Is small beautiful?

25 January 2017
by Mini Govindan

The long drive from Raipur airport to Hareli Eco Resort situated in lush green vegetation of the Barnawapara wildlife sanctuary in Chhattisgarh is a delight. As we drove through uneven hilly terrains of dry deciduous forest area, we were pleasantly surprised to notice that most of the households in these predominantly tribal population villages were electrified through off grid solar power. One question that splashed our minds was, "what happens if households in all remote forest fringe villages become connected to some form of off-grid and start receiving electricity for basic services like lighting and some entertainment? Will this have an impact on their social and economic development? Will the gender relations at the household level change?

The many accounts given to our research team strengthen the impression that having access to even small amounts of electricity affects daily life in important ways. Standing inside her semi pucca home (pucca refers to dwellings that are designed to be solid and permanent), illuminated by a solar powered light bulb, Rajuvanti, a home maker and mother of two proudly said "in my village almost every household has a light point in kitchen or the kitchen is part of the living room which has a light point". But being able to charge mobile is the biggest gain, she said: "I frequently call my sisters and friends and we share our day to day nitty gritty". Although Rajuvanti does not own a mobile, the mobile owned by her husband is used by all the family members.

Mohda and Rawan are forest fringe villages in the newly created district of Balodabazar in Chhattisgarh. These villages - despite being only 2 hours away from Raipur, the state capital - still remain excluded from the electricity grid because of the forest cover. Chhattisgarh is a Central Indian State with more than 43 percent of land under forest cover. Though the state boasts of surplus production of electricity, which they supply to several other states, is unable to cover forest villages with grid electrification due to safety concerns for the wild life. Therefore, the forest fringe villages in the State have for decades lived without electricity and hence been isolated from the mainstream development. It was in 2001, a year after the State of Chhattisgarh was formed, that the Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA) undertook solar PV mini grids in the forest villages under Remote Village Electrification Programme of the Government of India.

In 2003, CREDA installed power plants of 6 and 7 kWp capacity in Mohda and Rawan, respectively, and the system has been designed to provide electricity for 5 to 6 hours per day for lighting (2 light points) and mobile charging purposes. However, in the recent past the villages have been witnessing a steady penetration of televisions thereby increasing the load. Hence, the electricity supply has been reduced to only 2 to 3 hours per day as the plant capacity is limited.

Undoubtedly, the off-grid electricity, which in these villages is reliable and affordable, has provided women a most important critical resource - 'extra time'. "I can cook after sunset and spend more time with my children for their studies" exclaimed Nanda Devi. Entertainment due to television is an added benefit. Women in the village also experience more safety due to the solar street-lights. While the stories of these women make an impression to the observer, the flip side is that the off-grid systems in these villages are not designed to offer scope for any major electricity driven enterprise or business opportunities, neither is there a scope for appliance penetration. Petty shops or grocery shops operating from households continue to be the only business activities in the villages and the operating hours of these shops have remained the almost same as before electrification (from around 8am to 6pm). Hence, it seemed that electricity has not have a bearing on the business profit although it has become more convenient to manage business due to better illumination.

"To accelerate development, mini-grids in Mohda, Rawan and also in other neighbouring villages are now being upgraded as per the government policy to offer longer hours of power supply and to facilitate use of electrical appliances except maybe pump set" says Nikhil, CREDA Assistant Engineer, District in Charge, Baloda Bazar.

It was also quite heartening and uplifting to note that the village communities of Mohda and Rawan still retain certain elements of egalitarian practices, especially giving equal opportunities to both boys and girls and men and women and condemn practices such as dowry. However, in such a context certain questions arise in our minds and research: How do we link the 'extra time' and benefits of energy access the larger issues of women's empowerment such as freedom to pursue livelihood opportunities or gaining increased power to make decisions? Does the access to light and using mobiles affect women's access to information and communicate outside of the community and also their role in local village politics? To put it simply: how will the provision of electricity for basic services change gender relations in the household and beyond?

The study of which this field trip formed part is titled 'Exploring Factors that Enhance and restrict Women's Empowerment through Electrification' (EFEWEE)'. It is carried out by the University of Oslo in partnership with TERI and other partners and aims to explore and understand the linkages between electricity access and women's empowerment, including the factors that may enhance or restrict such empowerment. Our research aims to find answer to some of the above questions by undertaking field work in villages connected through grid as well as decentralised options across three countries namely, India, Kenya and Nepal. The study assumes significance as the current federal government of India is making major strides in energizing India through solar power and the government has set a target of installing 100 GW of solar power by 2022, which includes both grid-connected utility and roof-top power plants and off-grid interventions. India is also working on building a consortium of more than 120 countries with abundant solar radiation under the International Solar Alliance framework, to pool research and technological advancements to improve the accessibility of solar power in the developing countries.

Keep watching this space to find more answers to questions on the linkages between electricity and women empowerment.

Social Transformation DivisionThe Energy and Resources Institute
India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road New Delhi- 110003, India

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