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date: 15 October 2019

Energy Poverty in India

Abstract and Keywords

Energy poverty is lack of access to adequate, high-quality, clean, and affordable forms of energy or energy systems. It is a prominent risk factor for global burden of disease and has severe environmental, social, and economic implications. Despite recent international attention to address energy for the poor, there is a limited consensus over a unified framework defining energy poverty, which impacts almost 2.8 billion mostly poor people, especially in Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have the largest number of energy poor. India, in South Asia, comprises a significant proportion of energy-impoverished households. There is a continued effort by the Indian government, non-profit agencies, and private organizations to address the needs of energy poor. Social workers have a significant role to play in these interventions addressing energy poverty in India. Emerging research and practice in the energy poverty field in India calls for transdisciplinary collaboration especially between social work practitioners of community development, environmental health, public health, and social policy.

Keywords: energy poverty, multidimensional energy poverty index, gender-based networks, sustainable development goals, implementation science

Introduction to Energy Poverty

Evidence based on systematic research has shown that the use of traditional technologies (wick lamps, petromax, lanterns, and traditional cookstoves) and use of lower-rung fuels (wood, charcoal, agricultural residues, animal dung, and kerosene) for cooking, heating, and lighting has detrimental health, environment, economic, and social implications (Kanagawa & Nakata, 2008; Shrimali, Slaski, Thurber, & Zerriffi, 2011). Despite global attention on the benefits of modern forms of energy for human development and social well-being, approximately 2.8 billion or 41% of the world’s population (mostly poor) still relies on traditional stoves and dirty lower-level fuels (wood, charcoal, dung, agricultural residues, and twigs) for their daily cooking and heating needs (GACC, 2011; Ruiz-Mercado, Masera, Zamora, & Smith, 2011). Also, around 1.3 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity (Alstone, Gershenson, & Kammen, 2015). The poor depend on fuel like kerosene in wick lamps and traditional lanterns for their lighting needs (Kanagawa & Nakata, 2008). The lack of access to cleaner and modern energy services and continued reliance on a mix of traditional energy constitutes energy poverty. Modern energy services can be defined as household access to electricity and clean energy alternatives. The clean energy alternatives include: (1) fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), compressed natural gas (CNG), ethanol, or biogas; (2) modern technologies such as induction stoves or solar cookers, among others; and (3) solar home systems, off-grid solar systems, and other renewable energy alternatives.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000 were devoid of any specific energy-related objectives. However, it was widely recognized that realization of a number of MDGs relied on access to modern forms of energy services. The benefits of modern and environmentally benign forms of energy for human development were central to numerous international conventions including the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. The UN declared 2012 the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All” and the decade 2014–2024 the “UN decade of Sustainable Energy for All.”

The UN Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All), Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), Solar Cookers International, International Solar Alliance, International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Lighting Africa, and the International Solar Energy Society (ISES) are among the many global initiatives to tackle energy poverty in low- and middle-income countries. With the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), addressing energy poverty has been elevated to a critical goal of global significance. The SDGs recognize energy poverty in global goal 7, “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” (UN, 2015). The main targets for SDG7 are: (1) to ensure by 2030, universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services; (2) to increase the share of renewable energy substantially in the global energy mix; and (3) to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency (UN, 2015). This will be done by enhancing international cooperation in facilitating access to clean energy systems and expanding infrastructure and upgrading technology to supply modern and sustainable energy services to all in the developing world (UN, 2015). In meeting this goal, we will reduce energy poverty around the developing world and in India (UN, 2015). The detrimental impact of energy poverty has been emphasized as an impediment to the realization of other global goals as well. Addressing energy poverty thus is fundamental for achieving other global goals leading to social, health, economic, and environmental well-being.

Defining Energy Poverty

Several scholars have grappled with developing a unified definition of energy poverty. A generally accepted notion is that energy poverty is multidimensional in nature. Little consensus exists on the dimensions of, or a universal definition of energy poverty.

