06/13/2013 - 13:11

Focus on cooking

Dipak Gyawali argues that democratizing electricity is a bigger challenge than generating it to begin with -- and that unbundling vertically integrated monopolies is the key to democratization. My own nation of India provides an interesting case study for this idea. In the 66 years since India achieved independence from the British Empire, centralized energy authorities have wielded enormous power -- and Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of decentralized governance and self-sufficient villages, which Gyawali discussed in his second essay, is now but a distant dream.

Still, the government would argue that it has already unbundled its electricity monopoly. On paper, this is true: India now has separate companies in various states for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution. Yet each firm remains a deeply centralized, top-down institution. These companies, though they may be unbundled, are less interested in fairness than in the bottom line, and unbundling has not provided electricity access to those who lack it.

The government’s rural electrification program in 2006 promised all households access to electricity by 2009–2010, but that target was missed by a spectacular margin and has now been extended to 2017. A major reason for this failure, I believe, is the government’s faith in grid-based electricity rather than in the decentralized generation and distribution systems for which all participants in this Roundtable have expressed support.

But India’s electricity sector hasn’t only been unbundled -- it has also been exposed to competition. After India began to institute market reforms in 1991, and decision makers began to seek market-based solutions to the nation’s problems, the electricity market was opened up to the private sector. State monopolies had underperformed, so privatization and the free market were seen as the solution. But privatization has not redressed inequities or eliminated the electricity sector’s inefficiencies. The private sector has shown no more interest than have state companies in expanding electricity access to those parts of the country where people lack it.

The dismal reality is that 400 million people in India still lack electricity. So for those who care about reducing poor women’s burdens, should the focus be on expanding electricity access to rural households? Or would it be more appropriate to devise plans that meet the energy needs -- not necessarily the electricity needs -- of rural households?

If the focus is to be rural energy needs, the top priority should be provision of modern cooking fuels, an area where progress in India has been very slow. According to the National Sample Survey carried out by the government in 1999 and 2000, 86 percent of rural households depended on firewood, wood chips, or dung cakes as their primary form of cooking energy. Ten years later, that number had improved only to 83 percent. Relying on such fuels for cooking represents an enormous drain on people’s time and energy: It has been estimated that every year in rural northern India, 30 billion hours are spent gathering fuel wood and other traditional fuels. Needless to say, it is women who do the bulk of this work. It is problematic to discuss a world of universal electricity access when today’s reality is that so many people’s primary energy requirement -- cooking energy -- remains so poorly fulfilled.

The late Amulya Reddy, a pioneer in the field of appropriate technology, called rural energy needs an “abandoned priority.” In a seminal 1999 essay in Economic & Political Weekly, Reddy discussed efforts in the 1970s to develop rural energy systems that focused primarily on cooking needs. But these efforts were abandoned, and Reddy argued that the result was the “acceptance of a ‘dual-fuel’ society … in which the poor cooked with messy solid fuels in relatively inefficient stoves and the rich enjoyed clear gaseous fuels … in efficient stoves. There was also little consciousness of the strong gender bias against women in this shift of priorities.”

Fourteen years after Reddy published his essay, India remains a “dual-fuel” society. If that inequity is to be redressed in India and elsewhere, efforts must focus on cooking fuel, which is poor people’s primary energy need, and poor women’s above all.