Expanding energy access, improving women’s lives


Lack of access to modern energy services represents a pressing problem in the developing world, not least for women. According to a series of reports sponsored by the UN Development Programme, 1 billion people around the world are served by health facilities without electricity, and 99 percent of all deaths in childbirth occur in developing countries with poor health facilities. Many poor women spend much of their time on menial work that could be performed much more easily if energy were available, and safety concerns often prevent women from going out at night where there are no streetlights. Children suffer too -- more than 50 percent of the developing world's children attend primary schools that lack electricity, and this can lead to markedly worse educational outcomes. Access to modern energy services might be improved through, among other approaches, establishing small-scale hydroelectric projects, facilitating the use of home solar systems, or providing grid electricity (which itself might be produced either with conventional fuels or through renewable means). Below, Dipak Gyawali of Nepal, Kalpana Sharma of India, and Tri Mumpuni of Indonesia address this question: What methods of expanding energy access show most promise for improving the lives of the developing world's poor women and children?

The Development and Disarmament Roundtable can also be read in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.

Round 1

Energizing villages, women, families

By many measures, Indonesia is making significant economic progress. According to the World Bank, 17.8 percent of Indonesians lived below the poverty line in 2006, but this number has now decreased to 12 percent. The country's economy, now the world's 16th-largest, could become the seventh-largest by 2030. The management consulting firm McKinsey & Company reports that 45 million of Indonesia's 240 million people belong to the consuming class, a number projected to grow to 170 million within less than two decades. Indonesia is also urbanizing rapidly: 53 percent of the population lives in cities, with 71 percent expected to do so by 2030.

But what do these aggregate figures mean for Indonesians — particularly rural women — whose lives have not been touched so far by growing prosperity? When it comes to energy issues, nothing.

Indonesia is a nation where many energy sources are viable, yet the electrification rate is only 57 percent. And where energy resources are deficient, especially in villages, it is women who suffer most. It is their job to collect firewood, which is the main source of energy for most families. They prepare the food and procure the drinking water, tasks that can be very difficult when modern energy services are not available. In a traditional Indonesian family, and especially in rural communities, women are the backbone of a family's economic well-being, and women face the greatest burdens when modern energy isn't available.

IBEKA, the nongovernmental organization of which I am executive director, focuses primarily on rural development. Mainly, it helps rural areas reach their economic potential by equipping them with appropriate energy technologies. IBEKA also seeks to protect the environment and build awareness of the importance of environmental issues in development.

Renewable energy can be provided by, among other technologies, wind turbines, solar panels, and biogas. But in Indonesia, a country blessed with enormous water resources, it is microhydro — utilizing water at the smallest scales to generate electricity — that is often most appropriate.

Microhydro projects can be established according to two main schemes. The first is to generate power for a stand-alone power plant that is not connected to the national grid. Such a system is built by a community for its own use; the community is involved in planning from the earliest stages and becomes responsible, after receiving technical and managerial training, for management, operation, and maintenance; and it is the community that ultimately owns the system.

The electricity generated satisfies basic lighting needs, but village women also utilize electricity for agricultural functions like making patchouli oil and lemon grass oil, roasting and grinding coffee, drying cacao, and so forth. Women form cooperative business groups that give them the legal standing to deal on an equal footing with other parties. New income is generated and families' welfare can be assured.

The other scheme is a grid-connection scheme — a village that is already connected to the grid establishes a microhydro facility so that it can sell its excess electricity. The money goes to a village development fund overseen by residents and operated on a consensus basis. In the West Java village of Cinta Mekar, where a microhydro facility was built in 2004 with assistance from IBEKA and others, income is used for village health care, scholarships, seed capital, and other development-related purposes. The cooperative that manages the fund is headed by a woman; the secretary and treasurer are women as well. These women have the community's trust, and the influence of women throughout the project is very strong.

In a rural village, it is often easiest to develop an infrastructure system if one seeks the heavy involvement of women from the start — because once the infrastructure is in place, it is often women who benefit most. But entire families benefit in a newly electrified village when women are freed from having to gather firewood, fetch water, and perform other menial tasks. Energizing rural areas energizes women; energizing women energizes families.

