Power for (and to) the People? The Political Economy of a Just Transition in Rajasthan, India

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2020

27 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Power for (and to?) the People: The Political Economy of Just Transition in Rajasthan, India

1. Rationale

In times of an accelerating climate change (CC), the Republic of India - like most other states of the Global South - is confronted with ever more developmental challenges. They are, however, particularly intertwined in the Indian context. Not only is the South Asian giant one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries (Eckstein et al. 2020), understandable as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of [CC], including climate variability and extremes” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007, p. 6); in addition, 22% of its population still lives beneath the international absolute poverty line of USD 1.90 per day. Confounding this, 168 million people, or 24% of the population, were classified as living in energy poverty, particularly in rural areas, in 2017 (CIA 2019).

Crucially, these numbers neither imply that the remaining 76% of India’s population enjoy a high degree of energy security nor that these development aspects are highly distinct from each other. The opposite is more likely to be the case, considering the threat of CC to reinforce and deepen already existing inequalities. Furthermore, and exacerbating the prevalence of energy poverty when looking to the future, the world’s second-largest nation is still severely dependent on coal and other fossil fuels. As much as 63% of its electricity are generated by combusting highly climate-damaging fossil sources of energy such as coal (Central Electricity Authority of India [CEA] 2019) of which it possesses the fourth-largest reserves worldwide (CIA 2019).

Historically speaking, India has been anything but a main contributor of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) driving CC and emits a proportionally low amount of GHGs per capita, compared to other major non-Western states such as China or South Africa. Nevertheless, its rapidly increasing total GHGs, which let it become the world’s third largest emitter (e.g. Timperley 2019), are already an important point of discussion in climate negotiations. To comply with the United Nations’ (UN) internationally binding Paris Agreement (2015) and its declared limit of “well below 2°C” warming by 2100, India’s energy sector, alongside those of most other countries, will have to undergo a structural transformation in favour of renewable energy sources (RES) such as solar, wind, biomass and hydropower for the decades to come. Interestingly, for the last few years India has been at the forefront of renewable energy sector expansion, even aiming to generate 20% of its power through RES by 2022 and 40% by 2030 (Spencer et al. 2018).

Whilst solar power tariffs fall ever faster and big auctions for industrial solar energy plants even gain an international audience (e.g. Stacey 2019), India equally invests massively in new coal-fuelled power plants which on the surface undermines its own international stance (Carbon Brief 2019). Underneath the surface, however, the expansion of its energy sector more generally points towards a larger diversification of its current energy mix, at least in the short- and medium term. Against this background and considering that India’s electricity sector possesses a complex structure of public and private ownership, it could take several more decades before India is able to achieve a “deep decarbonization” of its energy sector (Tongia & Gross 2019). Nevertheless, as Figure 1 illustrates, there is undoubtedly a huge potential for employment in India’s renewable energy sector.

An increase of employment opportunities in India’s renewable energy sector, besides providing energy access in the first instance, can be considered a key factor in achieving what is frequently called a “just (energy) transition” (JT). So far, to the best knowledge of the author, only Hirsch et al. (2017) attempted to develop comprehensive measures for this framework in order to compare twelve countries of the Global South, including India. Indeed, these scorecards allow comparisons to a certain degree. However, mostly due to the lack of both methodological debates surrounding them and alternative measures being developed, the scholarly engagement with measuring JTs is still in the very early stages of development.

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Figure 1: Key findings on India’s renewable energy sector; source: Kuldeep et al. (2017, p.4).

As this research sets out to highlight, these debates would have to equally consider socio-legal (e.g. intersections of various justice debates) as well as techno-physical assessments (e.g. local resources, material requirements). Crucially, these dimensions must not be perceived as static within a country. It can be assumed that they vary significantly among regions and sub-national units, particularly in large states such as India. Consequently, focussing on one of India’s states and one RES seems particularly promising: Rajasthan and solar energy. Located in the West of India and with a climate ranging from sub-humid to arid, Rajasthan already experiences the effects of CC, including for example water scarcity and poor rainfall (e.g., Kaushik and Sharma 2015, Gurjar and Swami 2019).

