Jit Shankar Banerjee
Despite claiming that the fight against climate change is a priority, India’s focus is decidedly on economic growth. The nation of over 1.3 billion people has sided with oil rich nations such as Saudi Arabia in resisting internationally mandated cuts in carbon emissions, claiming that since the prosperity of developed countries was achieved on the back of pollutant energy, it has every right to follow the same development trajectory.
Consequently, India’s push for rapid growth, mainly through the manufacturing route, is being fuelled primarily by coal. This has led India to become the fourth largest carbon emitter in the world, though it has said it is committed to increase the role of new and renewable energy in its energy mix.
India’s decision to push ahead with energy production through coal-fired power plants is based on the belief that giving energy access to the 25 percent of its population (who currently lack access) will spur job growth by creating new opportunities.
Reports, however, suggest that the majority of coal jobs go to cities. Most of the energy produced in thermal plants is transmitted to urban areas or manufacturing hubs, with rural homes regularly experiencing rolling blackouts during times of peak demand when energy is routed to urban facilities.
According to a study in Karnataka done by Rahul Tongia, a fellow at Brookings India, the average rural consumer ends up subsidizing power for urban residents by 240 to 510 rupees ($4 to $8) per year. This places an unfair burden on villagers who already live hand to mouth. The lack of an uninterrupted power supply remains a problem, and hinders the creation of work opportunities for rural people.
Thus, it is not merely in the context of climate change that India needs to increase capacity in the renewable energy sector. According to a study by Sabina Dewan, Executive Director of the JustJobs Network, off-grid renewables can help enhance access in areas where last mile delivery is a challenge. The development, installation, distribution and maintenance of renewables could help offset employment losses arising from productivity gains, as areas with reliable access to energy from conventional sources may also choose to automate over time to increase productivity gains.
Dewan’s report also shows how small-scale, off-grid renewables production is an increasingly viable means of delivering energy to rural communities and expanding opportunities for income-generating activities. Besides, off-grid renewable supply chains allow for highly localized employment and facilitate skills development and creation of micro-entrepreneurs. Companies, for instance, sometimes train unskilled workers from rural areas to sell their products and perform basic maintenance on them.
If we look at the solar energy sector, while solar manufacturing entails working in a factory that may or may not be local, the other activities in the supply chain – from assembly to distribution and sales, to installation and servicing – can drive local job creation in rural communities where employment opportunities are lacking.
Also, with the advent of electricity generated through renewable sources, India’s rural labor market can be transformed in many ways. A female artisan, for example, can turn to her embroidery in the evening after fulfilling family and farming obligations. Children would have more time to study after dark – thereby reducing the supply of unskilled workers as they begin to access tertiary education in higher numbers. This could push up wages for farm workers, who are among India’s poorest employed people.
India’s approach towards renewables should therefore not be focused on meeting international standards of emissions alone, but it should weigh in on the larger impact of renewables in providing energy access to the poorest and creating quality jobs.