Alternative energy, empowered women

On the road that leads to the controversial nuclear energy facility at Kudankulam in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, an unexpected sight greets the visitor — mile after mile of giant windmills spinning indolently. It seems incongruous for so environmentally benign an energy source as windmills to lie so close to something as hazardous as a nuclear power plant.

If you talk to the hundreds of women in the region who have protested for years against the Kudankulam facility (even though their homes receive only a sporadic supply of electricity), they tell you that they would prefer further development of wind energy instead of nuclear. Why, they ask, is the government determined to pursue nuclear energy when less dangerous alternatives are available?

Chances are low in any event that these women will benefit from the power that the long-delayed nuclear plant will eventually generate — because the electricity will be fed into the grid and used by people elsewhere. Indeed, millions of women and men living along India's coasts and rivers, or in forests that might be submerged by hydropower projects, ask the following question whenever a big-ticket energy project is to be built in their vicinity: For whose benefit?

The history of large projects in India has demonstrated time and again that the people who live closest to them — those who may be displaced or suffer from pollution — rarely reap any benefit. By the government's own admission, nearly half the people in India's villages have no access to electricity. Nationally, more than 400 million people lack access. Worst affected are women — women who spend hours every day collecting wood for fuel, who are afraid to step outside after sunset because of the lack of electric lighting, and girls who drop out of school because studying after dark is impossible.

None of this seems to matter to the people who set India's energy policy. If it did, they would see the sense in developing alternative sources of energy. The country's centralized energy grid has not served the needs of 400 million people, nor is it likely to serve their needs in the near future. With increasing urbanization, demand for electricity is growing fast — much faster than supply. Almost every city faces a substantial electricity deficit. Daily power cuts, extending during the summer months to the entire day, have become the norm in much of urban India. Meanwhile, even less electricity is available for the rest of the country.

For decades, solutions to these problems have been staring India in the face. Only now are some of them gaining traction — but not enough to make a meaningful difference.

Take an obvious solution, solar energy. In a country that enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine per year across most of its territory, it seems a mystery that solar energy has not taken a larger role in the nation's energy mix. But it isn't actually such a mystery. Solar is best utilized as a decentralized energy source, and governments prefer centralized, capital-intensive methods of electricity generation.

Paradoxically, India prides itself on its decentralized system of governance. Moreover, the country has facilitated women's participation in village councils by reserving for women one-third to one-half of seats. Yet when it comes to an issue as crucial as energy policy, where a shift in priorities could transform the lives of millions of poor rural women, the government's approach remains centralized.

Experiments with solar energy in India have already demonstrated the benefits of drawing on an energy source that allows for local control. In the southern state of Karnataka, for instance, a private company called Selco has developed a workable, replicable model for solar energy use. Essentially, Selco's approach is to link technology with finance. Low-income households in small towns where people struggle with unreliable electricity supply can get bank loans to purchase solar panels. They pay off the loans in installments, meanwhile benefitting from much-needed power.

This sort of approach to energy provision has proved very useful for women vendors who live on their daily earnings and who are often organized into self-help groups. The company selects one woman to provide with financial assistance for setting up a solar-charged battery bank. Vendors then rent these batteries on a daily basis so they can extend their hours of business beyond sunset. The additional income they earn more than covers the rent they pay. Given that thousands of self-help groups exist across India, such an approach could be easily replicated.

In the desert state of Rajasthan, middle-aged village women are trained as solar mechanics through an initiative of Barefoot College, a decades-old nongovernmental organization that works on rural issues. The women learn how to install, maintain, and repair solar panels and lighting. These women, scores of them so far, have introduced solar energy to their villages. And by choosing to train women, Barefoot College has guaranteed that the expertise remains in the villages (men are more likely to go elsewhere to find work). For remote villages, whose chances of getting electricity through the grid are extremely poor, this decentralized approach is particularly appropriate.

One can make the criticism, and many people do, that small programs such as these cannot be scaled up past a certain level. But their small scale is the very point. Large-scale energy projects can leave holes so gaping that 400 million people fall through them. Decentralized energy systems, meanwhile, are adaptable to local needs — and in the bargain, they empower women, demystify technology, and protect the environment.

