07/04/2013 - 07:08

Energy, women, and governance

The differences in opinion among participants in this Roundtable are modest. To the extent they exist, they probably correlate to differences among the authors' home countries. In Dipak Gyawali's Nepal and Tri Mumpuni's Indonesia, it is perhaps easier to embrace a "small-is-beautiful" model of electricity generation. India, with its vast population, must embrace both large and small projects to meet its needs.

But in any developing country, women cannot be empowered, nor their drudgery reduced, solely by establishing systems that generate and distribute electricity. Systems of governance must also be taken into account.

In his Round Two essay, Gyawali discussed Mohandas Gandhi's ideal of village self-rule. This ideal lies at the heart of a contemporary, decentralized form of village-level government, known as panchayati raj, which India adopted via constitutional amendment in 1992. In traditional India, village affairs were overseen by five elders organized into a panchayat—literally, an assembly of five. Under current law, a group of villages elects a panchayat, which takes responsibility for water management, health and sanitation facilities, forestry projects, rural housing, roads, and so forth. Candidates for panchayat run as independents, not as members of political parties; and to ensure that the panchayat is representative, seats are reserved both for women and for people from lower castes who have traditionally been excluded from institutions such as this. The panchayat system also includes a gram sabha, or village assembly, in which any resident can have a say in public affairs.

More than 1 million women serve on panchayats today, and their participation makes a real and positive difference in the quality of local governance. According to a number of surveys and reports, female panchayat members typically try to ensure that development funds are used sensibly. If a choice is to be made between profit and community welfare, women usually favor the latter.

Yet, like anything in a democracy, the panchayat system is far from perfect. Many women serving on panchayats are afraid to speak at meetings; if they do speak, they are often ignored by men. And many women serving on panchayats admit that they are really proxies for their husbands, fathers, or brothers. But more than 20 years have passed since the 1992 constitutional amendment, and an increasing number of women have figured out how the system works and how to make their voices heard.

How is all this relevant to energy? It is relevant in very concrete ways. I have interviewed women serving on panchayats and have seen the difference that their participation has made in local energy issues. For instance, in a cluster of villages in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, a woman elected as mukhiya, or head of the panchayat, decided to use development funds available to the panchayat to install solar lighting in common areas so women could feel safer after dark. And when women have a say in decisions, there is a greater chance that their energy needs, such as for cooking fuel, will be addressed. Women panchayat members have insisted in some areas that community forestry projects focus on planting varieties of trees that fulfill their need for fuel wood, rather than varieties that might be more commercially lucrative, such as men tend to prefer. And when women are offered reliable, renewable energy sources, they are usually the first to accept and indeed insist on them.

Participants in this Roundtable have argued in favor of decentralized energy systems like solar and microhydro, and in favor of local control. Putting in place energy systems along these lines can have a positive effect on poor women's lives. But the larger challenge is to convince governments that they should adopt equitable and environmentally benign energy policies. Perhaps real change in this regard could be achieved by strengthening models of governance such as the panchayat system, in which women's voices count.