The term “poverty” itself is increasingly seen as the denial of adequate choices and opportunities for living a decent quality of life (Bhide & Monroy, 2011). From this vantage point, energy poverty has been defined as the amount of energy that is used by below poverty line (BPL) households (Foster, Tre, & Wodon, 2000). Due to insufficient data on the amount of energy used by BPL households, this approach utilizes existing income poverty data. However, this definitional framework is not particularly useful since it assumes that income-poor households must also be energy poor. This definitional approach relies on the energy ladder concept. Energy ladder is a spectrum of different forms of energy sources ranging from traditional biomass fuels (dung, crop residues, or wood), coal (or soft coke), kerosene, LPG, and natural gas to the cleanest energy sources such as electricity (Masera, Saatkamp, & Kammen, 2000). Households using different forms of energy sources are distributed on the energy ladder (Leach, 1992; Masera et al., 2000; van der Kroon, Brouwer, & van Beukering, 2013). This approach posits that there is a hierarchical relationship of forms of energy sources used by a household with its rising economic status (Leach, 1992). Increase in disposable income shifts these households from biomass use to cleaner fuel use on the energy ladder (Leach, 1992; Masera et al., 2000). Reducing the income poverty of a household reduces their energy poverty as they abandon solid fuels and use cleaner fuels (Masera et al., 2000). This also means that as the household income increases, the preference is for cleaner energy sources relatively higher on the energy ladder (Leach, 1992). This impacts the overall energy consumption of households (Masera et al., 2000). The energy ladder model emphasizes the relationship between affordability and the adoption and use of clean energy systems. Although this definitional framework based on the energy ladder model has held significant sway in energy poverty research communities, it has two limitations: (1) affordability is a significant but only a partial driver motivating households to fuel switch (Lewis & Pattanayak, 2012); and (2) increase in income might motivate households to adopt cleaner cooking systems; however, evidence shows that traditional fuels are never completely abandoned (Ruiz-Mercado et al., 2011). Simultaneous use of different forms of energy with increased income shows that there are actually no discrete stages of energy uptake and use with increase in income.

A second approach proposed by scholars such as Bravo, Mendoza, Legisa, Suarez, and Zyngierman (1979) and Goldemberg (1990) requires more sophisticated analysis. This approach defines energy poverty by quantifying how much energy is required on average for households in a country to meet their basic functions. Homes that fall below this level are considered energy poor. There is little consensus among these scholars on methods for measuring mean home energy consumption in a country.

A third approach to defining energy poverty is the expenditure approach, which utilizes a ratio of the household income to energy expenditure (Thomson, Bouzarovski, & Snell, 2017). A common way of assessing energy poverty with this approach is to determine households that spend 10% or more of their income on household energy use (Khandker, Barnes, & Samad, 2010). A drawback of the expenditure approach is that it may have difficulty capturing energy poverty among small households, since less fuel, and thus less income, is required for these smaller dwellings (Walker, Liddell, McKenzie, Morris, & Lagdon, 2014). This is particularly problematic considering that many low-income individuals live in smaller homes, and this approach is not the most sensitive in capturing their energy poverty status (Walker et al., 2014).

A fourth approach used to define energy poverty is a demand-based approach. Khandker et al. (2010) outline this approach, which defines the energy poor as households that consume a bare minimum of energy. They map out an energy poverty line that delineates at which point energy consumption increases with income. This approach is useful since it is based on actual energy use (and not expected use). It also incorporates community information, prices, and policies. On the other hand, gathering and analyzing the data needed for a measure like this requires more time and analytical sophistication.

A fifth approach of defining energy poverty is the Multidimensional Energy Poverty Index (MEPI) (Nussbaumer, Bazilian, & Modi, 2012). This tool measures energy deprivation rather than energy access. MEPI assesses indicators for five dimensions of energy: cooking, lighting, household appliances, entertainment/education, and communication (Nussbaumer et al., 2012). For example, a household qualifies as energy poor in the lighting dimension if it does not have access to electricity, and it is deemed energy poor on the communication dimension if it does not have a mobile or landline phone (Nussbaumer et al., 2012).

Given the number of different ways to measure and define energy poverty across the world, it is unlikely that we will arrive at a unified definitional framework. There is one general theme that cuts across all these approaches. Scholars invariably agree that lack of access to and choice of adequate, affordable, reliable, high-quality, safe, and environmentally benign energy services to support economic and human development, in general, does constitute energy poverty (Bonjour et al., 2013; Martin, Glass, Balbus, & Collins, 2011; Pachauri, Mueller, Kemmler, & Spreng, 2004; Sagar, 2005). Different ways of defining energy poverty provides latitude to examine various social, economic, ecological, or political determinants impacting energy poverty. India presents a typical case of a country where poor households have exceedingly low access to clean and safe energy for daily use. We will examine the case of energy poverty specifically for India in the subsequent sections.

