Lighting up the urban poor

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 8 September 2014

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) achieved many successes in bringing attention to, and setting targets for, eliminating world poverty. Since the MDG timeframe expires at the end of next year, urban development stakeholders and policymakers from all over have been lobbying for the inclusion of urban issues in the next set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will guide leaders in formulating national and international interventions and policies for the next decade and a half, up to 2030. Prioritizing complex urban challenges is difficult, but among the key focus areas will be creating greater equity and providing under-resourced communities with the basic services they need to live each day.

These international goals will catalyze participating nations' existing and future schemes, such as India's Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP), which has been in place for decades. The BUSP tasks local urban governing bodies with improving access to essential services such as clean water, proper sanitation, and regular electricity, as well as securing tenure, improving affordable housing, and enhancing access to social services such as school and healthcare. Despite the longevity of the initiative, urban slum dwellers across India survive each day without these basic necessities in place. It's estimated that there is only tap for every 1,000 people in some slums, compared to an average of 52 per tap on average in the city. Service delivery is woefully inadequate.

While much attention has been paid to urban sanitation and water issues, lack of regular, affordable electrification is often thought of as a rural problem. In fact, of Mumbai's 6 to 7 million slum dwellers, one-third have no access to electricity at all. The remainder often have inconsistent or expensive service. Energy access is a powerful game-changer in households to extend studying and working hours. "Despite the growing recognition that improved energy access is a powerful enabler for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it has no explicit mention in the MDGs, and there has been a lack of adequate strategies focusing on improving energy access for the urban poor populace. As a result, there are limited success stories on energy access for urban poor," says a report from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

In Mumbai, a recent initiative by Reliance Infrastructure and the Global Partnership on Output-Based Aid (GPOBA) has set a target to provide improved access to safe and affordable electricity supply to approximately 100,000 slum dwellers in the first phase. The issues that the initial plan aims to address are twofold: affordability and improving access while reducing losses.

Lack of affordability is a common feature among the urban poor. The cost of infrastructure such as meters and wires is high, in addition to regular electricity bills. Under the GPOBA program, households will pay less than half the normal connection cost, and the difference will be made up in a one-off subsidy. "Payment of 90 percent of this subsidy will be conditional upon independent verification of working connections and of six months' supply and billing," says the scheme. Importantly, the program will also train local contractors to improve safety standards and expand job opportunities in the area.

The initiative will test and develop programs that can be customized to fit local needs and scaled up for the future. In addition to grid programs such as these, organizations are beginning to test out solar products for urban poor communities. The need for energy access is not just a remote village issue. Policies have been in place for decades, but the need remains a reality every day for these communities. Energy access for all is an achievable goal and should be a priority among the basic needs for urban poor communities on any Sustainable Development Goal agenda.

Photo: Wen-Yan King

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