To improve access, break up monopolies

Throughout the developing world, it is typically a woman who "mans" the front lines of energy. It is she who fetches water, often from hours away, carrying it on her back for lack of pumps and pipes; she who processes grains and vegetables several times a day so that her family can eat; and she who toils in the unending drudgery of keeping the household, its children, and its clothing clean. What she wants from energy is straightforward — she doesn't care about power simulation analyses, arcane optimization models, or tender bid arbitrations. She wants electricity on demand to help her perform her household chores. She wants it at a stable voltage and stable frequency, and at a low cost per kilowatt-hour. She also wants the ability, somewhere close by, to bang on the table of the person who fails to provide these things, just as she might do at the store where she buys her vegetables. (To her, a national utility manager in a distant capital is so unaccountable that he might as well be on the moon.) Put another way, she wants to exert democratic control over the vital energy resources that are critical to her family's everyday well-being.

Electricity, once considered a luxury in the developing world, has become a necessity and a human right. Without electricity, nations and individuals cannot reach their economic potential. Basic life-saving drugs can't be stored at local health facilities. Citizens can't get information about the crucial political decisions made in national capitals or engage their representatives through the Internet or mobile phones. Electricity helps determine the extent to which one exercises one's citizenship and fulfills the obligations it entails.

Expanding electricity access presents challenges, but the biggest challenge is not in my view how to generate electricity to begin with; it is how to democratize it. In the 20th century, many clever methods for generating (and to a certain extent storing) electricity were devised. Electricity can now be obtained not only from burning fossil fuels but also from hydro, tidal, geothermal, solar, biomass, waste, and nuclear sources. To be sure, each of these energy sources has its problems. Use of fossil fuels must be curtailed if global warming is to be contained. Hydropower can carry severe social and environmental consequences and incite deep political passions. Solar power is complicated by the difficulty of adequately storing the energy that is generated and disposing of hazardous battery wastes. Nuclear energy produces radioactive waste. But most if not all of these problems can be overcome in time, even if the solutions will require ingenuity and carry a cost.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the real obstacle to expanding energy access is a debilitating legacy of the past century: Electricity is typically delivered by highly unresponsive institutions. In much of the Global South — including my own nation of Nepal, which sits on a Himalayan gold mine of hydropower but whose national grid undergoes some 12 hours of power cuts each day — electricity is delivered by vertically integrated monopolies that exhibit great rigidity and remain insensitive to consumer interests. Such institutions care more about exercising control than delivering service and in the most depraved cases create electricity scarcity so as to maximize control. The prime focus of many of these bodies is new construction, not overall management. Their mindset leads them to ignore the very issues that are meaningful to consumers — distribution, demand management, and end-use creativity.

Quality of service is often poor. In addition to power cuts, customers face fluctuations in frequency and voltage that reduce the life spans of domestic appliances such as electric pumps and televisions. Technical losses of electricity from inefficient equipment and haphazard expansion of power lines are unacceptably high in much of the Global South, but even worse, electricity is stolen (often in connivance with utility staff) at a scale that would bankrupt any company without state support. Honest consumers pay for these losses through higher charges for service or through higher taxes. As individuals, customers are incapable of challenging the electricity behemoth in whose favor all the cards are stacked.

Successful rural development projects have shown that it is possible to overcome such problems — as long as vertically integrated monopolies are unbundled into generation, transmission, and distribution entities, the last of these vital to ensuring more responsive democratic oversight at the grassroots level. The unbundled companies hold each other in check. Accountability improves because poor consumers, who are incapable of exercising influence at the generation and transmission levels, find their influence maximized at the distribution level. (This is also why accountability in small-scale electrification projects like microhydro plants is so much better than when electricity is transmitted from distant generation facilities.)