Energy Poverty in India

India comprises a significant proportion of the global population that is energy impoverished. Out of 2.8 billion people in the world primarily using solid fuels for cooking, almost 700 million are in India alone (Tripathi, Sagar, & Smith, 2015). Similarly, out of 1.3 billion people in the world without electricity, India houses a staggering 244 million people (International Energy Agency, 2016). They use lower-rung fuels such as kerosene for lighting purposes. In addition, there is an unaccounted portion of households that do have electricity connections but have unreliable and sporadic access to electricity. Poor electricity service in these households is related to low quality of life or well-being. Despite significant attention, there has been a sluggish decline in the rate of energy poverty in India over the last few decades. Energy poverty in India has implications for public health, environmental health, and economic and social outcomes.

Impact on Environmental Health

Traditional energy systems, technologies, and fuels have poor combustion efficiency. They release significant carbonaceous aerosol emissions and particulate matter contributing to household air pollution (HAP), which is a major risk factor for acute and chronic respiratory infection in the energy-poor households (Bonjour et al., 2013; Landrigan et al., 2018; Lim et al., 2012). Consequently, poor women and children are at high risk of exposure to HAP and adverse health outcomes in India. Almost 50% of pneumonia deaths among children under five years of age in underdeveloped countries including in India are attributed to HAP (Brauer et al., 2016). The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated 4.3 million deaths globally in 2012 alone due to HAP, almost all of which occurred in low- and middle-income countries (WHO, 2014). In India, HAP impacts over 145 million rural poor households (GIZ, 2014) and is responsible for around 900,000 deaths annually (Brauer et al., 2016). Anecdotal evidence shows that skin burns due to firewood use during cooking, physical injuries (especially of women) due to carrying heavy bundles of firewood over long distances, and sporadic sexual violence against women in forests are also attributed as impacts of energy poverty on public health in India (Cecelski, 2000).

Lack of adequate access to cleaner fuels and modern energy technologies is at the root of dependence of poor communities on forests for fuels (such as wood, twigs, or agricultural residues), especially for cooking purposes. Extraction of biomass for household and commercial energy needs contributes to the degradation of forests, among other severe environmental impacts. Often the rate of biomass extraction from forests is greater than the time it takes for them to regenerate, making this practice untenable and unsustainable (Ganesan, 1993). The excessive harvesting of forests for a variety of needs, including household and commercial energy needs, leads to loss of forest cover and has a negative impact on soil quality (Davidar et al., 2010), which in turn has a detrimental impact on agriculture as well as natural resource regeneration and livelihood outcomes for the poor. This pressure on forests for fuels and energy is a contributing factor in biodiversity losses (McNeely et al., 2009). Long-term land use change such as deforestation also contributes to global climate change. A comparison of satellite data between 1973 and 1995 in the Western Ghats suggests a 25.6% loss in forest cover over two decades (Jha, Dutt, & Bawa, 2000). Another study looking at national-level data for area under forest cover, spread over eight decades from 1930 to 2013, indicates a loss of 28% of land under forests in that time period (Sudhakar Reddy et al., 2016). Biomass combustion also releases black soot (Gustafsson et al., 2009; Xu et al., 2009). The deposition of black soot on Himalayan glaciers has been found to be a contributing factor in rapid glacier retreat (Gustafsson et al., 2009; Xu et al., 2009).

Economic and Social Impacts

Continued reliance on wood for cooking and heating energy results in a decline in health of the poor and environmental quality, lowering human and environmental productivity. A decline in human productivity combined with environmental degradation adds to the already existing burdens of the energy poor. Securing household energy in India is primarily the responsibility of women, and a decline in access to biomass from forests results in a longer time for collecting traditional fuels, ranging from three to five hours per day in addition to the time spent cooking on inefficient stoves, which are also more time consuming (Bhojvaid et al., 2014). More time spent on subsistence precludes the poor (especially women) from contributing to income-generating activities and reinforces their economic misery. In many ways poor communities are caught in a vicious cycle of energy and income poverty, a significant barrier in transitioning to cleaner fuels or clean energy technologies (Masera et al., 2000).

