Access to Electricity as a Human Right

Chitra Rajpal

Instead of taking proactive steps to make electricity a legal right, the Draft Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020, if passed, will take the country decades back in its journey of equality and opportunity

Human rights are an essential apparatus for extending a life of dignity and liberty to all citizens. A distinctive characteristic of human rights as envisaged by the global world is that they do not remain absolute or static. Their dynamism stems from the fact that humankind itself is evolutionary, facing newer sets of advancements and challenges with each passing year.

Universal access to energy is another such right. Several studies conducted in India and internationally have each come to the conclusion that the availability of energy, especially electricity, is a must if we are to reduce poverty. An ambitious underprivileged student who requires light to study in the dark, a poor woman who travels on foot for kilometres to collect firewood, or a young rural entrepreneur working on his startup—all benefit from the provision of electricity. The World Bank Enterprise Report for India estimates a 29% increase in rural household incomes if they are electrified by a reliable power grid (Banerjee et al. 2014).

The World Bank Report (2014) also highlights how the lack of access to electricity has impacted the economy adversely, and will continue to do so. The central government has provided economic stimulus to MSMEs time and again in the form of incentives, rebates, and subsidies. Despite such measures and a year-on-year increase in the budgetary allocation to MSME enterprises, the industry has been unable to scale-up its operations due to either complete unavailability, or a wobbly electricity supply. As many as 20% of firms cited electricity as an impediment towards their growth and even more blamed power outages for incurring the firm a loss in revenues in their embryonic stage (Banerjee et al. 2014).

There exists a correlation between the Human Development Index parameters and electrification, making up for a strong argument to alleviate access to electricity from a privilege to a right (Njiru and Letema 2018). This paper is divided into three sections. The first section will look into the international perspective on the matter at hand. The next section talks about current state of electrification provisions and realities in India, culminating with the way forward in the last section.

International Perspective on Right to Electricity

The famous Terawatt Challenge, laid out and exemplified by the late Professor N L Richard Smalley, has started a debate in the developed countries regarding the accessibility of electricity to all sections. In his famous Symposium X presentation, Smalley drew upon the positive correlation between electricity and poverty. He stated that if the world can produce the amount of electricity required for each household and ensure its accessibility, we will be able to rid ourselves of the menace of poverty to a large extent. (University of Wollongong 2019).

In his book titled ‘A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations’ (2020), Robert Bryce, an energy analyst from Austria, makes a case for electricity access to all. Using data from around the world, he argues that the 3.3 billion people inhabiting the Earth—roughly 45% of the global population—reside in places where the yearly per capita electricity consumption is below 1000kW an hour per year. To illustrate the magnitude of that statement, one needs to look no farther than their kitchen refrigerator, a single electrical appliance that utilizes the same amount of energy.

Percentage of World
Average Energy SuppliedSTATUS
45%<1000kW an hour/yearInsufficient
37%1000kW-4000kW an hour/yearLow Watt/Unplugged
19%>4000kW an hour/yearOptimum
Source: A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, 2020

Another section of the world, comprising 37% of the globe’s total population, resides in the “low watt” countries—also referred to as unplugged countries by the author. This is the section of people who only receive a minimal amount of energy in their household and are merely able to get-by and fulfill their basic necessities. Bryce describes in-depth that this bare minimum supply of electricity makes for token electrification, and does not necessarily allow the individuals to maximize their potential.

The dividing line between those receiving the optimal amount of electricity and the others mentioned above is reached at an electricity supply flow above 4000 kW an hour per year. The 19% of the world population fortunate enough to receive above 4000 kW an hour per year of electricity unsurprisingly resides in countries with a high HDI, and are mostly located in the western hemisphere. The countries below this line have a lesser opportunity to improve their HDI.

Bryce’s book also delves into explaining why he advocates only for electricity as a source of powering households and empowering communities. He builds a case against renewables by arguing that it is tricky to scale-up the renewable energy supplies to provide energy access to all. The storage, infrastructure, and land-usage costs are enormous as well. Besides, not all countries have equal access to renewables, let alone the capacity to undertake the high initial investment costs. There also exist several impediments to renewable energy like fluctuating weather in the case of wind and solar energy, or the real threat to human health and safety, as in the case of nuclear energy.

The problem tree will help us understand the causes of why adequate and universal electricity dissemination to households has not turned into a reality yet, along with the effects inaccessible electricity brings about.

India’s Tryst with Electricity

It is common knowledge that India suffers from low electricity consumption, even though it ranks seventh globally in terms of electricity production—making up for 2.5% of the global capacity. It would not be unfair to state that there is a long bridge that India needs to cross if it wishes to keep its demand aligned with its supply. The gaping hole that exists between the supply and demand is also dangerous, considering inaccessibility to power translates into lost opportunities of accelerating development.

