The impact of rural electrification beyond lights

Electrified groundwater irrigation majorly drives India's agricultural growth. India refocussed rural electrification towards universal household electrification in early 2000s. This paper finds regions electrifying more recently to experience far lower gains in electrified groundwater irrigation.
Published in Earth & Environment
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Globally, over 750M people still lack access to electricity. During the pandemic, population growth outpaced electricity expansion for the first time since 2013. Electricity access is majorly a rural developing country challenge owing to the high cost of infrastructure, low population density of rural areas, and low capacity to cover the cost of electricity supply. There is general consensus on the inextricable link between electrification and development reflected in the inclusion of electricity access among the Sustainable Development Goals. As a result there has been a high impetus to provide access in regions lagging behind. However, literature on rural electrification (RE) and development finds dismal returns in household incomes and expenditures in newly electrified regions across the global south. Therefore, our study is motivated by the question “when does RE catalyse the virtuous cycle of development?”

To study this question we looked at electric pumping of groundwater for irrigation in India - the single largest electricity consumer in the largest employment sector of rural India. Pumped irrigation is among the most important determinants of prosperity among smallholder farmers in India. Every year India consumes 166 Billion units (a fifth of all sales) of electricity to pump nearly 250 km3 of water – more than the annual consumption of the US and China combined. Yet there are large parts of India that remain unirrigated despite the presence of healthy groundwater levels. Meanwhile, India has largely solved the electricity access challenge with near universal coverage. So why do some parts of the country not use electricity to pump groundwater?  

There is growing recognition of the fact that not all electricity access is equal. Supply quality, duration and affordability are among the more increasingly popular dimensions of electricity access to be measured recently. Despite the progress in measuring its multiple facets, electricity access continues to be defined by household electricity connections alone. As a result, there is scarce knowledge on where and for what purpose does electricity get consumed in the rural developing world. We suspected the latter to play important roles in catalysing development, since most economic activities occur outside of homes. For instance, in India, villages are usually organized with the houses grouped in one part of the village and the agricultural fields grouped together some distance away from homes. Current definition of electricity access could mean that all houses are electrified but there is no provision of electricity in the agricultural fields. We found this to be the case in our field visits to Odisha during 2016-2018 (see picture below). More importantly, and in a related context, requirements for electric capacity, which is the measure of the maximum amount of electricity that can be supplied or consumed at any given time, is much lower for household consumption as compared to high capacity appliances such as an electric pump. Therefore electricity infrastructure such as transformers and wires that are needed for domestic supply are likely to be insufficient in handling the high loads of pumping.  Rice fields in Khurda, Odisha with high transmission electricity lines in the background, but not electricity poles near the fields.

In some regions of India rural electricity infrastructure is clearly able to handle large pumping loads, often, to the detriment of groundwater levels. To understand this discrepancy we analysed the evolution of India’s rural electrification policy and found that from late 1960s to early 2000s, the targets of RE were driven by expansion of groundwater irrigation, whereas starting early 2000s when groundwater depletion hotspots developed in some parts of India, RE was reconfigured to household connections. We created a dataset to look at how the reconfiguration in RE policy impacted electric pumping of groundwater. We found that regions electrified when RE focused on household connections are still areas where farmers cannot access electricity for pumping. Ironically, these are regions where providing electricity for irrigation could help India shift towards a more sustainable paradigm of groundwater pumping owing to greater groundwater resource, lower irrigation requirement, and lack of large-scale entrenched interests for free or subsidised farm power.

India clearly needs to improve its management of groundwater to ensure current and future food security. Managing groundwater in Indian agriculture requires limiting overconsumption in areas of high groundwater depletion. It also requires expanding groundwater pumping in areas where the returns from groundwater irrigation can be maximised – regions electrified in the later household connection-focused period.  Our results imply that current electricity infrastructure is not serving groundwater pumping in these regions and needs to be enhanced to allow farmers to pump groundwater. More broadly, our results imply that basing electricity access on solely providing household connections may be a reason why we are not witnessing the full impact of electrification on development elsewhere in the global south. Ensuring that we are planning for current and future electricity needs is key at this moment since it is unlikely that more money will flow if the infrastructure is found lacking. Perhaps it is time to shift focus from studying “does electrification lead to income gains?” to “when and how can electrification lead to income gains?” 

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