The Gendered Nature of Energy Poverty in India

In rural India, and indeed much of South Asia, as in sub-Saharan Africa, the responsibility for the collection of household fuel needed for cooking and heating largely rests on women and children (Rehfuess, Mehta, & Prüss-Üstün, 2006; Yadama, 2013), resulting in reduced health and productivity for women as well as loss of education among children. Since roughly 74% of households in India use solid biomass for cooking and heating, there is a heightened risk of exposure to HAP, especially for women and children at home (Rehfuess, Puzzolo, Stanistreet, Pope, & Bruce, 2014). Reducing HAP therefore can have a significant impact on improving women’s respiratory health (Mortimer et al., 2012; Reid, Smith, & Sherchand, 1986; Smith, Mehta, & Maeusezahl-Feuz, 2004). Pandey and Lin (2013) review studies that have documented the effects of tobacco use on child mortality and birth defects and point to many of the effects of HAP mimicking those of smoking and tobacco use. There is also the opportunity cost for women and children collecting traditional fuel such as biomass (dung, crop residues, and wood) (Kumar & Mehta, 2016; Nussbaumer et al., 2012).

Several studies examine the beneficial impact of energy provision on women, but few examine gender roles in decision-making and the lack of agency among women to adopt and sustain clean energy technologies. Transition to modern energy provision and adoption in India has been slow, and the gender dimensions cannot be ignored. Pachauri and Rao (2013) argue for more research evaluating the factors that influence women’s decision-making around access to energy and how adoption of modern energy by women leads to other benefits to their communities and larger society. Empirical studies show an increase in uptake but eventual non-adoption of clean cooking technologies in poor communities owing to a host of factors like affordability, last mile distribution challenges, and access issues (Ganesan & Vishnu, 2014). Modernist views of rural populations, especially women being resistant to such newer technologies, have been rejected by researchers as a possible cause of non-adoption of new technologies (Khandelwal et al., 2017). Citing women as often the primary users of clean cooking solutions, Kumar and Mehta (2016) recommend integrating women into the clean cooking value chain in order to encourage sustained adoption of clean cooking systems.

Interventions to Address Energy Poverty in India

Efforts to tackle energy deprivation in India have been multipronged, and this section will outline some of the measures taken by the government of India (GOI) as well as private and not-for-profit institutions. Early in the history of India’s independence, the GOI introduced programs on biogas, improved cookstoves, and energy plantations. Programs like the 1980 Nada Chulha in Haryana and Indian Institute of Science’s (IISc) 1983 Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA) stove in Karnataka (Shastri, Sangeetha, & Ravindranath, 2002) are a few examples.

Improved Solid Fuel–Burning Cookstoves

Both GOI and not-for-profit organizations have over the years devoted energy and resources to the development of better solid fuel (dung, crop residues, wood)–burning stoves that are marked by a more energy-efficient burning of biomass, contributing to less cooking time (Smith & Sagar, 2014). These improved cookstoves are engineered for a superior performance and smoke removal with the help of chimneys resulting in lower household pollution levels, thus reducing both the incidence of harmful impacts on health and the time spent collecting fuel (Khandelwal et al., 2017). The National Program on Improved Chulha (NPIC) was initiated by the GOI in the early 1980s with the express aim of increasing the use of improved cookstoves in rural areas (Hanbar & Karve, 2002). Although the funding for NPIC was discontinued by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy in 2002, the program brought attention to the impact of burning wood and biomass fuels on the health of vulnerable and poor communities, especially that of rural women and children. During its program years, the NPIC disseminated around 30 million improved cookstoves, from around 100 models (Rehman & Malhotra, 2004). Despite the scale of the project, the adoption and sustained use rates were low because of a complex of factors. A study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the World Bank (Rehman & Malhotra, 2004) examines case studies of NPIC reception in six states looking at factors that determined the differential adoption the cookstoves and success and failure of the program. Quality control was often a concern and encompassed both material and institutional issues. Studies found that subsidies for cost, dissemination, and technical support helped with the distribution but did not contribute to sustained use and adoption (Hanbar & Karve, 2002; Rehman & Malhotra, 2004). A review by Khandelwal et al. (2017) examines the broader aspects of improved cookstoves in India. The authors review technical as well as social science research to examine the social, cultural, and economic history of Indian cookstoves as well as their unexplained persistence in the face of nearly 100 years of modernization efforts (Khandelwal et al., 2017). A complex analysis of the concerted efforts by governments, technical experts, and development professionals to improve the Indian cookstove reveals that these efforts are marred by unrealistic expectations, on the one hand, and reductive framing of the problem, on the other, not taking into account the intricacies of the communities’—especially women’s—experiences with the adoption of these improved technologies (Khandelwal et al., 2017).

