Jonathan Balls: Electricity-centered Clientelism and the Contradictions of Private Solar Micro-grids in India
Most discussions about solar micro-grids focus on sustainable energy and development goals and the technical aspects of electricity generation, storage, transmission, and distribution. Very few explicitly examine the ways in which their introduction upsets and reshapes entrenched practices of electoral politics and citizen claim-making around electricity access and development. In India, as in many parts of the world, electricity represents the most visible symbol of economic development and social well-being. Democratic politics in many developing countries are linked to demands for access to electricity and the development of electricity infrastructure. The meshing of electricity, development, and democratic politics in post-independence India has produced a politics of clientelism in which parties have sought to gain voter support with promises of cheap or free electricity. Although this ‘electricity-centered clientelism’ has expanded supply, it has simultaneously contributed to skewed spatial access, unreliable supply, and high debt burdens for state-owned electricity distribution companies. This article examines histories of clientelism and the contradictions emerging from the introduction of private solar micro-grids in rural areas of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It shows that while solar micro-grids avoid electricity-centered clientelism, significant numbers of poor rural households in their supply areas are both excluded by their user-pays approach and are unable to demand fair access through political representatives. This presents a key challenge for the roll-out of decentralized renewables, highlighting a need for alternative governance and support programs at local levels that ensure private solar micro-grids can deliver reliable electricity to poor households.
Jonathan Balls works on energy, development, and economic geography, with an area focus on India. His research has focused on the off-grid solar power and solar micro-grid markets in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, bottom of the pyramid capitalism, frugal innovation and entrepreneurship, and the political economy of electricity in India. He completed his DPhil in Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment, at the University of Oxford in 2016. In the summer of 2016 he worked on a collaborative research project ‘Mapping Power’, which focused on the politics of the electricity distribution sector in India at a state level. The project looked at how electricity, development, and political practices are enmeshed, with a focus on twelve states in India. Jonathan carried out research in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand for this project. Jonathan started a three-year ‘New Generation Network’ post-doctoral position at the Australia India Institute and School of Geography, University of Melbourne, in November 2016. In this position, he is working on two research projects. First, a project looking at how private solar micro-grids in rural India are advancing affordable and reliable electricity in rural areas, and their impact on people’s ability to access electricity as a public good. Second, a project looking at the Indian ecosystem of funders and incubators supporting and shaping businesses and social enterprises engaged in ‘frugal innovation’ for the bottom of the pyramid market in India.