The transition to cleaner and modern energy sources has been a challenge for India. Women are the direct recipients of energy benefits and hence, the real victims of the energy crisis. Energy poverty also has its implications on gender equality. Through this blog post, we would critically analyse how the hardships of a woman can be curbed by reducing energy poverty. The latter portion of the blog post deals with the barriers in the implementation of government schemes introduced to eliminate energy poverty. While the government schemes might have suffered some issues in rural areas, they have been framed in a gender-sensitive manner. The last part of the write-up discusses the remedies to bridge these challenges. This blog post will be an effort to examine the impact of gender on energy poverty and vice versa.
Plight of Women in Rural India
“I spend six hours cooking. Two hours searching and carrying fuelwood to home and the other time fetching water from the well.”
~ Geet, Madhya Pradesh
This is not only the voice of Geet but of many women in rural parts of the world. Inabout 1.3 billion people who have no access to electricity, 70% percent constitutes women. Lack of energy, gas, and water supply makes their routine housework of cooking, ironing, cleaning a challenging task. As opposed to this, women who have access to clean and modern energy resources complete their work in less period of time leaving much time for other productive activities. Even men in rural areas suffer lesser than rural women. Their tasks remain pretty much disconnected from the core household tasks which makes them less vulnerable to ‘energy poverty’.
In a societal hierarchy, women’s positionality is inherently low in terms of the treatment and attention they receive. Energy poverty exposes them to a huge chunk of problems and aggravates their miseries. Ranging from back pain or muscle injury due to carrying fuelwood to experiencing respiratory diseases caused by traditional cooking facilities. From not being able to take care of oneself due to unchangeable division of labour to not being able to develop oneself because of lack of time. A woman not only suffers but also sacrifices. Thereby, in a typically male-dominated society, we fail to take into account the facets which are stereotypical and which need to be altered immediately.
One such highly ignored aspect has been gender’s correlation with energy and infrastructure. India’s energy usage is7000-kilowatt hour and the world average is 21,000-kilowatt hour which is around three times more. Considering the situation, government machineries have started to understand the implications of energy supply and infrastructure development on women and has introduced a slew of measures to address energy poverty. Despite that, gender-sensitive infrastructure planning remains an exception rather than an absolute rule.
Through this blog post, we would critically explore the issues of rural women and highlight how energy and infrastructure development can become a tool to decrease gender discrimination. We would also examine the impact of government schemes to reduce energy poverty. Furthermore, this blog will address the ways in which energy and infrastructure can evolve the mindset of people and diversify the role of women in rural areas. It is also important to note that mere supply of energy cannot curb discrimination. Intensive efforts and involvement of the state is required for the successful implementation of the measures undertaken.
Consequences of Energy Poverty
Energy poverty forces women to rely on traditional sources of cooking which is by fetching fuelwood and cooking on a ‘chulha’ which can cause indoor air pollution. And undoubtedly, women and children are the worst hit due to pollution. Of the2 million people that die annually from indoor air pollution, 85 percent are women and children. Women may also suffer from respiratory diseases, heart stroke, cancer due to biofuels used for cooking or other domestic purposes. Lack of clean and modern energy also pushes women to collect biomass from forests. Carrying loads of biomass can cause back pain and muscle injury. Fetching fuelwood from forests also exposes them to other dangers such as snake bites, a threat from wild animals, sexual assaults, etc. “In Northern Uganda, men started searching fuelwood to protect women from sexual harassment.” Lack of electricity not only increases air pollution but also deprives women of several opportunities for their growth. They cannot install television and radios in their homes which disconnects them from the mainstream world and keeps them uneducated. Many women still draw water from wells and rivers for household purposes. Installing electrified water pumps can ease their work. With electricity access, they may even install refrigerators, mixers, and grinders in their kitchen which can further reduce their work. Small steps of development can make a huge difference in these village areas.
Energy Access and Women Empowerment
Energy poverty has severe consequences on a woman’s health. By providing electricity access and cleaner fuel for cooking, her work will get over soon leaving her a lot of time for other productive tasks. Providing households with bulbs and fans would also reduce the usage of candles and other harmful chemicals for lighting. Women can also fetch fuelwood late in the evening if the village and nearby forest areas are electrified. Hence, their daily household chores can become painless.