Biogas

Biogas is produced through the decomposition of biomass and organic waste (such as animal dung, crop residues, and agricultural wastes) in an anaerobic chamber (a chamber with no oxygen) (Lewis et al., 2017). The decomposition releases a blend of gases, mostly methane and carbon dioxide. Due to the high content of combustible methane gas, biogas is a natural form of waste-to-energy (Surendra, Takara, Hashimoto, & Khanal, 2014). Biogas is proffered as a solution to the global organic waste problem as well as a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels (Alka, Haizhen, & Juan, 2013; Lewis et al., 2017; Mirza, Ahmad, & Majeed, 2008; Surendra et al., 2014).

Since the early 1980s, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) of the GOI has been implementing the National Biogas and Manure Management Program (NBMMP) with about 4.3 million biogas plants set up in the country (Khandelwal, 2008). The implementing agencies for this program include local and state-owned rural development commissions like the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), and the incentives include financial subsidies, repair, and training costs. The GOI also launched the National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative (NBCI) in 2009 to encourage the use of biomass cookstoves to compete with cleaner technologies like LPG. A research study by Venkataraman, Sagar, Habib, Lam, and Smith (2010) posits that this substitution with advanced combustion biomass stoves could yield massive health and welfare benefits for the most vulnerable populations in India.

Liquefied Petroleum Gas

Although LPG is usually a mixture of various hydrocarbon gases and is derived from fossil fuels, it has been found to be one of the cleanest fuels compared to solid biomass combustion and has been part of concerted energy poverty–alleviation efforts. Along with electric induction stoves and biogas, LPG is among the cleanest cooking systems available. LPG passes the World Health Organization’s Indoor Air Quality Guidelines (IAQG) (Berkeley Air, 2012) and substantially reduces HAP levels.

In 2016, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) was launched with the aim of providing 50 million LPG connections to women heads of households living below the poverty line (Mhamia, 2016). The initiative is aimed at helping poor households switch from unclean cooking fuels to LPG. Anecdotal reports suggest that even though targets have been surpassed, it has not resulted in an overall increase in sustained use of LPG in poor households (Wire, 2017).

Electricity

Despite being the sixth largest producer and consumer of electricity, India’s rate of electrification has been slow (Bhide & Monroy, 2011). The 2014 World Bank report titled “More Power to India: The Challenge of Electricity Distribution” (Pargal & Banerjee, 2014) outlines the evolution of policies and institutions to bolster the power sector in India. The Electricity Supply Act of 1948 was the first critical energy sector policy in independent India and brought the provision of electricity into both the state and center’s legislative responsibilities. Amendments to this act in 1991 allowed private players and foreign investors to become energy providers who could enter into long-term contracts with utility companies. Since the Electricity Act of 2003, the focus has shifted to distribution of electricity designed to bring together a patchwork of reforms into a single consolidated act, geared toward a progressive, market-oriented framework (Pargal & Banerjee, 2014). Beginning in the 1960s, the GOI prioritized rural electrification through the Rural Electrification Corporation, which gained the necessary impetus through the 2005 Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), which aimed to consolidate all rural electrification programs (Bhide & Monroy, 2011; Pargal & Banerjee, 2014), and the Remote Village Electrification Program (RVEP), which aimed to cover the unelectrified census villages (Palit et al., 2013). “DeenDayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana” (DDUGJY) for rural electrification was launched by the Ministry of Power in 2015 and includes about 921 projects, all aimed at electrifying more than 100,000 villages in India without electricity. The RGGVY was subsumed within the DDUGJY (GOI, n.d.-a). This policy has been deemed a success; however, evidence of real benefits remains to be seen. Much of this gap between policy on paper and the ground reality is because of the way rural electrification has been defined. These definitions have changed often, and since 2004 a village has been deemed electrified if the basic infrastructure lines are provided in the inhabited locality as well as the Dalit hamlet, schools, and other public places in the village (GOI, n.d.-b). Only 10% of households need electricity for the whole village to be classified as electrified. In addition, there have been other efforts by the GOI, like the MNRE’s Village Energy Security Program (VESP), with an aim to address the “total energy needs” of Indian villages through a comprehensive array of energy provisions from electricity to biogas plants to improved cookstoves. This program was discontinued in 2012 because of several challenges in program implementation, including sustainability issues, inadequate technological management and maintenance, and inadequate capacity building (Palit et al., 2013).

