Electricity-Centered Clientelism and the Contradictions of Private Solar Microgrids in India
Most discussions about solar microgrids 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. 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 microgrids in rural areas of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It shows that although solar microgrids avoid electricity-centered clientelism, significant numbers of rural households in their supply areas are both excluded by their user-pays approach and unable to demand fair access through political representatives. The study calls for alternative governance and support programs at local levels that ensure that private solar microgrids can deliver reliable electricity to rural households.
Published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, this article draws on our Mapping Power research.