Separating distribution from other elements of the electricity business is an important structural reform that contributes to the democratization of electricity grids. So is assigning to municipalities, village committees, or local cooperatives the bulk of responsibility for managing distribution. Another important reform is holding public hearings when prices are established and plans to expand distribution are made. Only with reforms such as these are the rural poor — many of them women who run households in the absence of men, who have migrated to find work — able to demand the improved electricity access that is their right. Only then can they take responsibility for ensuring that electricity reduces their drudgery and improves their lives — through devices such as refrigerators that prevent prepared food from going to waste, washing machines that save water and eliminate back-breaking labor, and mobile phones that can be used to summon help when children get hurt.

Wherever such reforms have been instituted — such as in some parts of rural Nepal, where about 200 community associations of electricity users have emerged — villagers have benefitted from technologies like lift irrigation, which allows double or even triple cropping in commercial agriculture. Electric chaff cutting decreases by half the amount of domestic labor (usually performed by women) that is required for livestock rearing. Internet access allows children to get better educations and small farmers to find out where they can sell their vegetables at the best price.

Unresponsive power institutions are a bad legacy of the 20th century. And they are the biggest obstacle to improved electricity access for the developing world's poor people — whether women, children, or men.

Round 2

Local resources, local benefit

Participants in this Roundtable agree that community-based energy approaches like solar and microhydro are often the most appropriate choices for improving the lives of poor people, especially women, in rural communities. However, I would like to examine the ways in which energy policies of a different sort have failed to serve the interests of Indonesia's rural residents and ultimately its government.

Starting with Indonesia's oil boom in the 1970s, the government's approach to rural electrification was to supply generators running on diesel fuel to sub districts around the country. But the government was forced to subsidize oil prices, and the policy proved a burden. Worse, considering that a major factor in poverty is often a community's inability to benefit from resources that are locally available, communities became heavily dependent on fuel provided from elsewhere.

Then, in 1992, the government partially privatized the power sector by allowing the establishment of independent power plants (IPPs) for electricity generation. Multinational companies typically owned the IPPs in joint ventures with Indonesian firms. This became a major problem when the Asian Financial Crisis struck in 1997 and the rupiah suffered a sharp devaluation—the independent power plants had to be paid in US dollars for the electricity they produced, but Indonesians paid their power bills in local currency. The government was left to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, IPPs were only willing to expand their service to new areas if doing so brought a profit. That left the government still responsible for providing power to unprofitable places. The result was that many rural areas continued to lack electricity.

The government might have avoided all this if it had focused all along on establishing community-based supplies of electricity. Such an approach would also have reconnected communities with local resources, encouraged independence, supported economic activity, and empowered people.

A community-based energy source like microhydro provides villages good electricity service at an affordable price. It contributes to environmental conservation because it impresses on community members that preserving resources in their water catchment area secures electricity supply. It does not require long transmission lines. It is for all these reasons that IBEKA, the nongovernmental organization of which I am executive director, has since the 1990s concentrated on introducing microhydro projects to rural areas.

But microhydro is successful only if communities are adequately prepared to manage an electricity system once it is in place. Fortunately, microhydro is a user-friendly technology that community members can understand easily and, with some technical and managerial training, oversee on their own. From a technical point of view, communities must have the ability to operate and maintain their generation and transmission equipment. From a managerial point of view, community members must form a cooperative and learn to handle issues such as collecting payments from customers and putting money aside for maintenance. If money is left over, cooperatives can devote funds to pursuits that generate further income. This often comes in the form of women processing agricultural products—something they are only able to do because electricity is available in the first place.

The distribution tail, the generation dog

All three authors in this Roundtable support democratic, decentralized energy systems in which the poor and marginalized — women foremost among them — play an active role. In my first essay, I concentrated mainly on issues surrounding energy distribution, while my colleagues Kalpana Sharma and Tri Mumpuni mostly concentrated on electricity supply. Beyond that, differences in the authors' viewpoints seem primarily related to their own countries' experiences.

When it comes to decentralized energy systems that can be responsive to the marginalized, Mumpuni's Indonesia is favored by geography: That vast nation of myriad islands is forced to practice decentralization. In a way, Nepal is similar: Hilltop villages are akin to islands, separated not by deep water but by deep valleys. Nepal's disadvantage is that its planners and politicians have mostly been schooled in technologies suited to the plains, where centralized systems are relatively easy to build and operate. They want to extend the national grid to remote hamlets even though it makes more sense to let the hamlets develop their own mini-grids.