Renewable Energy Technologies

With the tides turning toward renewable energy around the world, India has embraced newer renewable technologies like wind and solar power with a range of missions and programs from the GOI. The National Solar Mission has a target of achieving 100,000 MW of installed capacity through Grid Connected Solar Power Projects by 2021–2022 (MNRE, 2015). This effort includes multiple state-level thermal and photovoltaic solar application programs including off-grid systems to serve populations that lack access to commercial energy to solar rooftops through state-level policy and implementation agencies, state electricity regulatory commissions (SERCs), and other implementing agencies both public and private (MNRE, 2016). The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) of the GOI also reports that the current wind power installed capacity is at 32.5 GW, but it is not clear if or how much this energy is available to rural areas and poor populations. A study based in the Uttar Pradesh state of India (Urpelainen, 2016) found that many respondents did not trust local companies for infrastructure projects and preferred government leadership in electrification programs. Lack of awareness, negative perceptions, or perceived high costs of newer technologies can be impediments in the adoption of renewable energy (Urpelainen, 2016). Absence of subsidies, high capital, and transaction costs have also been identified as further barriers in the adoption of these renewable technologies (Bhide & Monroy, 2011).

Interventions by Nonprofit and Private Organizations

The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has a membership of over 1.8 million women across 14 states; their Hariyali project (Riyawala, 2017) examines resources spent by the rural poor in accessing their domestic and trade-related energy needs. With about 94% of the female labor force in the unorganized sector, their work and contribution to the household and national economy remains invisible. From building awareness, to mobilizing communities, to delivery of energy services and products, SEWA has worked with communities to provide LED and solar lanterns and solar-powered sewing machines aimed at improving domestic and trade productivity.

The GACC has been a significant actor in accelerating solutions to household energy poverty. Bringing people from academia, the private sector, and other multi-lateral organizations, the GACC’s 10-year strategic plan focuses on understanding the enablers of and barriers to clean cookstove adoption and advancing a market-based approach with an emphasis on understanding the context of women’s lives and livelihoods. Public and private oil and gas companies have initiated corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs to encourage BPL families to switch from low-efficiency, unclean fuel to cleaner LPG technologies.

Emerging Approaches to Address Energy Poverty in India

Numerous interventions at the macro and micro levels, from policy interventions at the national scale and smaller-scale programs by non-profit and other community-based organizations aimed at smaller communities and individuals, are currently being deployed to address the energy poverty challenge in India. Determining the success of these interventions depends on continued evidence-based research. Scattered empirical evidence exists about energy poverty in India. We have reviewed the most up-to-date research on energy poverty with a specific focus on India. Energy poverty in India has to be tackled from the vantage point of multiple academic disciplines (environmental health, environmental engineering, public health, community development, and social work) (Rosenthal et al., 2017). Key approaches to address energy poverty in India and other low- and middle-income countries are discussed in the following sections.

Emphasis on Sustained Use and Maintenance of Clean Energy Technologies by the Poor

Most of the literature on India focuses on “adoption” of clean energy technologies by the poor as a proxy for addressing energy poverty. Recent evidence shows the significance of emphasizing sustained use of clean energy systems, looking beyond the initial adoption of the technology (Lewis & Pattanayak, 2012; Pillarisetti et al., 2014; Ruiz-Mercado, Canuz, Walker, & Smith, 2013). Dissemination of clean energy technologies and their sustained use and maintenance is a function of behavior change in individuals, households, and communities, and that takes time (Shankar et al., 2014). While adoption is measured at a single point in time, the real challenge is to enable communities to “sustainably use” the technology after the initial uptake. Understanding the short- and long-term outcomes can help in developing precise insights, which could address energy poverty (Rhodes et al., 2014).

Addressing Energy Poverty as a Complex Systems Problem

Recent interventions (GOI, n.d.-a; Lewis et al., 2017; Riyawala, 2017; Sehjpal, Ramji, Soni, & Kumar, 2014) demonstrate potential for adopting a person-in-environment perspective to address energy poverty in India (Kondrat, 2013). Energy poverty exists due to a two-way relationship between poverty and the environment. Lack of cleaner energy alternatives constrains poor communities to primarily rely on traditional fuels such as biomass (dung, crop residues, or wood) for their energy needs, which causes environmental degradation. This anthropogenic environmental degradation, in turn, perpetuates poverty as poor communities rely on some of the most fragile ecosystems for their livelihoods. A person-in-environment perspective holds promise to better evaluate and intervene in challenges arising from such reciprocal relationships (Kondrat, 2013). If interrelations of individuals and their “immediate environments” are a cause of energy poverty, then solutions must consider the individual–environment relationship (Green & McDermott, 2010). Researchers and practitioners have operationalized this perspective by considering energy poverty as a complex systems problem and by adopting a non-linear approach to intervene (Kumar, Chalise, & Yadama, 2016). A shift toward cleaner energy alternatives is a result of feedback and interactions among the subsystems of community, policy, culture, economic, religious, technological, and familial environments (Kumar et al., 2016). Innovative perspectives from system sciences such as social network analysis or community-based system dynamics hold considerable promise in understanding these interactions and their impact on sustained use and maintenance of clean energy systems in poor communities (Kumar & Igdalsky, 2019).