Electricity supply has proven to improve women’s access to information through television, mobile phones, and radios. Women not only feel autonomous and become aware of their rights but also abandon patriarchal notions, become less tolerant towards gender-based violence, send their children to school, etc. Surveys in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tunisia have revealed that electrified villages have more gender equality. Electrification enables the schools to take evening classes thereby improving girls’ attendance. Inmany cities, installing electrified water pumps in schools increased the attendance of girls. Hence, electricity access has a strong correlation with increased education and well-being of women in rural areas.
Many women still spend a lot of time processing grains. In Mali, women spend an average of 2.5 hours a day processing grains from the diesel-driven mills. Switching to electricity can reduce their time burden. Some of them also run their own mills in the village which functions in a traditional manner. Electricity supply can increase the productivity and quality of service of their mills thereby, increasing their income. This can make them independent and confident entrepreneurs. Women also carry out other kinds of businesses in cottage industries or through microenterprises. Electrifying their units can help them increase their business and can cure the wage gap between men and women. Additionally, when a woman starts a business, she tends to hire other women also which improves their self-esteem also.
Energy supply has changed the perceptions of society regarding the traditional and fixed role of a woman. When women carry out their own businesses, men may start believing in their capabilities and start to encourage them which can redefine stereotypical notions about women’s ability. In places like China, Laos, Zanzibar, Bangladesh, men started cooking and doing the household work so that their wives could work outside once the houses were electrified. Hence, even men were willing to come out of their traditional roles after electrification. Energy supply has a multiplier effect on society. Hence, eliminating energy poverty should be prioritized as it also helps to address other social issues.
Gender-Sensitive Measures Being Undertaken by the Government but, the Problem Persists
The government ministries have depicted substantial improvement in supporting electrification of rural areas through various schemes and via legislative means. Out of18452 unelectrified villages in India, 18374 villages have been electrified in India. TheRajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) scheme was implemented by the government for laying down distribution infrastructure and to achieve 100% rural electrification. The government also launchedSAUBHAGYA- Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana to ensure electrification in ‘households’ which can help to reduce the labour of women. Under this scheme, last-mile connectivity was provided to the villages that could not be connected with the grid to achieve universal household electrification. Later, in 2019, the ‘Power For All’ initiative was announced to give electricity access to industrial, domestic, agricultural, and other consumers. The objective was to provide reliable, efficient, feasible, and quality power to everyone. It aimed at increasing the generating capacity, supplying adequate power, strengthening transmission lines, ensuring a continuous flow of electricity, creating distribution mains, and renovating the old ones. All these schemes not only fulfilled the electricity needs in the agricultural and industrial sector but also catered to the needs of households. Hence, it has the potential of improving the lives of lakhs of women.
Many rules and regulations were modified on the legislative front also. The Electricity Act, 2003 was amended to include several provisions to regulate electricity supply in rural India. “Section 43 of this act enshrines the statutory obligation of a distribution licensee to provide electricity to its consumers, failing which he could be penalized under the act.” “In alandmark judgement, the court held that right to electricity is an integral part of the right to life under article 21.” “And since electricity boards are stated under article 12, they have auniversal service obligation towards supplying electricity.” Furthermore, theNotification of Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020, mandates a minimum quantity of electricity supply to all the consumers 24*7.
The Electricity Act also encapsulates that it is the duty of the government to make aNational Electricity Policy(NEP) for planning rural electrification. This NEP included clauses such as ‘universal service obligation’, ‘stand-alone systems’ and ‘local community involvement’. Theuniversal service obligation puts the local government and organizations such as panchayat under an obligation to provide electricity to the villagers and maintain such supply. Thestand-alone systems provide for the decentralized distribution of electricity. In many areas, grid connectivity is not possible; in such scenarios, independent systems can be used for the generation and distribution of electricity. Such a system ensures that every village gets the ‘kind of energy’ it requires through conventional or non-conventional sources, whichever is more suited to the area and its people.
While these two elements allow for distribution, the clause for ‘local community involvement’ indicates towards gender concerned planning. Under the NEP, it is important that while planning the areas of connectivity, we ensure the participation of Panchayati Raj, men, and specifically ‘women’. It is pertinent to note that including women during the planning process improves the design, effectiveness, and sustainability of the project. In the city of Zanzibar, the exclusion of women from the planning process led to the village mill and kindergarten remaining unelectrified. While the areas which men use such as mosques, markets, farms were electrified. Hence, for the project to satisfy everyone’s demand, the inclusion of women in the consultation process is substantial.
