In the adivasi village of Manachamba, Maharashtra, hooked to a solar microgrid since January, a gaggle of five women shyly list their newfound freedoms. Their evening kitchen work, formerly done on a kerosene-lit mud lamp, now happens under a bright bulb. This means fewer accidents, and more time. Thanks to the solar-lit streetlights, they can go out in the early hours of the morning without fearing snakes and scorpions. Children can study longer and into the night. They don’t have the money now, but the hope is they will soon have a fan, and then, a mixer-grinder. And they speak for long hours to their distant families over their fully charged phones.
According to Debojit Palit, of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), based on surveys in the Sunderbans region, a major factor influencing the inclusion of women in the family decision-making process is one simple change – greater access to mobile phones. Before they got electricity, women were dependent on the men for charging their phones in markets.
In Karnataka, thanks to a predominance of chutneys on the menu, the grinder gets top priority, says Sameer Nair of Gram Oorja. According to activist Sunanda Patwardhan, in the adivasi hamlets of Mokhada, Jawhar, the ability to install an electric pump for water and a UV filtration device has reduced illnesses by 80%. And for widowed or abandoned women, along with the elderly, the village collectively pays a cover charge and subsidises their tariff, reduced to around Rs 15 a month.
Twenty-one-year-old Manisha Anand Tawad from Tundepada manages the fenced-in solar microgrid for her hamlet. The energy committee unanimously elected her because she is meticulous. She maintains records of the 30 households’ meter readings, ensures cattle, children and villagers don’t venture near it, and even makes collections. A few villages away, the grid is caked with dust, and left untended by its male caretaker. It will have reduced capacity; hers won’t. Confident and efficient, she is just one of a growing number of women taking charge of microgrids.
Lydia Powell, energy and climate change expert with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), says women have traditionally formed part of the disadvantaged subgroups shut out of the electrification access.
“The driver for electrification in India was never households, it was always food production, for irrigation pumps in fields, so it was always out of women’s reach. If you look at living rooms, the utilities that men use — appliances, televisions, mobiles —they are in the 21st century for the most part, but kitchens, where women are located, have remained in the 19th century,” she said.
Palit attributes the rise of women as microgrid managers to institutional interventions by organisations such as Gram Oorja and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which now have an estimated 1,000-1,200 microgrids in densely forested areas — the highest penetration in India — men remain largely in charge. One state that beats the norm is Bihar, where women in self-help groups (SHGs), sparked by the Jeevika programme, naturally take over.
According to Jeevika’s CEO Balamurugan, the largest impact of SHGs has been building confidence and decision-making capability. This reflects in the solar grid management as well.
This also has to do with male pattern labour migration, which occurs on large scale here, leaving a substantial number of “left-behind” women (the term is rejected by experts who choose not to see them as victims), but the subject of study by Dr Anamika Priyadarshini at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Patna, in collaboration with Adithi, a local women’s organisation observing the phenomenon in areas such as Sitamarhi).
The new upgrade in women’s access to electricity tells a new story about the primary beneficiaries of last-mile electrification. The first impact is on the home, on children’s studies, on the kitchen, on domestic affairs – time of sleeping, eating, waking up, and the efficiency of household chores.
But these activities are largely viewed as “women’s work”.
If women are able to take control of microgrids, it is not because any hierarchical changes have occurred within households, Powell says, but because of the international or corporate donor component that pushes for gender equality and makes women the most important beneficiaries of electricity.
Independent microgrids require villages or hamlets to form committees that take charge of the grids. Where institutions insist on women’s representation, they take the posts of president, treasurer and registrar.
However, the one or two men on the panel, typically young, are recruited to go and make bank deposits, file complaints, run errands, and so on.
In remote villages, with NGO-formed panels, this women-driven exercise is more equitable and visibly empowering. However, in the larger panchayats, which require state-mandated women’s representation, there can be tokenism. Here, women may hold posts, but are often overruled by the men. In hamlets that are remote, economic activity is minimal, thanks to basic kilowatt capacity. The grids do not run irrigation pumps for the fields, or commercial machinery yet. This leaves the men disinterested in their operations.
