The Problem of Energy Poverty in India

Posted on June 5, 2012 in Environment

By Ankur Sohanpal:

What is poverty? I believe everyone knows the answer to that intuitively. Specifically, if one were to ask the veterans in the Indian Government, they would be led to believe that there exists unimaginable ambiguity. However, if he/she were to try to objectively define what ‘lack of opportunity’ is, against factors like food and nutrition, availability of safe water, proper sanitation, education and other such categories, clear boundaries of the definition will emerge. It is possible to take up any specific parameters from those above and write endlessly. But my objective today is to bring to light what is called energy poverty.

In India, access to energy is limited to 56% of households, and about 89% of these use sources for energy that are polluting. I would like you to take a minute to stop here and imagine no lights when it grows dark — you reach home and you either have candles or heavily polluting kerosene lamps (which contribute to indoor air pollution — something that kills about 2 million people worldwide, each year) to give you light. Or that, the day you didn’t make enough from your daily-wage work, you couldn’t possible afford to sit in light. Your kids will not be able to study, your wife not able to cook for you. And would you, who have worked so hard all day, most probably under the harsh sun, being in India and all, like to return to (most likely) a hut, which is your home, which lies in dismal, depressing darkness?

This is the burden of most of India. Which brings me to my next question – how do you solve this massive problem? You cannot possible attempt to do things in the traditional way — lay down power lines to the remotest of villages, and incur unbalanced costs. So how does one address a problem of this proportion? Innovatively, of course.

Think solar panels. If the idea of too progressive for the luxury-livers of the Indian society, like most of us, I’d like to cite an example of Grameen Shakti in Bangladesh. Fragmented areas due to the Sunderbans archipelago are hard to reach through conventional means. So the Grameen organisation, started by Professor Yunus of the Grameen Bank fame started the idea of providing credit to people who had no collateral — no bank accounts and no forms of identity. Since these credits were relatively small amounts, risk associated was small. This lending was also done with innovation, after first doing a comprehensive, person-to-person assessment of the people taking the loans. Gains were guaranteed because these panels would provide 2-3 CFL lights per household, perhaps even a TV — these lights would provide means to cottage industries, and a cost effective way to getting lights. One payment and then loan repayments are the only payments for a period of 9-10 years these households would need to make, whereas those using kerosene would have to spend daily/weekly as per requirements.

Concerted efforts have yielded a world renowned model — so why hasn’t India been able to adopt these measures to the same extent? In Bengal, on the Sunderbans archipelago, the model of micro-solar grids is in fact being tried out, but not to the same extent of success. Elsewhere in India, social entrepreneurs are starting innovative solar micro-grid ventures in extremely poor and remote areas of Uttar Pradesh- and achieving limited success because they are reliant on available infrastructure and funds that are erratic in coming.

In Philippines, the concept of ‘solar water bottle’ was quantified for the entire world — a transparent plastic bottle, filled with water and soda would be fixed through the roof of a room to magnify the sunlight falling on the roof to illuminate the entire room. The huts and houses in the underprivileged world are devoid of light even during the day — why has this cost effective technique not been used already?

There are questions, and there are many answers. Then again, there is the question — why are these answers not enough to satiate the original question? Does our government not have enough funds to propagate this comparatively more cost-effective method of micro-lending? I would think not, with the crores of rupees spent on direct aid despite the acknowledged difficulties in our PDS (Public Distribution System).

So here is my final question — we have the answers — how do we, the youth of India, use them?