The government must also keep in mind that women cannot remain in consultation all the time due to their specific duties at home. In many areas, women are discouraged from speaking and voicing their opinions between men. A special arrangement must be made for women to put forth their views and concerns. For example, separate meetings must be called for women at their suited time to encourage their participation in the consultation process.
Rural electrification has been a huge success as most villages in the country have been electrified in the past few years. However, the problem is yet not resolved. According to the definition given by theMinistry of Power, a village would be considered electrified if public places and about 10% of households have been electrified. The threshold for electrification is only 10%. This accounts for 90% of households which remain unelectrified and yet the village is called ‘electrified’. When the majority of households have no access to electricity, the upliftment of women is only minor. Additionally, the boards may provide electricity to only those persons who can afford it, thereby removing persons with low incomes, which might include widows and single mothers. Hence, the advantage of electrification may not reach women. Many times, the electricity boards are not equipped to provide continuous electricity. Frequent power cuts due to weak infrastructure can disable of 10% households also from accessing electricity.
Cleaner Fuels for Cooking:
In 2016, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas introducedPradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana for providing LPG connections to rural households. This scheme aimed to give women a balanced life by eliminating the arduous task of searching for fuelwood and cooking for hours. These were promoted as ‘smokeless’ chulhas. Earlier, women spent around 8.7 hours a day on household tasks. Availability of clean energy for cooking not only gave them more time but also improved their health. More thaneight crore households had opted for this scheme however, very few continued with it.
“Around 25% households did not opt for a single refill. And around two crore users refill LPG cylinders only 7-12 times in a year.” Hence, even after the implementation of this scheme, women are not benefitting. The reason for this is a lack of awareness about the consequences of using traditional fuels on the health of women and children. Women and men also possess various stereotypes regarding the usage of cylinders which has slowed down the energy transition:
Quoting some women from rural India:
“Only lazy women use gas stoves as they do not want to fetch fuel wood.”
“Eating food cooked on gas makes people obese. Haven’t you seen this in cities? They are filled with air. People of that side [cities], they become swollen, [but their] bones lack strength.”
A bunch of misconceptions is prevalent in rural areas regarding the usage of cylinders. Awareness drives can play a key role in changing these perceptions. Furthermore, many households find it difficult to afford LPG connections even at subsidized rates. Hence, even after subsidies, these resources might not be cheap for the poor. Additionally, most decisions are taken by men who do not find it important to spend so much on LPG refills. Sometimes, even when people are willing to use it, LPG collection centres are situated far from their households which makes it nearly impossible for them to buy cylinders. This also leads to fuel stacking as most people are unable to use cylinders. “Out of240 million free cooking gas refills offered by the government, only 60% was consumed.”
The schemes have improved the state of women to a great extent. However, due to lack of awareness and other issues highlighted above, the impact has not been successful among all class and caste groups. Government must contemplate strengthening the scheme by decoding ways to evolve people’s mindset, providing cylinders and electricity at cheap rates, and maintaining a continuous supply of electricity and LPG cylinders in the rural and disconnected areas. Reformulating planning, improving construction, and maintaining these services for the long term may help to bring a change. It must be appreciated that these schemes were designed because the government ‘noticed’ the plight of rural women. Hence, the schemes were gender concerned despite the issues it faced during implementation.
Remedies To Improve Implementation
Schemes and Tax Benefits:
Most power and energy sector companies are in debt. They must be granted tax holidays for providing electricity in rural areas. This will encourage companies to supply the electricity in rural areas. “Recently, the government has reduced thecorporate tax rate for power and energy generating companies.” The government may also contemplate on introducing schemes such as UDAY again to reduce the debt burdens.
In order to make power and gas cylinders affordable, the government can provide different rates of subsidies to different income groups. More subsidies should be provided to the people who cannot afford the current rates. Reducing the size of cylinders may solve the issue of unaffordability. The electricity bills in the rural areas can also be subsidized for some period to ensure long-term demand.
Drives must be conducted in the village by local government and influencers to educate people on the benefits of electrification and opting for gas cylinders. More number of women volunteers must be present to influence the women in the village. Everyone in the village area must be encouraged to have a positive outlook towards the change rather than reinforcing the stereotypes or making assumptions.