Aparna Katre, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, and a social entrepreneurship researcher, and Arianna Tozzi, a researcher in renewable and sustainable energy and gender, were looking at the sustainability of Gram Oorja’s work when they discovered an emerging pattern in women’s engagement.
They studied 24 grids and 40 solar water pumping cases. In some, the village energy committee was fully operated by women (in Gumla, Jharkhand and one site in Jawhar).
In others, women had about 40-50% representation, held key positions in the committee and were actively involved in decision-making processes. In other cases, women participation in governance was either symbolic or missing.
“We also found that in the first case the governance was more effective as regards timely decisions, conducting periodic meetings, seeking inputs from the villagers, with billing and collections, and maintaining records,” Katre said.
Katre finds that institutional intervention has provided that key push for 50% representation of women and typically begins during the early stages of mobilisation. “The arguments presented to the villagers are those of equity and women benefit equally if not more from the electricity and water supply, and therefore must be responsible for its governance. Of course, this is not a rule and therefore we found lot of variation. The decision of the nature and extent of women’s involvement was ultimately that of the entire village. What we found interesting was that the role of plant operator was officially with men. However, since men migrate seasonally for labour work, the role was being performed by a woman, often the plant operator’s wife. Here, the gendered perceptions of the role were almost non-existent,” Katre said.
According to the researchers’ findings, access to basic electricity got children got 0.7 hours a day to study, women reported improvement in indoor air quality, the improvement in eyesight and respiratory diseases was 60%, the women surveyed felt 92% safer, children felt 85% safer, accidents reduced by 67%, women felt 83% more connected with the outside world, and community activities in the village rose 34%. Once electricity was sufficient to install water pumps and filtration devices, health and sanitation improved 95-96%.
In Bihar, United National Development Programme (UNDP) environment officer Deepak Kumar has been touring Jeevika’s solar microgrids in Badal Bigha, and Barsha Pippara villages in Tankuppa.
Here, women have been going beyond maintenance of the grid to actively negotiating and reviewing pricing slabs. They supervise and recommend the installation of solar drip irrigation pump sets.
Transparency is one of the key factors that influences operations here, says Kumar. Women keep discussions open to the village, are meticulous about maintaining records, and work towards the larger good of the community, looking at raising incomes.
This leads to less bias in distribution and greater efficiency in hiring technical labour.
At Barsha Pippara, which is in a Naxal-prone belt, Central Economics Limited installed a plant as part of its CSR project that reaches 200 households with two centralised powerhouses of 15KW each. Here, consensus has been hard to come by, with the menfolk arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay for government electricity, and no agreement has been reached on minimal charges.
Without the intervention of women, Kumar says, the grid wouldn’t have become operational and sustainable.
“With 50% representation in local self-government, women self-help groups in clusters are working to invite stakeholders in solar microgrid installation and have set up incubation centres. But institutional intervention alone doesn’t explain rising involvement. Women are efficient and acquire the expertise and technical skill to manage grids. There is a paradigm shift at the Gram Panchayat level. They manage, monitor and marshal not only solar microgrids but the surplus power generated and transmitted to the central grid. They are working to set up solar micro-irrigation pumps, solar roof-tops and other forms of renewable energy generation. They understand the dynamics of profit and commercialisation. I find the SHGs bringing out the innate entrepreneurial spirit in women” he said.
Women have also proven vital to the long-term sustainability of microgrids. In villages considered India’s first solar grid models, such as Dharnai, where microgrids were set up by Greenpeace and were subsequently connected to the conventional grid as well, villagers often distanced themselves when free or subsidised electricity access ended.
Kumar says that without the sense of community ownership, models for microgrids, no matter how high-functioning, are bound to eventually fail.
Women are the key factors in holding together communities, over political, social, caste rifts, and mobilising the current.
If that’s not true power, then what is?