In a gender-segregated social system, both women’s and men’s networks are critical for disseminating clean energy alternatives (Ramirez, Dwivedi, Ghilardi, & Bailis, 2013). Recent studies in India focus on how to harness such gender-based social networks to promote dissemination of cleaner energy systems in energy-impoverished households (Kumar, Dhand, Tabak, Brownson, & Yadama, 2017). Network studies in the energy poverty space demonstrate strategies for successfully disseminating awareness about the harmful effects on children and family members of using traditional stoves (Miller & Mobarak, 2015; Person et al., 2012).

Enhancing awareness motivates BPL Indian households to adopt clean energy alternatives (Bhojvaid et al., 2014; Lewis et al., 2015). Targeted attempts are needed to increase social marketing campaigns to increase awareness of the deleterious health, environmental, and economic impacts of perpetual biomass use (Person et al., 2012). Existing evidence suggests that in-person awareness campaigns influence households to adopt clean energy practices and technologies (Lewis et al., 2015; Lewis & Pattanayak, 2012). Significant research is now underway to explore effective awareness dissemination strategies to address energy poverty in India (Bhojvaid et al., 2014; Lewis et al., 2015).

Adoption of Implementation Science for Effective Scaling-Up Strategies

The GOI has plans to push cleaner cooking systems such as LPG and electric induction stoves into the rural interiors of the country. Scaling up an efficacious intervention is possible if the complexity of intervention is reduced through systematic examination of the issues (Yamey, 2012). Implementation science, or the “science of delivery,” helps provide scale-up strategies by studying the many factors associated with adoption and sustained use of evidence-based interventions in routine practice and policy (Brownson, Colditz, & Proctor, 2012). Numerous studies have shown that there are multiple social, economic, cultural, environmental, and technological determinants, which impact the adoption, sustained use, and maintenance of evidence-based clean energy systems (Lewis & Pattanayak, 2012; Rehfuess et al., 2014), and the challenge lies in translating evidence into everyday practice and policy (Brownson et al., 2012; Glasgow, Lichtenstein, & Marcus, 2003). Implementation science bridges this gap between evidence and practice (Nilsen, 2015) with a focus on translation of evidence to practice and policy. To develop a comprehensive knowledge base on adoption, sustained use, and maintenance of clean energy systems, the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in partnership with the NIH Common Fund, other NIH partners, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, has developed a Clean Cooking Implementation Science Network (ISN) (Rosenthal et al., 2017). The ISN brings together leading implementation scientists from multiple disciplines including environmental health, public health, economics, public policy, anthropology, and social work (Rosenthal et al., 2017). Implementation science, in seeking to understand the uptake and scale-up of evidence-based technical and behavioral interventions in complex real world settings, holds promise for addressing energy poverty in India (Rosenthal et al., 2017).

India and SDG7

India has had a track record of dedicated energy policies to help the energy poor since independence. India also stands to play a crucial role in actualizing the worldwide targets of SDGs, especially Goal 7. Reports from the SDG High Level Political Forum proceedings in 2018 attribute one of the largest electrification successes in the world to India with almost 500 million having gained access to electricity since 2000 (IEA, UNDP, & IRENA, 2018). In April 2018, the Prime Minister of India announced that village electrification had achieved complete coverage. Despite seeming high village coverage, it is key to note that not all villages have 100% household connectivity. This dichotomy stems from the criteria on how a village is considered electrified. In India, the government records a village as electrified if at least 10% of the total number of households are electrified (Upadhyay & Badoni, 2014). While infrastructure to access electricity might have reached to all villages in India, two persisting challenges merit attention: providing electricity to 100% of all rural households and providing consistent supply of electricity to all rural households. To improve the scope of clean cooking, policy measures like the PMUY are helping to transition households primarily in rural areas to cleaner cooking alternatives, albeit with barriers to sustained uptake and exclusive use of LPG (Gould & Urpelainen, 2018).

