Electrifying India: Regional Political Economies of Development

Electrifying India: Regional Political Economies of Development

Electrifying India: Regional Political Economies of Development

Electrifying India: Regional Political Economies of Development


Throughout the 20th century, electricity was considered to be the primary vehicle of modernity, as well as its quintessential symbol. In India, electrification was central to how early nationalists and planners conceptualized Indian development, and huge sums were spent on the project from then until now. Yet despite all this, sixty-five years after independence nearly 400 million Indians have no access to electricity. Electrifying India explores the political and historical puzzle of uneven development in India's vital electricity sector.

In some states, nearly all citizens have access to electricity, while in others fewer than half of households have reliable electricity. To help explain this variation, this book offers both a regional and a historical perspective on the politics of electrification of India as it unfolded in New Delhi and three Indian states: Maharashtra, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh. In those parts of the countryside that were successfully electrified in the decades after independence, the gains were due to neither nationalist idealism nor merely technocratic plans, but rather to the rising political influence and pressure of rural constituencies. In looking at variation in how public utilities expanded over a long period of time, this book argues that the earlier period of an advancing state apparatus from the 1950s to the 1980s conditioned in important ways the manner of the state's retreat during market reforms from the 1990s onward.


Electricity is perhaps the most necessary and the most revolution
ary thing which you can take into the rural areas. The moment you
take electricity, all kinds of things begin to move.

Petty industries grow up, agriculture is affected; everything is
in fact affected.

The whole life of the people is changed.
—-Jawahańal Nehru, prime minister of India, 1947–1964

Since electricity’s invention in the late nineteenth century, the spread of electric utilities has come to signify the advance of modernity. The representation of electricity in India is no different. Consider for instance its role in Swades: We, the People (Homeland: We, the People) a 2004 Hindi film that received critical acclaim in India and abroad. Swades tells the story of Mohan, a US-based NASA employee who returns to India in search of his childhood nanny. Mohan, played by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, finds her living in a village that is plagued by a host of problems commonly ascribed to rural India: poverty, social discrimination, and a general resistance to ideas of progress. A few turns of the plot and a rising love interest convince Mohan to dedicate his time in India to improving conditions in the village. With his money, technical knowledge, and a few local recruits, he builds a small hydroelectric plant on a hillside just outside the village. Watching as electricity wires are strung along improvised poles, the older women of the village express awe that bijli (electricity) is finally coming to them. Mohan gives the signal to release the flow of water through narrow channels, and as the waves hit the turbine, everything changes, both for Mohan and the villagers. The khadi-clad local politicians, who had doubted the project from the start and had contributed neither their own labor nor any of the state’s development funds, stand aside as electricity travels through the makeshift grid to light a single bulb in the hut of one of the village’s oldest residents. The villagers cheer and embrace the promise of technological progress. Mohan finds romantic as well as patriotic love, leaving his coveted . . .

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