Sharma's India, a vast and diverse subcontinent in itself, doesn't lend itself to easy generalizations, but it's safe to say that India's colonial history has helped shape the country's administrative institutions, including its energy institutions. Mohandas Gandhi had a vision of village self-rule, but that vision never stood a chance once the mahatma was assassinated; the British Raj returned with a vengeance in the form of a Nehruvian socialism according to which the government retained absolute control over the commanding heights of the economy — transportation, energy, and so on. Decentralized energy technologies are eminently suited to India, a tropical and semitropical country with lengthy coastlines. But solar, biomass, and wind power are derided as ornamental by energy barons who favor centrally controlled power plants.

I continue to believe that, if a more democratic energy system is the goal, and the marginalized poor are to enjoy a sense of ownership over the energy systems that have such an immense impact on their lives, vertically integrated electric monopolies must be unbundled. Moreover, democratization should start at the distribution end of the business, not at the generation end (and even small, isolated power systems require legal guarantees that protect the rights of local people). In many places, democratization represents a difficult battle against the forces of history. But Nepal has experienced some successes.

Diptara Thamsuhang is chairperson of the Small Farmer Agriculture Cooperative of Baluwadi, a village in Jhapa District. Of this cooperative's 462 members, 73 are women — but the executive committee is composed almost entirely of women. Diptara and others manage electricity distribution in the village, buying power in bulk from the Nepal Electricity Authority and then retailing it, and they have also installed many biogas units. The cooperative earns a significant profit from its electricity sales, and this allows it to run a sustainable microcredit program that finances small agro-processing concerns. This economic activity would not be possible without electricity.

Meena Khadga is chairperson of the Community Child Development and Women Empowerment Center in Katari, a village in Sindhuli District. The center manages electricity distribution for 532 households, and maintains a policy of training and employing only women for meter reading, wiring, and repairs. The center is planning to invest the profit it earns from its electricity business in a small hydroelectric plant. The surplus energy that is generated will fund campaigns for child health, among other things.

Progress such as this would not be possible if Nepal's electricity monopoly had not been partially reformed in 2003 through a set of by-laws on community electricity; it was only these institutional changes that made Diptara and Meena masters of their own electric destinies. If these women were still atomized consumers, beholden to diktats from distant managers, the initiatives in which they are involved would be unthinkable.

The powers that be did not agree to reforms gladly, and powerful vested interests still oppose decentralization. In 2009, a regressive electricity bill was introduced in the nation's parliament that would have promoted the interests of large-scale, export-oriented, hydroelectric developers and severely curtailed the freedom of women community leaders such as Diptara and Meena. The national association of community electricity users to which the two women belong mounted a campaign against the bill; lobbying with legislators scuttled it. That is democratic empowerment in action — but it is only possible when reforms such as allowing community initiatives in distribution management are instituted.

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.

Round 3

Women and energy: A package deal

As this Roundtable has established, women shoulder most of the burdens associated with poor energy access in the developing world. It is women who spend hours collecting firewood in the forest, or who walk several kilometers to buy a five-liter can of kerosene that meets a family's cooking and lighting needs for just a few days. By the same token, whenever people gain access to modern energy services, women are the first beneficiaries—something as simple as a rice cooker can do so much to ease a woman's burdens. And when electricity reduces a woman's burdens, every member of a family benefits.

But before energy technology can be installed and poor families can begin to see improvements in their circumstances, they must be prepared for what is to come. Organizations that help establish community energy systems must administer programs that train people to manage and maintain their new energy facilities on a cooperative basis. It is imperative that women play an energetic role in this process, and indeed they usually do—though sometimes they must be pushed a bit.

The process usually begins with a village meeting, during which information can be disseminated to residents (both men and women). In some very conservative areas of Indonesia, such as Aceh in northern Sumatra, it is not customary for women to take any role in village planning issues—but it is still critical that women be invited to the meetings. In such areas, women usually remain outside at the first meeting, listening to the proceedings but not participating. This might hold true at the second meeting as well. But by the third meeting, women are usually sitting side by side with the men and making their voices heard. Once that breakthrough has been made, women usually play a vigorous role throughout the planning process (though local culture and customs prove too large an obstacle in certain locations).