In 2018, while the Prime Minister declared India to be electrified entirely under the SAUBHAGYA scheme, the reality was and continues to be different. The glaring oversight in announcing 100% electrification is that the Ministry of Power considers a village to be electrified if merely 10% of its households have an electricity connection. For a household to be included within the 10% bracket, it is enough for it to be connected with the distribution line, even if the connection does not actually work for electricity to flow through (Mohammad and Srivas 2018).

While each subsequent government has shied and skirted away from formally making electricity a right— both in speech and on paper—the judicial branch of the government has not. In 2013, the High Court of Madras reprimanded the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) for denying electricity to a group of launderers housed on government property not consisting of clear titles. The bench comprising Justice S Manikumar was of the opinion that the right to electricity is a legal right, and its denial is a gross violation of human rights.

Similarly, in the year 2018, the High Court of Himachal Pradesh in Madan Lal vs. State of Himachal Pradesh & Ors resonated the views of the Madras High Court judgment. In its judgment, the court pronounced that the right to electricity and water comes under the purview of Article 21, i.e., Right to Life, and hence, cannot be denied to any citizen (SSC Online Blog 2018).

The rural consumer base will be disproportionately affected by the Draft Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020, as they will have to pay the steepest hike in tariffs. This is because to service the rural households, most amount of power is lost in transit.

Draft Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020

As traced above, India has come far in its journey of demanding electricity as a right. However, a recent move by the government is aiming to undo the progress achieved thus far. The Draft Electricity Amendment (Bill) 2020, put forward by the Ministry of Power, proposes eliminating the subsidies and cross-subsidies that have been extended for farmers and industries thus far.

The Bill is seen as vehemently anti-poor, especially anti-peasantry in its approach since it leads the way for the establishment of the public-private-partnership (PPP) model for the entire power sector—an approach that has been considered a failure internationally. It is estimated that the Bill, if passed, would accrue a cost of INR 5000 to INR 6000 per month to the farmers (Economic Times 2020). The removal of cross-subsidies—a measure that ensures that the poorer households, including BPL families and farmers, are not devoid of this human right of access to electricity—will rob them of a better socioeconomic future. Furthermore, the rural consumer base will be disproportionately affected as they will have to pay the steepest hike in tariffs. This is because to service the rural households, the most amount of power is lost in transit.

In a situation where the States are already under enormous financial pressure due to the unprecedented pandemic situation, the Bill puts the state governments in the crosshairs of social welfare and economic feasibility. The Electricity Amendment (Bill) 2020 states that the sections of the society in need of subsidies will be granted Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) from the coffers of the State Government. Bihar, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu governments have already written to the Centre opposing the directions of the Bill, which not only dilutes the power of the States but also imposes on them the DBT method of compensation.

Electricity comes under the concurrent list. However, the States will effectively lose all rights to negotiate and renegotiate power purchase agreements (PPA). Several state DISCOMS have paid fixed costs worth thousands of crores over the years in the form of fixed costs. This is despite the DISCOMS having not consumed any unit of electricity for themselves. With the passage of the Bill, the states will be unjustly burdened with further economic liabilities.

Way Forward

With the coming of the Draft Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020, it can be ascertained that the amendments are a push-back from the government’s end to the right to electricity lobby and advocates. The amendment calls for several regressive changes, which are sure to create friction between the private suppliers and the consumers, since the fundamental principle on which the private corporations’ work is profit-making. The amendments are also proposed at an unfortunate time when the country is already suffering economically due to the unprecedented consequences brought forth by the Covid-19 pandemic. The attempt made by the Draft Electricity Policy Amendment Bill to impose a uniform structure of electricity dissemination will put unnecessary pressure on policymakers. The Bill illustrates an attempt to centralise power with regards to the electricity sector in the country and is bound to increase the discomfort between all stakeholders. A more natural way to navigate through the issue of profitability—or the lack of it—could have come from bringing the costs down with the help of tariff rationalisation.

If implemented, tariff rationalisation would have acted as an instrumental tool to balance the industrial cross-subsidy surcharges and the subsidies granted to the agriculture sector. Tariff variation capping cutting across the different segments of consumers (between 70-130% of the supply-cost) would have been a viable solution without burdening the DISCOMs and ensuring affordability for all consumers.

India’s economy has suffered a deep plunge in the past five years, and the barriers to procuring basic amenities like electricity will come at the unforgivable cost of human suffering. Instead of taking proactive steps to make electricity a legal right, the amendment bill, if passed, will take the country decades back in its journey of equality and opportunity. The amendment bill should be strongly opposed both within and outside the parliament, with active interventions from the international community, the power sector employees, and the public itself.’

Chitra Rajpal is a candidate in the Master’s Programme in Public Policy at the Institute of Public Policy, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. With a policy inclination in the urban governance issues of education, civic-participation, and mobility, she has previously worked with Aam Aadmi Party, Ola Mobility Insitute, and Government of Karnataka. She likes to spend her free time reading psychology and suspense thrillers, along with making Spotify playlists for every human mood possible.

She can be reached at


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