate had increased to 55% from just 44% in 2001. Since then, national electrification programs have made further progress. An original survey that I conducted in collaboration with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), for example, shows that household electrification rates have grown fast in six large, northern states of India.
Given rapid progress in rural electrification, the next challenge for India is to improve the quality of electricity service. In our survey, we found that people are by and large dissatisfied with their electricity service because of problems such as limited hours of supply. This video produced by CEEW nicely illustrates the realities of electricity access in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
As household electrification rates increase, the quality of electricity service becomes more and more important. In India, (mostly state-owned) electricity distribution companies are responsible for this service. Because politicians force these companies to offer inexpensive electricity to rural consumer and agricultural users, these companies often make a loss from supplying electricity to rural areas. The problem is made worse by pervasive electricity theft. As Harish and Tongia show with data from the state of Karnataka, distribution companies thus provide little power to rural customers at peak time, instead supplying industrial and urban customers who pay a higher tariff.
In this setting, improving the quality of rural electricity service is a chicken-and-egg problem. Rural customers are understandably unwilling to pay higher tariffs for bad service, but distribution companies cannot afford to improve the service without higher tariffs.
One of my research areas for the future is to find new solutions to this problem. I am doing field experiments, public opinion surveys, and interviews with politicians and electric utility managers to assess interventions that are both politically feasible and promise significant improvements in the situation. Now is the time to study such interventions, as rural electrification rates are rapidly improving not just in India, but across the world. All this begins with a trip to rural Uttar Pradesh in the second half of June — stay tuned for updates!