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Mapping Power: The Political Economy of Electricity in India's States.

Mapping Power: The Political Economy of Electricity in India's States, edited by Navroz K. Dubash, Sunila S. Kale, Ranjit Bharvirkar. (Oxford University Press, 2018) 400 pages, ISBN 978-019-948-7820

The social sciences do not inform the discipline of energy studies nearly as much as they could, and indeed should (Sovacool 2014). The dominant school of thought in this discipline, driven by tenets of neo-classical economics, provides few solutions to the issues plaguing affordable electricity access in the developing world. Over multiple decades, the "standard liberalization prescription" (Joskow 2004) has been found to be limited in its value, particularly to developing countries such as India (Jamasb et al. 2005).

This book provides convincing evidence that the social sciences and politics matter. It brings to the fore that conviction by way of gathering rich empirical evidence both on electricity reform efforts and political developments, from a diverse set of fifteen states in India. The focus on states contributes to bridging a crucial gap that exists in literature today, as most existing studies on India's electricity sector address the country level. Furthermore, this work is a vital contribution towards not just informing India's policy pathways, but also towards a methodological blueprint to understand the levers that drive electricity sector development across much of the developing world.

Summary: Framework and Analysis

The stated aim of the book is to understand the relationship of politics to electricity outcomes. The rich empirically-grounded analysis that this volume contains helps, as the editors note, to move beyond establishing that politics matters, to how politics matters. At the outset, their state-level analyses are motivated by the question: To what extent has the design and application of reforms addressed the particular politics of each state's electricity sector? Based on preliminary work, the editors identify four politically salient categories that are crucial in their analysis of the success of reform measures.

* Demand for access and service quality

* Demand for subsidies

* Cost of supply

* Financial space (a term they coin to describe an amalgam of factors that determine financial management of political demands in a state)

The first two factors represent political demands placed on the system, and the last two represent levers of the states to manage those political demands. Interactions between the politically salient factors mentioned above, and reform measures such as introducing regulators, privatization, and renewable-purchase obligations, are informed by and analyzed within the larger context of the state's political economy, under the premise that electricity policy shapes and is shaped by the larger state economy. In their analyses, they include factors such as electoral politics, state finances, the rural-urban divide, and policy interventions in agriculture. The framework also accounts for the role of central government interventions.

State-specific chapters are informed by extensive semi-structured interviews, supported by the available quantitative data. Along with a historically-informed narrative for each state, the less patient of readers are helpfully provided with a one-stop timeline depicting key political events alongside key events in the electricity sector in the state.

The brilliance of this volume is best encapsulated in the final chapter, where the authors present a characterization of the various states in a figure along two axes: along the vertical axis lie political outcomes termed, "vicious cycle," "accommodation and equilibrium," and "virtuous cycle," and along the horizontal axis lie electricity service outcomes (access and quality) that can either be high or low. By placing each state in the appropriate location in the grid, the authors summarize both outcomes: the findings in a comprehensive snapshot, and more importantly, a map of sorts that policy makers and policy analysts can use to explore strategies that help a state transition from one part of the grid to another.

For instance, the pathway that leads to a virtuous cycle for low outcome states is one that Bihar and West Bengal are currently on--political leaders push for better electricity outcomes as rural constituencies mobilize around electricity access. High outcome states, on the other hand, find themselves presented with a more contingent pathway to move to a virtuous cycle; such a move would require "designing a politically feasible strategy out of entrenched deadlocks," as Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Delhi (briefly) did. States such as Punjab and Rajasthan are characterized as being trapped in a negative spiral fed by "competitive populism." Although salient factors pertinent to successful electricity outcomes are illuminated by such a characterization, it is not a "solution set." The authors acknowledge that "the intent is not to provide a mechanistic toolkit, but rather a framework for dialogue and understanding of how to map power, which is the first step to productively reforming electricity politics."

For the reader who is simply interested in an overview of the book's main contributions to thinking on India's power sector, reading the introductory and concluding chapters would suffice. Such a reader would nevertheless miss the intricate dynamics at play within each state, and be less equipped to think through for instance, what factors the aforementioned grid-based characterization is contingent on. For readers interested in specific states, there is a wealth of information to look forward to within each chapter, including both historical and contemporary analyses.


The contributions of this volume are significant and many. Both in terms of methodology and scope, the book bridges critical gaps in literature. Due to a federal structure, Indian states have much independence in scripting their own electricity sector pathways, while embedded in a common institutional framework that the Union government provides.

Such a setting provides a rich playground for comparative learning that few authors have previously taken advantage of at this scale; notable exceptions at a smaller scale are (Dubash and Rao 2008; Kale 2014). An all-India perspective is of limited assistance when vital policy levers lie at the state level, as many earlier works indicate (Kumar and Chatterjee 2012; Maithani 2015; Pargal and Banerjee 2014; Parikh and Parikh 2011; Tongia 2003).

