Elizabeth Chatterjee on “The Asian Anthropocene: Electricity and Fossil Developmentalism”

This is Number 5 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Elizabeth Chatterjee is Lecturer in Regional and Comparative Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Chatterjee’s article, “The Asian Anthropocene: Electricity and Fossil Developmentalism,” appears in the February 2020 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. In the interview below with Utathya Chattopadhyaya (University of California, Santa Barbara), Chatterjee discusses the wider research project the article is a part of, as well as the conceptual and analytical stakes of her argument.

Chattopadhyaya: Let me start by asking about the broader project that the article is a part of. How does your argument about fossil developmentalism prefigure, or open up space to explore other questions in your upcoming monograph? 

Chatterjee: It is in the huge, energy-hungry countries of Asia that our environmental future will be determined, and electricity generation is the single largest contributor to the region’s carbon emissions. Yet, much existing scholarship inaccurately treats Asian energy histories as a mere adjunct of narratives extrapolated from a narrow set of European and American examples. My research is motivated by the idea that accurately understanding the determinants of Asia’s energy regime can help us to understand both the region’s environmental predicament, and the factors that will constrain its sustainable energy transition in years to come. In the present article, I particularly foreground the role of postcolonial states in expanding the fossil economy across much of Asia—a trend I call fossil developmentalism—and how this opened the door to popular conceptualizations of cheap electricity as a national good and an entitlement.

My book, Electric Democracy, explores the political, economic, and environmental dynamics that have shaped the energy regime of India in particular since the first arrival of electricity utilities in the late nineteenth century. The leading role of the postcolonial state is one part of the story, and challenges the far-too-neat equation of colonialism, capitalism, and climate change that has achieved immense scholarly popularity in recent years. But the history of Indian electricity also unsettles some other tenets of environmental history and infrastructure studies. The history I tell refutes the common idea that the expansion of “the grid” automatically extends state power, revealing that state control over electricity flows is ongoing and contested. These contested flows also call into question the assumption that big business has successfully come to dominate Indian politics since the 1980s. In the end, I hope to show that energy deserves a central role in Indian political economy and environmental history alike.

Chattopadhyaya: In your article, I was struck by your attempt to capture the moral economy of state-led electrification in post-colonial contexts. Given the role of the popular in illuminating moral economies, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the relationship between state-building, movements for energy provision “from below,” and the moral and political axes of energy justice that inform your work? What kinds of popular movements or energy justice discourses would you place at the heart of post-colonial moral economies of energy?

Chatterjee: Thanks for pushing me to expand on this point. There has been an interesting interaction in postcolonial Asia between top-down drives for electrification and popular pressures “from below.” We might think of this in terms of the sociologist Michael Mann’s concept of infrastructural power: The modern state increasingly exercises power by penetrating society, but this is a two-way relationship—societal pressures then penetrate the state in turn. In building the electricity grid, the postcolonial state extends its reach, but the grid also opens up new opportunities for societal groups to compete for power.

European imperial powers did not simply gift electricity systems to their colonies; they were often surprisingly indifferent to the industrial significance of electricity outside the metropole. The perception of lagging behind encouraged many Asian nationalists to grant electricity enormous prominence in postcolonial state-building efforts, the moral valences of which were clear in Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous statement that hydroelectric dams were the temples of modern India. The notion that embracing the fossil energy regime was in the national interest—part of the widely shared state-led project that I call fossil developmentalism—is one that has received short shrift. This is especially from scholars who are more interested in blaming some undifferentiated force of global capitalism for our entry into the Anthropocene, the proposed new epoch in which humans are acting as a geological force on the level of the Earth’s systems.

Due to the huge investments required to build electricity grids, national governments continue to play a leading role. However, postcolonial states have not always been able to retain control over the flows of electricity, nor direct it primarily towards industrial uses. The state-led developmentalist project took on new momentum as new groups of citizen-consumers have laid claim to a greater share of cheaper electricity. Protests over electricity shortages and tariffs have become ubiquitous across Asia, from Bangladesh to Myanmar and Cambodia. In rural India in the 1970s, farmers’ organizations successfully mobilized to secure lower prices for electricity. In rural China, farmers resorted to sabotaging electrical equipment to resist unfairly high prices. In Pakistan, an Islamabad resident told the sociologist Ijlal Naqvi that he steals electricity because “it’s our right.” In some South Asian cities, cutting such illegal connections is so unpopular that electricity officials must be escorted by armed police.

This is why I conclude that the expectation of cheap energy undergirds the moral economy of the modern nation-state. In all these cases, the idea that electricity is a commodity to be governed through a market logic—that tariffs should be set sufficiently high that utilities can make profits to reinvest—has been decisively rejected. Instead, cheap electricity is increasingly regarded as an entitlement, and states that fail to deliver it lose legitimacy. E.P. Thompson explained eighteenth-century food riots as the result of thwarted moral expectations that the price of bread should remain at a customary level, in the face of the cash nexus. As cheap energy begins to be seen as a necessity, scarcity and price rises can provoke somewhat similar protests—albeit directed at the state that is expected to provide it.

