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India’s caste system extends to uneven access to cooking fuel and electricity

panoglobe / shutterstock

India’s caste system extends to uneven access to cooking fuel and electricity

Among their many privileges, India’s wealthiest households can rely on a consistent supply of electricity and access to cooking gas. The situation is rather different for other social groups, however. My research has shown lower caste and tribal households have 10-30% less access to electricity and clean cooking fuel, even when controlling for other factors like income or education.

This is just one outcome of India’s caste system, which divides the country’s population into rigid and hereditary social strata. Caste discrimination was declared illegal in the Indian constitution – and positive discrimination was introduced to correct historical injustices. Those assisted by the constitution are the “scheduled castes”. They make up about 16% of India’s population and, despite affirmative action, still face many disadvantages.

The “scheduled tribes” are another disadvantaged group. They include tribal or indigenous communities throughout India, and are outside the Hindu caste system. They comprise about 8% of the population.

Despite substantial progress since independence, India still contains the largest number of energy-deprived people in the world, especially among these marginalised social groups. Access to modern energy has obvious direct benefits (lighting, cooked food, and so on), but it can also help micro-enterprises flourish and improve health and environmental quality.

Population without access to modern energy services (million people). IEA Energy Access Projections, 2016; IEA + WHO data

Clean cooking fuel saves lives

Without access to electricity or clean gas, many Indians use solid fuels such as coal or wood for cooking and lighting. These fuels emit CO₂ and other hazardous substances, creating indoor air pollution that contributes to more than 1m premature deaths in the country each year.

A woman from the Korku tribe (a scheduled tribe) cooking with LPG. CRS PHOTO / shutterstock

The only widely used clean cooking fuel is Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), which the government heavily subsidises for poorer households. However, the informal and illegal use of LPG in motor vehicles, small industries, and even in lavish weddings, hinders the supply to targeted groups. Motor vehicles, industries and the gas distribution agencies are all usually owned by rich and influential people who often prioritise the distribution of LPG cylinders to suit their own economic interests once the product reaches the black market.

Dark night rises: lack of electricity in India

Access to electricity is perhaps even more important than access to gas. Officially, all urban areas and more than 90% of rural areas were electrified back in the 2000s, but service can be very inconsistent. Many villages and even some towns and cities may only get electricity for a few hours per day.

LPG delivery, Mumbai. Pete Burana / shutterstock

Major electrification schemes now focus on connecting individual households rather than areas. Despite this, the influence of people with higher social status means the areas where they tend to cluster are first in line for improvements in supply, so energy inequality continues along socioeconomic lines.

The role of caste and religion

My colleague and I wanted to investigate how much of this inequality was down to caste or tribal discrimination, specifically. We also looked at energy access among India’s Muslims, another generally deprived group who make up about 14% of the population. To ensure we identified the role of these three marginalised identities we controlled for other factors such as income, education and rural residency.

Our initial results suggest that, in comparison to upper-caste households, scheduled caste and tribe households had inferior access to LPG and lower consumption of electricity.

Partly, this is because these marginalised groups tend to reside within their cluster. In rural India, scheduled caste households are often segregated in hamlets outside the main village perimeter which makes it easier for electrical or gas suppliers to discriminate against them. Members of scheduled tribes often live in relatively remote places.

But inequality in energy access also seems to be generated by scheduled caste and scheduled tribe households having lower returns on socioeconomic capital including education or documentation. For example, on average, a household with certain education level, rural residence, income, and documentation from scheduled caste is likely to have less electricity and clean gas than his exact equivalent from a higher caste. This can only be down to discrimination.

Our results for Muslims were more mixed, however. This is possibly as they tend to live in urban areas, albeit often in Muslim ghettos where households remain improperly accounted for.

Protesters in Maharashtra demand the strengthening of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. CRS PHOTO / shutterstock

None of this is particularly surprising: right across India, members of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities are often denied access to common public goods. Various government policies have had some success in tackling poverty and inequality in general, but very few have dealt with access to clean energy sources for socially marginalised groups.

It is impossible to uproot the whole caste system within the short or medium term. The recent direct LPG subsidy policy is a step in the right direction with many pros, but lack of bank accounts, corruption, illiteracy and other problems may cause delays. Electricity policy, meanwhile, cannot simply focus on connecting more households or areas – it must target a more equitable overall consumption.

Access to energy is a crucial determinant of human capital. If India wishes to be a great economic and cultural power, it must ensure everyone has safe cooking fuel and electricity – regardless of social background.