Electrifying India – Sunila S Kale

Over a few days in July 2012, India suffered a series of blackouts that cost roughly 700 million people basic electricity access for a few days. For a country that was on the rise, it proved to be an utterly humiliating experience. The blackout, however, was the direct result of the failure of three power grids in the northeastern region but this was an event that was decades in the making. As of now, some 300 million Indians do not have any access to basic energy resources, including electricity. Why has the Indian state abjectly failed at providing this basic service to its citizens? Six decades after independence, this is a question that continues to vex policymakers across the country. Sunila Kale aims to provide an answer to this very question in her engrossing history and political economy of India’s energy governance system – Electrifying India. By looking at the energy experiences through a historic lens in three states – Maharashtra, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, Kale argues that the variation in energy access can be attributed to variations in patterns of industrial development in states owing to differences in rural mobilisation as India grew independent. Some states, like Maharashtra, had and have powerful rural communities and bases that have significantly impacted the nature of industrial and infrastructural development especially toward sectors that require heavy energy access. Other states, like Odisha and to an extent Andhra Pradesh, lacked cohesive rural interests that could sway political parties and bureaucrats to focus on their economic interests. Consequently, resources ended up being diverted to other interest groups that were able to inject their preferences more deftly. The attendant gains, at least in terms of electrification, were substantial. Those communities in Maharashtra that were able to influence the state had near universal access whereas AP and Odisha had spotty access, at best, as these states industrialised over the 20th century.

Through her account and using energy as a window, Kale provides correctives to several prevailing developmental and economic orthodoxies that have elaborated on India’s growth trajectory since independence. The first is that states within India are key development actors. Despite great emphasis on Delhi and plethora of planning paradigms being unveiled from the capital, states were equally important stakeholders insofar as development is concerned. As Kale makes clear, Delhi might have been in charge of the grand strategy and designs but from states came the ’emerging machinery of India’ in terms of how this development was executed at the ground level. To illuminate this politic-economic dynamic, the issue under scrutiny – electricity, acts as a boon. Unlike other areas, electricity utilities and generation were made coterminous with states and major decisions owing to production, distribution and generation were left to provincial political units at an early stage of the republic. And these decisions had a critical impact on the nature of not just industrial patterns but also electrification differences across the country. As nascent state bodies got involved, it triggered localised political-economic logics and constellations of power that, in turn, influenced attendant decisions in the energy sector. A second objective of the book is to historicise current patterns of electrification across the country to help explain variations in electricity access across India. As Kale argues, historical differences in how states organised their energy systems affected the process of liberalisation in the energy sector as reforms were unleashed. In other words, path dependence mattered. The manner in which states organised their energy systems greatly shaped and constrained processes of liberalisation as the Indian energy sector was forced to restructure from the early 1990s. By doing so, Kale institutionally contextualises the wave of market reforms that swept across India from the early 1990s. Unlike other scholars that have unpacked the ideas, interests and institutions underpinning these reform efforts, Kale offers a historical canvas and links historical political economy choices made within states on a range of policy issues like energy to contemporary reform processes. 

By looking at electricity patterns through a historical-institutionalist lens that relies on a heavy does of politics, the book stands as a major work in the study of India’s political economy. By doing so, however, Kale largely omits considering the overarching global environment and how international economic forces and developments influenced processes of development and marketisation across India. This oversight could be chalked up to choice rather than chance. Kale’s deep grounding in local politics and her examination of localised political contexts at the state level effectively precludes extensive consideration to take place but as she points out, its the totalising character of neoliberal reforms from the 1980s that she seeks to contest and correct by bringing in the local perspective. But perhaps, the truth, as the devil lies in the details. Many states, including Andhra Pradesh, relied heavily on World Bank financing and assistance from the early 1990s and as Jason Kirk details in his book on World Bank and India, there was a close relationship that also influenced the scale of reforms that took place.

One other quibble needs to be pointed out. Kale’s account clearly illuminates the importance of politics and of political preferences. When effectively organised, interest groups are able to inject their needs into the political process, in this instance that of electricity access. Thence, in the case of Maharashtra, the presence of strong rural communities that were involved in sugarcane industry were able to impel their democratic representatives to provide basic energy access to their communities, which also greatly influenced their support. In Odisha, rural communities, relatively less cohesive as a political force, were not able to impress upon the state government on the importance of energy that resulted in more attention given to industry concerns and in Andhra Pradesh, legacies of decades of rural subsidies had conditioned the nature of electricity patterns across the state. This interpretation, however, does appear too neat. Even if the politics was paramount, the issue of policy implementation is equally important and this aspect is not greatly considered. How did the political consensus translate into policy reality? Given the weaknesses usually attributed to the Indian state and its capacity to manage its growing docket, the narrative presented by Kale does tend to steer clear of the divide from politics to policy. To be sure, Kale does extensively probe the regulatory architectures governing energy within each state and the centre and how the rather dysfunctional governance arrangements came into being but this is used more as context and background to explain variations rather than a variable within the inquiry. 

Nonetheless, Kale’s account is a welcome addition to the growing political economy literature covering India that had long been generally inadequate. The historical-institutionalist interpretation presented in the book shows that institutions do matter but politics matters just as much when looking at the variation in the provision of basic goods and services that citizens expect in India.