It is especially critical that a champion for women serve on a cooperative's committee. Women on management committees typically devote careful thought to the ways in which electricity can benefit whole villages, and favor taking steps such as establishing community industrial centers where residents can add value to local agricultural products. Women make certain that rules and regulations benefit men and women alike, and do everything possible to make electricity affordable for residents. Sometimes it is very challenging for women to get spots on committees—but as long as they do, one can be sure that they will make valuable contributions to the management and maintenance of a community's new energy facilities.

To ensure that the benefits of electricity accrue to everyone in a poor community, the involvement of women is indispensable. In a sense, energy technology and women's involvement are a package deal: With one and not the other, it is very hard to improve the lives of poor people in rural areas.

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.

Village autonomy is not rural romanticism

Tri Mumpuni has discussed how privatization in the Indonesian energy sector has alienated poor people, particularly women, from local resources. Kalpana Sharma has correctly emphasized that poor women's difficulties in obtaining energy for cooking must be addressed if gender equity is to be achieved in the developing world. All three participants in this Roundtable agree that community-centered, renewable energy approaches are a good path toward improving poor women's lives. But what is preventing these energy solutions from being implemented, and what can be done about it?

The problem is that hierarchic, bureaucratic mindsets are usually a more powerful force than is the communitarian egalitarianism underlying alternative, decentralized energy. Hierarchic thinking results in centralized energy systems that marginalize and atomize customers—mostly women trying to run households against long odds—ultimately reducing them to helpless fatalism. But hierarchism's triumph is Pyrrhic. Because the public becomes unwilling to invest in grid expansion schemes, either through bond purchases or tariff increases, utilities find themselves unable to meet growing energy demand. So they abdicate their responsibility to the public through privatization schemes that only make matters worse for the poor and the disenfranchised. Yet the utilities refuse to concede space to alternative energy sources.

Meanwhile, energy solutions such as those proposed in this Roundtable are brushed off as rural romanticism, as ideas unworthy of serious consideration in a modern, urban age. They are derided as small pilot schemes that cannot be scaled up to meet global challenges, as expensive options that cannot compete against centralized approaches with their supposed economies of scale. But there is nothing romantic about alternative energy solutions, or even expensive—as international energy-policy wonks would discover if only they could shed their hierarchic biases.

In fact, the centralized schemes that politicians, hydrocrats, and contractors promote are often supported by so many hidden and not-so-hidden subsidies (not to mention riddled with so many kickback opportunities) that they fail to provide the economies of scale they promise. As a result, they are often far more expensive than alternatives, as was the case with Nepal's notorious Arun 3 hydroelectric project. This scheme was supported by the World Bank, among other international aid agencies, along with Nepal's electricity utility. But activists opposed it because of its excessive costs, which would have been very unfair to Nepal and its poor consumers. The World Bank endured heavy criticism over Arun 3 and aborted the project in 1995. This is just one example of a monopoly utility scheme that, economically and ethically, is inferior to decentralized alternatives.

Among the problems for which the world must brace today are those associated with increasing urbanization. Rural life is tough—and that is why people continue to migrate to cities. The United Nations projects that 64 percent of people in the world's "less developed regions" will live in urban areas by 2050, compared with less than half today. Urbanization on this scale represents a potential catastrophe of poverty, crime, and pandemics. If such a future is to be averted, life in villages must be improved through whatever methods show the most promise, notably the alternative energy approaches discussed in this Roundtable. This is not rural romanticism. This is encouraging village autonomy and protecting people from the horrors of slum life.

An energy agenda for the future should throw its support behind any initiative that shows promise for preventing the rural poor from migrating en masse to urban slums. Policy should build on the demonstrated successes of alternative, community-based energy systems. And alternative energy approaches that seek justice and equity must be given space at the table when energy systems are designed—as a counterbalance to bureaucratic utilities' demonstrated proclivities for control-seeking and the private sector's ruthless profiteering.


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