Moreover, the existence of ongoing large-scale programs (e.g. Kho 2016) suggest that this state has been particularly aware of the need to face the outlined development trilemma coherently for many years (e.g. Laxmi et al. 2003). Rajasthan already provides the biggest share for India’s total utility scale solar capacity, transmits its generated power to seven other Indian states and possesses new solar projects providing the most megawatts (MW) that are either in the pipeline or are already commissioned (Bridge to India 2019). Hence, the question arises, to what extent may the prospected upscaling of RES help to overcome the outlined forms of poverty in the state of Rajasthan and which lessons can be drawn for the Republic of India?

2. Literature review

In order to answer this question, a contextualisation in three respects is essential: (1) the energy­poverty-nexus, (2) selected characteristics of Rajasthan and (3) the political economy of JTs.

2.1. The energy-poverty-nexus

Depending on the definition, approximately a quarter to a third of the world’s population can be considered “energy poor”, of whom the majority lives in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, particularly India (Halff et al. 2014). Importantly, the concept of energy poverty still lacks a solid theoretical underpinning as well as a comparable baseline (Barnes et al. 2014). In addition, although the strong relationship between levels of development and access to energy is anything but a new insight (e.g. Kanagawa & Nakata 2007), the latter entered the international agenda only recently and most ambitiously with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (2015a). Its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG, agreed on in 2000, remained surprisingly silent on the issue (e.g. UN 2015b).

Fundamentally, alleviating energy poverty faces most different kinds of barriers (Sovacool 2012) and cannot be merely overcome by having access to energy. In the recent past, India’s rapid upscaling of electricity access for some 40 million citizens via the Saubhagya Scheme may seem quantitatively impressive: approximately 100,000 households were lighted up every day (Del Bello 2019). This itself will not solve the energy poverty problem, however. Whilst the rate of electrification has drastically increased in the last two years, further indicators have to be equally considered to measure secure energy access, including duration, quality, reliability and affordability (Jain et al. 2018). In the context of India’s rural areas, this furthermore includes the provision of electric meters. Since without them no power provider can measure which household consumes how much energy per month, some companies are discouraged from investing in these areas (Del Bello 2019). Finally, as Jain et al. (2018) argue, India does not lack the necessary amount of generated energy; what has to be overcome is the distribution problem in order that every household is being reached in a measurable way. Consequently, they make the case for more decentralised RES, including so-called last-mile solar to guarantee secure energy access to all of India’s citizens.

2.2. Selected characteristics of Rajasthan

With more than 70 million people, India’s seventh-most populous and largest state by area (Government of India 2011) is divided into 33 districts and ten agro-climatic zones. 75% of Rajasthan’s population reside in rural areas, most of whom are predominantly engaged in livestock rearing and agriculture. Hence, the state’s economy is almost entirely dependent on rainfall of which 90% occurs between June and September (Singh et al. 2019). Consequently, CC-induced water changes have detrimental impacts on the farmers’ livelihoods (Kaushik & Sharma 2015). However, as Singh et al. (2019) reveal in their study on potential crop losses across Rajasthan’s districts, their climate vulnerability varies significantly. This is less wonder considering the broad range of average annual temperature (0-50°C), average rainfall (480-750 mm), and that 70% of its surface area is covered by the Great Indian Thar Desert (Ibid.).

Data on the prevalence of energy poverty in Rajasthan must be considered very scarce. Besides the definitional problems mentioned before, the state is not counted among the six major energy access-deprived states and hence not included in India’s largest multidimensional survey on energy access (Jain et al. 2018). Having the highest solar radiation in the country, 56% of Rajasthan’s 2022-goal for its solar energy sector have already been reached, contributing to India’s aim of 100 gigawatts from RES by then (Naimoli & Singh 2019). So far, the installed share of RES (including hydropower) account for 46% of the state’s total power capacity - one of the highest rates in India - as Figure 2 demonstrates in absolute numbers (CEA 2019, p. 2):

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Figure 2: Rajasthan’s total installed power capacity (in MW) of power stations.

