Note: This is a joint post with Eugenie Dugoua, a Ph.D. student in Sustainable Development in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

There is no doubt that India has made rapid progress in rural electrification in recent years. Comparing the 2001 and 2011 Censuses of India, the household electrification rate in rural areas increased from 43.5% to 55.3% despite rapid population growth at the same time. Since then, progress in rural electrification has continued thanks to the government’s flagship electrification programs. By now, almost all villages in India are electrified.

And yet, hundreds of millions of households remain without electricity. Understanding the factors that contribute to low electrification rates in some areas is thus a necessary input to any policy framework that aims to universalize energy access within India. Why do some communities have stubbornly low electrification rates, and why do some households within electrified communities remain without domestic electricity?

In a recent paper (Energy Policy, forthcoming), we examined patterns of rural electrification using data from the 714 villages covered in the freely available ACCESS dataset. With the ACCESS survey conducted in 2014-2015, we matched all 714 villages to the 2011 Census data to assess changes in household electrification rates. For all villages in the dataset, we thus had information on changes in the household electrification rate between 2011 and 2014-2015.

Our analysis shows that geographic inequalities in household electrification have decreased significantly. While distance to the nearest town and the geographic area of the village are robust predictors of low electrification rates in the 2011 Census, they no longer predict such rates in the ACCESS survey. India’s rural electrification programs have been successful in extending the grid to remote households in sparsely populated areas.

Unfortunately, other inequities remain. Both household income and caste composition remain predictors of electrification. Villages populated by poor and/or low-caste households have lower electrification rates both in the 2011 Census and the more recent ACCESS survey. The same pattern holds if we look at differences between households within electrified villages.

To the extent that India’s rural electrification program seeks to universalize access to modern energy, these results suggest that finding solutions to social, as opposed to geographic, inequities should be the government’s next top priority. Policies that allow poor and socially marginalized households, instead of just villages, to benefit from household electrification are the next step on the path to offering every Indian affordable and abundant modern energy.

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