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Modi reforms flicker in rural India, other big challenges remain

Narendra Modi has promised to provide electricity to every village before the end of 2018

Published: Updated:

For Indian farmer Sompal Singh, the light bulb that flickers outside his mud hut home is a symbol of progress: the first time electricity from the grid has reached his remote village since independence in 1947.

It is also a big deal for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has promised to provide electricity to every village before the end of 2018 and is trying to woo the huge rural population ahead of a key election in Uttar Pradesh state next year.

“The (electricity) supply is erratic but we are happy that there has been a start,” said Singh, a 37-year-old father of three, who employs a bullock to work the fields in Rampara Kisana, six hours’ drive east of New Delhi.

“We feel we have not been forgotten.”

As Modi approaches the halfway point of his five-year tenure, the leader of the world’s biggest democracy has not had it easy.

Key economic reforms are stalled, his “Make in India” push to turn the country into a manufacturing powerhouse has floundered and sizeable minority groups blame him and his party for pushing a Hindu nationalist agenda at their expense.

Yet his government has made progress elsewhere, most notably in the power sector where change is reaching distressed rural communities in Uttar Pradesh who will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the 2017 ballot.

It was the prospect of tangible change that voters chose in 2014, propelling Modi to a landslide election victory won on the bold promise that “the good days are coming” for 1.3 billion people and by tapping dreams of a more modern India.

While many promises remain unrealized, power reforms and the creation of tens of millions of new bank accounts have helped Modi maintain his popularity.

In a February poll for India Today magazine, 40 percent of respondents chose him as the best candidate to be next prime minister, more than any other politician.

Modi is personally stepping up pressure on ministers and bureaucrats to deliver results on everything from financial inclusion to infrastructure and electricity to jobs.

One senior government source said Modi warned individual ministers this month that he was personally monitoring the performance of each ministry to shake them into action, as his impatience with underperformance grows.

He is also expected to unveil a reshuffle of ministers within weeks, and underperformers could lose their jobs.

Underlining the scale of his ambition, Modi has told power officials he wants to announce that every village has been electrified at his next federal budget in early 2017, 18 months ahead of the original target, a senior official told Reuters.

That would allow him to tell voters he had beaten his own target on a flagship policy.

“This government’s job is to focus its energies on development, to take it (electricity) to every home, not like the erstwhile years where if the power reached ... a few homes in the village the government thought the work was over,” Power Minister Piyush Goyal said in a recent interview.

The prime minister’s office declined to comment for this article.

UPS AND DOWNS

Modi, 65, has plenty to boast about; economic growth outstrips China’s, foreign direct investment grew by a quarter in the 2015 financial year over the previous year and inflation has nearly halved since 2013.

Still, recent state election defeats punctured his aura of invincibility, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has seen ratings slip.

The India Today poll showed a BJP-led coalition would win 286 parliamentary seats if there had been an election in February from 336 in 2014.

Key economic reforms on land and tax remain blocked in parliament, where the opposition controls the upper chamber, and two consecutive droughts hit rural India hard.

The government must also find employment for around a million people joining the workforce every month, another major preoccupation for Modi and his team.

At a cabinet meeting earlier this year, Modi assessed progress on some key infrastructure projects and asked ministers to focus on those that would sustain the most jobs, a close aide to Modi said.

At the meeting, Modi gave the example of how kings would embark on large-scale construction projects to deal with drought and unemployment in times of crisis.

“Numerous new projects will have to be launched and creative ideas will have to be implemented, but we are yet to crack the code,” the aide said.

The BJP has also been accused of undermining India’s traditions of religious tolerance by appealing to the Hindu majority, a shift that worries the Muslim population estimated at around 170 million people.

“If growth doesn’t pick up, if job creation doesn’t pick up, that restlessness, that negative energy will manifest (itself) in social tensions,” said Ajit Ranade, chief economist at industrial giant Aditya Birla Group. “The stakes are huge.”

UPPING THE ANTE

Results in five regional elections, four of them opposition strongholds, are due on May 19. Of those, the BJP has set its sights on winning only the northeastern state of Assam.

But it is Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest electoral prize, that Modi must win in a state poll next year to sustain his hope of one day gaining full control of parliament and a second term in 2019.

That may explain why the rate of electrification is highest in the state, home to 200 million people including farmer Singh.

Under an $11.4 billion scheme, more than 7,000 villages across the country were electrified in the 2015/16 financial year, the most since 2011/12, data from state-run Rural Electrification Corp show.

That leaves 10,500 still unconnected, and is only a small percentage of India’s 600,000 villages. Nor does an electrified village mean everyone living there has power.

But reaching people in some of the poorest, most remote areas blunts criticism that Modi has put the rising middle class before rural communities.

A new website monitors site visits to every village to assess progress, and releases photographs of incomplete work with the names and phone numbers of the engineers in charge.

Power reforms also aim to end blackouts that regularly affect even the biggest cities, and to that end India has boosted coal output and cut the peak power deficit to 1.7 percent in March from 5.4 percent in mid-2014.

The government has also won pledges of billions of dollars in funding for a push into solar energy and agreed a financial restructuring package for indebted utilities.

Still, almost one in four Indians lives without electricity, long outages remain the norm and access to power depends on people’s ability to afford it.