Smart solar futures: politics and instability in off-grid electrification in Odisha, India
This thesis explores the politics and social structures surrounding community-scale, off-grid, solar PV micro-grids in eastern India. It offers a novel, synthetical perspective drawing on a situated, grounded and in-depth analysis of one of India’s first ‘smart’ solar micro-grids, installed in Urjapur, a village in a tiger reserve in central Odisha. It takes an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from development studies, anthropology, science and technology studies, South Asian studies and social geography to explore the nuances surrounding technological developments at the intersection of rural development, energy access, sustainability and ‘smart’ village movements. The research used ethnographic methodologies, including informal interviews, discussion groups and participant observation. The fieldwork for this project was multi-sited, and primarily took place in Odisha over a year-long period. The main field site was Urjapur, the village where the micro-grid was installed, with supplementary periods based with the engineers implementing the system and in Delhi, based within policy and research organisations working on energy access. The thesis conceptualises the micro-grid as an assemblage of technologies, infrastructures, ideologies, institutions and relationships. Drawing on ideas from the literature around the social construction of technology, I argue that this assemblage was constantly evolving and being reshaped, having been ‘scripted’ by its designers, and then ‘re-scripted’ by users, as well as numerous state and non-state actors. This framing enables interrogation of the interplay between the individuals, groups and community envisaged as users of the micro-grid system and the engineers designing it. The thesis deconstructs the dissonant meanings derived from the ‘smart’ micro-grid system by the range of actors surrounding it and explores the contrasting visions in the types of development proposed. I argue that the needs, aspirations and values of the village community were often different from those of the implementers. Conceptualisations of the South Asian term jugaad (innovative processes of frugal problem solving and ways of enacting agency) are used to understand the implications of these dissonances, and the resulting processes of appropriation, negotiation and subversion in response to the micro-grid, within a legacy of existing development projects in the community. This analysis is embedded within the local Odisha context, which is essential in understanding the micro-grid project and provides a key contribution of the thesis as a whole. Analyses of the social, political and environmental landscapes intersecting with the project are a central component of the ethnographic approaches used. Structures pertaining to gender, caste, tribe and class hierarchies are explored throughout the thesis as they are embodied within the relationships surrounding the micro-grid and the materiality of the system itself. In particular, the usage of feminist perspectives highlights the role of gender structures across the micro-grid and off-grid energy assemblage in reasserting specific relationships and hierarchies. This is explored within the Urjapur community, but also in external sites of technology design and control, and of policy and project development. The local politics around state inclusion and forest conservation are central to the contextual components of this thesis. The politics associated with forest management are examined to understand their impact on community life and their role in shaping the micro-grid. Through this, the thesis explores contradictory understandings of ‘sustainability’ that derive from the politics of the technology and of the forest. It also explores the wider ecosystem of micro-grids across the state to understand the intersections between the different groups installing micro-grids, including NGOs, government agencies and businesses. I argue that, across the state, these projects often failed to realise their aims and goals, in part through conflicted expectations of what rural communities should look like, a misunderstood reality of how those communities functioned and a failure to examine their own expectations and aspirations for energy usage. Despite the frequent failure of micro-grid projects and the intense processes of renegotiation around the Urjapur, this thesis also utilises concepts of charisma to explore the ‘hype’ around ‘smart’ micro-grids, and argues that this was more central to mobilising the micro-grid assemblage than the realisation of the project within the community.