“In future, if the government introduces any legislation or policy, it must analyse its effect on the status of women.” As discussed, the effect of any law is different on men and women because of their varying roles. Their interests must be integrated and a solution must be chalked out after considering the laws’ implications on all genders.
In Punjab, an issue was witnessed with the delivery of cylinders in village areas. “Thedistributor can deliver cylinders only within the limits of the Municipal Corporation of that area. However, the concerned village was out of the limits of municipal corporation and yet, cylinders were delivered to the village but at a very high rate.” Hence, the government must try to increase the area of operation of these corporations to include the rural areas and eliminate the extra delivery charges. Likewise, there are many other problems that prevent people from using gas cylinders or getting access to electricity. Laws and policies must be made to address them.
Maximize Women’s Participation:
A whole lot of changes can be brought with the involvement of women. We need them not only in the planning stage of these schemes but also in the implementation and delivery stage. As mentioned above, women beneficiaries must be consulted before implementing the schemes. This will ensure that scheme implementation is customized to cater to the different groups of the population. While these efforts can be employed on the demand side, we also need to push the service side.
One main reason why the power and energy sector cannot carry out developmental activities according to the needs of women is because of women’s low presence in these fields. Only22-25% of women work in the power sector and accept roles related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Hence, very few women have the decision-making authority in the power and energy sector which is the reason for such infrastructural gaps. A male perspective would amount to focusing on development activities that generate income thereby, ignoring a woman’s labour. However, a feminist approach would imply gender-sensitive planning. Therefore, the involvement of women in the administration and management decisions of the company can bring a revolution in the power and energy sector.
The Number of women employees must be improved from the stage of planning till the stage of supplying electricity in rural areas. More women labourers must be hired for laying down distribution lines and carrying out other technical tasks. The involvement of women from start till finish will reduce gender imbalances. “InAfghanistan, women were trained to install SHS systems just like men.” Many men started to believe that women were as efficient as men. Hence, women’s involvement can change the mindset of people. “Many institutions likeSolar Sisters in South Africa are training rural women to set up their small renewable energy businesses to serve in the village areas. They have supported around 171 businesses headed by female entrepreneurs. InLiberia, rural women have been trained to promote solar energy run equipment like solar lamps to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.” Similar initiatives can be started in India also to cope with gender disparity and energy poverty.
Ray of Hope
India has achieved a remarkable improvement in the energy sector with a bunch of laws and policies in place. Government is also willing to introduce new schemes for the development of the renewable energy sector in rural areas through stand-alone systems. The aim must be to make power and energy available, affordable and equitable for everyone. However, relying on laws and policies will never be sufficient as discussed above. The government must also seek to change the mind-set of people in rural areas by carrying out awareness campaigns very frequently. People believe that men are the ‘breadwinners’ and a woman’s labour is still not accounted as equal to a man’s labour. Giving access to power and energy in rural areas can help women earn income and cure gender inequality.
Improvement in women’s state will also impact the Indian economy. “World Bank claims that India’s GDP can rise by 1.5% every year if 50% women are employed in all the sectors.” A woman’s development is not only in her interest but also in the interest of the economy and society. I would like to quoteManu in this regard:
“Wherever women (naaryah) are adored and regarded (Poojyante), believe I, there reside godly people (ramante tatra devataah). And where they are not regarded or are neglected, there, all efforts (kriyaa) of men (aphalaa) will bear no fruit.”
Therefore, it is high time we stop making gender insensitive laws and policies. The era of women’s empowerment must begin!
About the Authors
Mr. Ritabrata Roy is a Doctoral Tutor & PhD Candidate from University of Sussex – Brighton.
Ms. Kopal Kesarwani is a 3rd Year Law Student from Jindal Global University (JGU), NCR.
Managing Editor: Naman Anand
Editors-in-Chief: Jhalak Srivastav and Aakaansha Arya
Senior Editor: Muskaan Singh
Associate Editor: Kopal Kesarvani
Junior Editor: Harshita Tyagi
Preferred Method of Citation
Ritabrata Roy and Kopal Kesarwani, “Rural India’s Energy Distribution Policies under Gendered Lenses” (IJPIEL, 9 February 2022)