To call these movements for “energy justice” in the twenty-first-century sense—implying a concern with environmental sustainability as well as universal energy distribution—risks anachronism. The most effective movements have generally not been those of the most marginalized. The great beneficiaries of the electricity subsidies secured by India’s farmers’ movements were comparatively wealthy agriculturalists, who owned land and could afford tubewells. In Delhi, middle-class residents have similarly organized to resist tariff increases. Outside urban areas, it is less common to see protests of the poor for brand-new connections. The most marginalized tend to have low expectations of the state and its responsiveness at the best of times.

Chattopadhyaya: Thank you for laying that out so thoroughly. You also argue how the history of democratic re-allocation of energy away from commodification and capital accumulation towards consumption, while fraught and unequal, reveals the decommodification of electricity and its re-molding as a national good in the last half century. However, do the historical inequalities of access to electricity, coupled with the tense aspirational politics of entitlement, also limit the fuller possibilities of decommodification in your argument?

Chatterjee: At least in India, the big losers from the new “aspirational politics of entitlement”—I like your phrase!—have been large industrialists and commercial corporations. In most states, they pay much higher tariffs than everyone else does, and since the 1970s, state-level politicians have often preferred to divert scarce power away from factories rather than important electoral constituencies. This is something that ill fits the theory that Indian political life is now dominated by big business, or the popular notion that the global energy regime is underpinned by corporate capitalist interests in a simple and homogenous way. It also highlights a significant tension that has gradually emerged between the conception of electricity as a national good and its decommodification. Rising demands for subsidized energy—even the agricultural subsidies at first justified as crucial for India’s national food security—have drained many public utilities of both power and financial resources to reinvest, threatening the long-term prospects for India’s industrial and economic development.

Of course, inequalities of access remain glaring: as I say in the piece, the democratization of energy consumption has been partial and incomplete, and the right to cheap energy is one often honored in the breach. Huge numbers of rural households in Asia still lack electricity connections or reliable supply; World Bank data actually shows that access to electricity has fallen in rural Pakistan since 1998, due to the country’s longstanding electricity crisis. At the street level, these inequalities open up space for new, informal markets. City dwellers may pay professional electricity thieves or frontline utility workers to secure illegal electricity connections, for example, while wealthy farmers sell water from their subsidized electric tube wells in markets governed by existing social hierarchies of caste and kinship. These socially embedded markets were brilliantly documented by my sometime collaborator, Navroz Dubash, in his 2002 book Tubewell Capitalism. The fact that claims to cheap energy are often honored in the breach in this way helps to explain why electricity is so politicized across much of the Global South, while it remains essentially invisible in many high-income countries.

Decommodification is thus far from complete, as you suggest. My point is not that Asian countries have successfully liberated all their citizens from the cash nexus—that would be a ludicrous claim. I am arguing that it is, in part, the popular aspiration for and expectation of cheap energy that makes energy systems so difficult to change. Fossil-fired electricity is still cheaper than any other source across much of Asia, especially if the additional costs of transmission and backup power for renewables are included. If our histories ignore this positive case for fossil energy, they remain blind to the wickedness of the dilemma we face in trying to tackle climate change today.

Chattopadhyaya: This makes me think of infrastructure. Decarbonizing electricity today, as the article points out, highlights specific infrastructural problems and pressures in Asian countries. Could you flesh out some examples of how mega on-grid projects have squared up against micro-grid alternatives, and the challenges facing more decentralized supply infrastructures in light of the infrastructural priorities of electricity production?

Chatterjee: For a long time, its advocates have argued that renewable energy will bring a more decentralized and democratic future as we shift to local micro-grids. Micro-grid alternatives do have some purchase in remote areas. This optimistic prediction looks less plausible once we take into account the logics of state power and consumer demands just discussed.

On one side, Asia’s politicians and bureaucrats have often been reluctant to cede control over electricity supplies, and so favor centralized solutions. As early as 1958, Nehru himself warned of India’s “disease of gigantism” in the power sector. This has carried over into the renewable age. Governments like India’s have favored an approach that encourages the development of huge solar parks—like Charanka in Gujarat—rather than decentralized supply, even at the cost of mass displacement and local ecological damage. If renewable storage technology becomes feasible, this bias towards centralization may even become more pronounced.

