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Rural Electricity Supply: Commodity or Entitlement?

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The following is a summary of the work by the authors, “Explaining Willingness to Pay for Pricing Reforms that Improve Electricity Service in India,” published by the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy in January 2019, funded by CGEP’s Faculty Grant Program.  

Executive Summary

Quality of electricity service remains poor in many developing countries. Reforms to distorted pricing mechanisms involving citizens increasing their payments in exchange for better service must be done carefully to avoid political backlash and persistent theft. Are people not willing to pay for better electricity quality because they feel entitled to electricity provision, or is it because they do not trust one another to also do their part?

In a survey conducted in rural Uttar Pradesh, India, we examine factors that influence stated willingness to pay for better service (i.e., more hours of power per day) among rural households. Our results indicate that the general levels of trust are low, and that entitlement plays less of a role as to whether households are willing or not to contribute to improved electricity quality. Low willingness to pay remains a major obstacle to pricing reform. Generalized trust is strongly associated with higher willingness to pay for better electricity. Delays in service improvements and a lack of community support for pricing reform reduce willingness to pay for better quality.

To better foster public support for increasing payments in return for better service, we provide three recommendations as follows.

  • Building trust within the community, across agents, and with utilities could help achieve better rural electricity outcomes. Citizens are unlikely to be willing to contribute or make efforts to participate if the background level of trust remains low. Utilities can help by making credible promises and reducing service delay, or first deliver service improvements before collecting increased payments, as to build upon the trust with the community members, who will in turn be more willing to pay.
  • Properly reducing incentives for theft is important for rural electricity reform. 76 percent of the respondents reported theft as an important obstacle to proper electricity supply, and based on what is observable and on the survey results, we estimate a lower-bound usage rate of illegal night lines to be 20 percent. While proper enforcement can be difficult, a potential solution is to focus on the katiyamen and on the officials who check the villages for theft activities. To disincentivize katiyamen, perhaps a training conversion into a utility company position can reduce katiya spread and actually help convince local residents to join the legal grid system. With officials who neglect theft through night lines or meter tampering, a proper incentive scheme should be in place to prevent accepting bribes. Currently, the incentive structures are set up such that the offending households have an incentive to bribe or bypass the proper process, creating these collected rents—the gap between the willingness to accept illegal payments and the punishment for the resident. Further policy should properly reduce incentives for theft, not only from the household perspective but also from a systems perspective.
  • Poverty alleviation must be taken into account in electricity reform policies. The average willingness to pay for extra hours of electricity tends to be very low—at 40 rupees for four more hours, on average. Continued poverty remains a significant obstacle for proper electricity reform in rural India, and national policy should take into account the impact of income when designing policies to improve electricity outcomes.
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Rural Electricity Supply: Commodity or Entitlement?

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