Theoretically, this work provides a powerful narrative that counters, and to an extent, complements the dominant literature in this discipline, which is based on welfare economics and assumes a benevolent policy-maker whose only interest lies in increasing social welfare. A recent report by the World Bank on "cost of distortions in the power sector" is a fine example of such work (Zhang 2017). Another major contribution of this work is its relevance to power sector reform in other developing regions of the world, which have a reasonably comparable polity to India. For instance, there has been much recent interest in developing "new regulatory and business model approaches to achieving universal electricity access" for Sub-Saharan Africa, which could gain by bringing to bear the framework and methodology employed in this work (MIT 2019; Rahnama and Perez-Arriaga 2018). Additionally, it provides rich information that could inform further institutional analysis.

I discern several missed opportunities - opportunities to seize what I consider "low-hanging fruit." As in most edited works, each author brings in their unique style of writing and to some extent, analysis as well. Although there is much to value in such diversity as the editors point out, an explicit reflection of each author's analytical journey would have been an important contribution too. For instance, in the chapter on Uttar Pradesh the author Jonathan Balls contemplates, "There is a shortage of evidence on the relative importance of political interference versus administrative incapacity in explaining persistently high levels of theft. Politicians are more likely to be re-elected when theft in their constituencies has risen, but there is little empirical evidence of how and to what degree this theft is enabled." Such reflections on shortcomings of method, data, or evidence, had they been consistently done, could have informed future work and perhaps also further sharpened the volume's concluding analysis.

Another missed opportunity, in my view, was to explicitly demonstrate the relevance of the volume's findings to emergent challenges of the new century for the power sector. The authors acknowledge that "understanding problems of the past is essential to addressing challenges of the future;" challenges that include the integration of low-cost renewables, the transition of the energy sector to a low-carbon future, and possibly changing current regimes of management of the grid. Their conclusions indicate immense faith in the power of low-cost renewable electricity - including as a political opportunity to address electricity access, as a long term transition to a lower cost regime that could allow greater financial space for distribution companies. These inferences in my view are premature and uncharacteristically bereft of the institutional analysis they bring to bear in reaching other conclusions on electricity outcomes. Perhaps this is a reflection of their approach, which does not include a specific focus on "new-age" challenges.

Nevertheless, as someone trained in modelling socio-technical systems and decarbonization pathways in particular, I wholeheartedly agree that the rich empirical and strategic analyses in the book is essential fodder for any analytical effort towards evaluating future pathways for the power sector in India. For the optimist, this missed opportunity presents prospective ideas that future researchers or a future edition could take advantage of.

This book is an ambitious and substantial contribution to current day thinking on the challenges of India's power sector. It is methodologically well-grounded in relevant theory and data, and provides a powerful counter-narrative to the dominant approach of understanding power sector reform especially in the developing world. For the student, policy analyst, politician, energy-system modeler, or the arm-chair enthusiast, this book is sure to be enlightening and for the large part, engaging as well. I expect that this volume will become staple reference for works on India's power sector for years to come.

Kaveri Iychettira

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School


Dubash, Navroz K., and D. Narasimha Rao (2008). "Regulatory Practice and Politics: Lessons from Independent Regulation in Indian Electricity." Utilities Policy 16(4): 321-31. 1.008.

Jamasb, Tooraj, Raffaella Mota, David Newbery, and Michael Pollitt (2005). "Electricity Sector Reform in Developing Countries : A Survey of Empirical Evidence on Determinants and Performance," March.

Joskow, Paul L. (2004). "Lessons Learned From Electricity Market Liberalization," 9-42.

Kale, Sunila S. (2014). Electrifying India: Regional Political Economies of Development. Stanford, California: Stanford

University Press, Kumar, Alok and Sushanta Chatterjee (2012). Electricity Sector in India: Policy and Regulation. 1st ed. New Delhi: Oxford

University Press, Maithani, P.C. (2015). Achieving Universal Energy Access in India: Challenges and the Way Forward. Los Angeles: SAGE. MIT (2019). "Universal Energy Access Lab - MIT & IIT-Comillas." January 2019.

Pargal, Sheoli and Sudeshna Ghosh Banerjee (2014). More Power to India: The Challenge of Electricity Distribution. Directions in Development. Energy and Mining. Washington, DC: World Bank,

Parikh, Jyoti and Kirit Parikh (2011). "India's Energy Needs and Low Carbon Options." Energy 36(6): 3650-58.

Rahnama, Roxanne and Ignacio J. Perez-Arriaga (2018). "Electrification Planning with a Focus on Human Factors." Oxford Energy Forum--Electrifying Africa, no. 115.

Sovacool, Benjamin K. (2014). "What Are We Doing Here? Analyzing Fifteen Years of Energy Scholarship and Proposing a Social Science Research Agenda." Energy Research & Social Science l(March): 1-29.

Tongia, Rahul (2003). "The Political Economy of Indian Power Sector Reforms." Working Paper No 4. Stanford: Center for Environmental Science and Policy.

Zhang, Fan (2017). IN THE DARK: How Much Do Power Sector Distortions Cost South Asia?
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Author:Iychettira, Kaveri
Publication:The Energy Journal
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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