On the other side, micro-grids often struggle to meet rising consumer expectations. A couple of years ago in Kolkata, I interviewed one of India’s early renewable energy pioneers. He was despondent about the way that the grid had chased out microgrids installed earlier in remote areas of West Bengal. Grid power is always better than off-grid for many consumers, he told me, because they are not content with merely running the lightbulbs and TV that small-scale systems can provide. So the off-grid solar schemes he pioneered became obsolete, because people preferred to receive subsidized power from the grid instead. In addition, we should not be naïve about just how democratic some of these schemes are in practice: entrepreneurs are often all too willing to cut people off from private micro-grids if they cannot pay.

Indeed, the biggest impact of micro-grids may eventually be a decidedly undemocratic one. Perhaps the most likely scenario is that wealthy industrial and commercial consumers, frustrated by the high tariffs they pay and the low quality of supply they receive from struggling public utilities like India’s, will choose to abandon the grid in favor of their own solutions. That will leave utilities facing what they fearfully call the “death spiral,” as lucrative consumers exit while only the poor and subsidized remain. This would not deliver the promised energy democracy, but a two-tier future—accompanied, I suspect, by intensifying protests.

Chattopadhyaya: Protests remind me of the association between water and power in India. How would you characterize the relationship between the complex politics of mass electricity consumption, whether hydroelectric or coal, and the emerging scarcity of water itself? What might look different if we put water at the center of analysis while looking at connections between poverty, resource-entitlement, and fossil developmentalism?

Chatterjee: The nexus between water, electricity, and food is critically important in understanding both the political economy of electricity and the ecological damage it has wrought in South Asia in particular. It was the Green Revolution—the great rise in agricultural productivity in the 1960s, thanks to the U.S.-sponsored rollout of new high-yield varieties of crops like wheat and rice—that helped to forge this nexus, a history that Sunil Amrith’s Unruly Waters (2018) recounts with characteristic eloquence. The new crops required vast inputs of water, and so South Asia’s first great wave of state-sponsored rural electrification arrived to energize the private tubewells that irrigated the fields of wealthier farmers. By 1980, India had overtaken the United States as the world’s largest consumer of groundwater; today, its consumption dwarfs the United States and China combined. Large swathes of both India and Pakistan are now contemplating the very real risk of water scarcity.

Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants themselves require huge amounts of water for cooling. This intensifies the freshwater crisis even as water shortages force plants to stop generating, presaging a future of rising rural-industrial competition for water alongside that for electricity. Focusing on water emphasizes how important it is to study the natural environment in tandem with political economy.

These interlinkages show that it is not only the demand for cheap energy that holds the status quo in place. So many popular and entirely justifiable expectations for modern life—cheap water, cheap food, cheap clothing—are similarly underpinned by ecologically devastating processes, from irrigating water-intensive cotton to the use of natural gas for producing fertilizers essential to feed the world’s growing population. This is the true tragedy of the Anthropocene: the story of dramatic poverty alleviation and the story of environmental degradation are in many ways one and the same.

Chattopadhyaya: That story, in Asia, is also fundamentally centered on the state. In analyzing Asian electricity histories and techno-nationalism, you fruitfully distinguish between democratic nation-states and one-party states. Given that the present nationalist regime in India, especially in the last two years, has successfully invited multinational capital into solar and wind energy sectors using strategies like reverse auctions, how would you place the current techno-nationalist politics of state-making in relation to, say, those undergirding the mega dam projects earlier?

Chatterjee: The present regime has certainly given techno-nationalism a new foreign policy dimension. The Paris Agreement of 2015 saw India take a somewhat less stubborn stance on North-South responsibility for climate action, and through high-profile renewable energy targets and the International Solar Alliance, the government has successfully burnished its international reputation as well as investor interest.

Nonetheless, the return of multinational capital is recent and still modest compared to India’s huge total infrastructural investment requirements. Multinational investors were scared off from the Indian electricity sector by the fiasco of Enron’s Dabhol power project in Maharashtra, which underwent multiple renegotiations before being mothballed after Enron’s collapse in 2001 (the plant is now in state hands). While the renewables sector has played host to a belated return of foreign direct investment, the last two years have actually witnessed slowing solar growth, thanks to the reluctance of the subsidy-laden public utilities to buy pricier power and their struggles to pay their debts on time.

As this suggests, there have been more continuities than changes. Even a powerful national government in New Delhi cannot compel subnational governments to comply with its mandates. The weakness of public utilities continues to hobble the sector. State financial institutions still play a crucial role in channeling investment; indeed, New Delhi’s infrastructure lending binge from 2003 to 2008 has saddled the state-dominated banking system with bad loans that are a big reason behind today’s overall economic slowdown. Coal-rich eastern states are especially resistant to the renewable energy transition, and even the government forecasts that the “black diamond” will continue to dominate power generation until at least 2030—not least to satisfy the growing demand for cheap electricity. I don’t think we can declare the arrival of a new phase of Indian capitalism just yet.