Why active community ownership is key to rural electricity access in India

Arianna Tozzi, an India-based researcher, explains how community involvement can provide a sense of empowerment and lead to long-term sustainability of solar mini-grids

Photo credit: Adam Barr @admbrr

In India, 93% of urban households use electricity as the main source of lighting, compared with 55% in rural areas. How to get power to that widely dispersed rural population (estimated at 25,000 to 50,000 villages) is a key goal of the central government, but major questions surround the efficacy of electrification by grid extension.

Technical and economic constraints turn grid expansion in remote areas into a challenging and costly affair. Often slipping down the political agenda and unattractive to private investors, these communities often lack basic institutional, economic and technical infrastructures, representing the most challenging segment to delivering modern and clean energy to all.

In recent months, I visited some of these tribal villages, where Gram Oorja, a social enterprise, has installed village-scale solar mini-grids (SMGs), powering households, streetlights and local commercial activities throughout the day. The installations are conducted in partnership with a local NGO that provides local knowledge and interaction with communities.

The model implemented is community-owned. Local representatives form a Village Energy Committee (VEC), which is accountable for operation of the plant: from setting energy tariffs and penalties, to enforcement of rules and holding regular community meetings to discuss issues. A local operator is trained to take care of the technical operation and collect tariffs based on metered consumption from each house. The capital costs for installation are provided through CSR grants from corporations, whereas operating and O&M costs are covered by tariffs, rendering the village financially autonomous for its energy provision.

Clear lines of responsibility

Community-ownership structures have been tested in various forms in developing countries across Asia and Africa. Many of these implementations reveal how self-governance have the highest likelihood for success, particularly in remote areas, due to the ability to create more effective forms of governance and better responsiveness to local challenges.

Yet some early experiments failed for various reasons. For example, the central government’s Village Energy Security Program (VESP) in India, which used a community-ownership model to manage biogas electricity grids, was discontinued in 2012 after many systems became non-functional and faced severe challenges. A lack of clarity amongst stakeholders around roles and responsibilities, poor technical knowledge of the operator, inadequate maintenance and an absence of revenue management systems were some of the barriers faced by the scheme.

In contrast to that experience, all SMG sites I visited were operational, (system lifetimes spanned from a few months to over 5 years old). As I tried to identify the ingredients of successful self-governance, I found a strong alignment of intent, commitment and dedication from all actors involved at the foundation.

Preference for reliability of mini-grids

Communities should not be seen as customers but active stakeholders, whose expectations and aspirations for growth should be taken into account. Satisfaction is achieved when expectations, both technical and socio-institutional, are met. Communities are more likely to take care of the system, engage in local forms of governance and pay for the service when satisfied with the service. Locally managed grids provide a sense of empowerment and are often preferred to a distant central grid.

In the words of one member of the VEC in Jharkhand state:

They [the villagers] are free to raise their issues with us. They come immediately to the meetings when they have an issue and we talk together to arrive to at a solution. If it were the central Government they simply would not know where to raise these issues. We all feel empowered and care about this system.”

In a village where central grid pylons were being erected, households expressed their intent to continue using the SMG as their primary source for electricity, citing reliability and accountability as their primary reason.

Whilst the success of these SMG’s is encouraging, it’s not all smooth sailing and the issues highlighted by the VESP experience should not be underestimated. Establishing functional and strong self-governance mechanisms in remote settings is a challenging task requiring time and effort from all actors. Capacity building activities are particularly required in the early stages to set-up mechanisms for accountability and legal enforcement of rules.

Keys to long-term success

Partnering with local NGOs trusted by communities and understanding the socio-cultural realities helps set-up strong and effective governance. Since technical issues often arise, training of the local operator and his/her ability to seek help is crucial. Inoperative systems erode confidence and trust, a responsive line of communication between communities and suppliers is essential to resolve issues in a timely manner.

There is no ‘one size fits all’, especially in a country as vast and as varied as India. More emphasis should be placed on alternative models for energy access, particularly those leveraging local capacity to develop solutions that address concrete issues on the ground.

Ms. Tozzi (@Ari_Toz) is an independent researcher and consultant based in Pune, India, and has previously consulted for Gram Oorja. The original version of this article appeared on the ISEP blog