India has also successfully launched multiple renewable energy programs, thus addressing SDG7’s mandate to increase the share of renewables in the global energy mix (UN, 2015). These successes, however, are marred by an urban-rural divide, as well as challenges of distributive and procedural justice (IEA et al., 2018; Villavicencio Calzadilla & Mauger, 2017). Inequities are particularly pronounced in terms of uneven distribution of burdens as opposed to benefits of the policies and infrastructure projects among low income, disenfranchised groups with lower bargaining power and representation. In order to make SDG7 live up to the SDGs’ charge of “leaving no one behind,” energy policies and projects in India would do well if the government adopts an equity and justice lens to engage communities during conception, design, and implementation phases (Villavicencio Calzadilla & Mauger, 2017; Yenneti & Day, 2015).

Social Work and Energy Poverty

Operating at the interface of policy, practice, and delivery of clean energy for the poor, social workers perform a wide array of roles and bring their knowledge base of practice with vulnerable individuals and communities. In juxtaposing the core social work principles of social and environmental justice with practice knowledge of behavioral interventions with individuals and communities gives social work a distinct advantage in transitioning the poor to clean energy technologies and in the reduction of the numbers of energy poor. Such a transdisciplinary approach has been termed as the science and art of dialogue (Andharia, 2007). In the Indian context, social workers play a variety of roles at the intersection of policy, practice, advocacy, and social action, motivated by a social justice ethic, inspiring change by empowering the most vulnerable populations to achieve their full potential. Despite the profession’s western origins, professional Social Work in India has indigenized and evolved to suit the local context (Palattiyil & Sidhva, 2012).

India has a rich tradition of organizing and people’s movements at the intersections of environment and poverty. Community Organization (CO) as an arena of professional social work practice was built on the GOI’s Community Development programs starting in the 1950s, and sought to dismantle a range of societal inequalities and inform social policy (Palattiyil & Sidhva, 2012). In this space, the self-help group (SHG) model has been employed to extend micro-credit facilities, education, and establish linkages with other development programs addressing the most vulnerable, particularly women, and these have become a mainstay in government and non-government poverty alleviation schemes and programs (Andharia, 2007; Davidson & Sanyal, 2017; Desai & Joshi, 2014).

Implications for Social Work in Addressing Energy Poverty

Social workers in India and other countries in South Asia are the gatekeepers and custodians of social welfare and social development, and by that definition, they play a critical role in the formulation of public policies on clean energy systems and their access to vulnerable populations they work with. In their work with self-help groups to community mobilization, social workers in India have sought to address systemic inequities and power imbalances within complex social systems, playing a multitude of roles from clinical, administrative, and community organization. Social workers play an important role in addressing energy poverty by improving government and non-state institutional responses to energy impoverished households (Scarpellini, Sanz Hernández, Llera-Sastresa, Aranda, & López Rodríguez, 2017). From identifying, documenting, and mitigating occurrences of energy poverty, social workers have a role in addressing energy access and the shortcomings of the public and market provisioning systems. Social Workers have a critical role in devising solutions in collaboration and consultation with communities, stakeholders, and decision makers to address energy needs and associated environmental inequities.

Social workers in India have gone beyond the narrow definition of professional social work and embraced a variety of roles in administrative, planning and policy arenas (Palattiyil & Sidhva, 2012). Poverty alleviation has been at the core of professional practice in the social welfare field since before the professionalization of social work. Social work educators can help develop student and practitioner interest and competence in energy deprivation issues by addressing the various dimensions of poverty including energy poverty.

Apart from poverty alleviation, working to assuage energy deprivation is crucial because of the role it plays in addressing anthropogenic climate change which disproportionately affects the poor and the vulnerable. There is a compelling case for Social Work’s attention toward poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation policies and strategies (Ürge-Vorsatz & Tirado Herrero, 2012). A key strategy in climate change adaptation is implementation and scale-up of clean fuels and clean energy for all. Clean energy production, provision, and consumption have been recognized as an important aspect of building resilience in poor communities (Dominelli, 2011) and on the planet. Social workers must be at the forefront of responding to this most pressing need of the 21st century. The social justice dimension of energy access for all is reason enough for social workers to be involved in this field. In advocating, crafting, and implementing policies, social workers will broaden their commitment to addressing the life chances of the energy poor.

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