In accordance with India’s state-wide aim of complete electrification, Naimoli and Singh (2019) compile that by October 2019 the share of people with energy access reached 100%, up from 71% in 2015. These promising numbers, however, must be understood against the background that Rajasthan is still not meeting its goal of so-called aggregate technical and commercial losses of electricity. So far, the state brought them down to only 21% rather than the targeted 15%, compared to 27% in 2013. Furthermore, since 2007 Rajasthan has had a Renewable Purchase Obligation for its distribution companies to purchase electricity generated by wind, biomass and solar - whose self-set quantitative aims it never met (Ibid.). Nevertheless, new capacity is constantly added, including new incentives to rooftop solar, and even the world’s largest solar project currently under construction, the 2,255 MW Bhadla Solar Park. Rajasthan’s electricity sector has recently been sought to be reformed, for example via a conditional USD 250 million-loan by the World Bank to improve operations. Furthermore, some of Rajasthan’s worst-performing districts in terms of electricity distribution have been offered to private companies to rebuild their grids in the next 20 years (Ibid.).

2.3. The Political Economy of Just Transitions

Weaving together the seemingly loose threats of this literature review, the concepts of energy poverty and energy access have to be embedded in the ongoing energy transition (ET) in India in which the share of RES in the total power capacity is intended to constantly increase. Consequently, following a JT-approach promises to be target-oriented. Even though the definition of the International Labour Organisation (2015) is most frequently facilitated, Newell and Mulvaney’s attempt (2013) is more adequate for this research proposal. The authors understand a JT to a low-carbon economy as one fundamental component for achieving energy justice in a carbon-constrained world and warn against overstating the autonomy of (inter-)state institutions within the neoliberal context within which they are operating. Being mostly subservient to the private sector, these institutions hardly ever have the power to reconcile the outlined trilemma of tackling energy poverty as well as energy and climate injustice. The more important it is that JTs are embedded in a wider context of PE - in contrast to rather unsystematic approaches of merely mapping the relevant actors - by centrally addressing PE’s key questions of “who wins, who loses, how and why” (Ibid., p. 133).

The same holds true for our case since “[e]lectricity is invariably political in India” (Dubash et al. 2019, p. 4). These authors argue that state-specific factors drive politics and power which can be differentiated into four categories, including on the one hand the political demands for (1) access, service quality and (2) subsidies, and on the other hand the demands’ extent of breathing room regarding (3) the cost of supply and (4) available financial space. As highlighted earlier, the importance of each of these factors may vary across India, but they always intersect and depend upon the central government’s planned reform processes. Consequently, in Rajasthan as elsewhere, the PE of JT is inextricably linked with the policy agenda of the respective national government (Dubash et al. 2019).

Revealingly, thus far processes of JT have been predominantly studied by scholars located in the Global North and about their own countries, with only South Africa’s JT being equally well understood (e.g. Baker et al. 2014, Swilling et al. 2016, Godfrey et al. 2016, Räthzel et al. 2018, Strambo et al. 2019). This location bias equally holds true for the rich scholarship on energy poverty which frequently incorporates lenses of energy justice, focusing on issues of equity, procedural fairness and affordability (Sareen & Kale 2018). Combining these concepts with a PE-understanding nevertheless proves helpful for the case of Rajasthan, as this generally helps to make sense “not only of how, when, and why [ETs] take place, but provides a useful normative yardstick by which to judge whether [ETs] are contributing meaningfully to energy security and equity.” (Ibid., p. 271)


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Power for (and to) the People? The Political Economy of a Just Transition in Rajasthan, India
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London  (Economics)
Research Methods for International Development
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power, people, political, economy, just, transition, rajasthan, india
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Max Schmidt (Author), 2020, Power for (and to) the People? The Political Economy of a Just Transition in Rajasthan, India, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/978866


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