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Energy, Climate Change and Poverty: Insights from a Field Trip to Odisha, India

Earlier this year, I travelled to the state of Odisha, on India’s east to get some insights on the linkages between energy access, rural poverty and climate change adaptation. During this visit, I was looking for answers on: How does Odisha’s government currently identify and establish links between natural disasters and rural poverty? And what role, if at all, may the current policy environment consider of energy poverty in further accentuating these linkages?

Odisha provides a unique context to investigate energy-poverty-climate contradictions: It is the 11th most populated state in India with a total population of 42 million (3.5% of the national total), and has consistently ranked in the 10 poorest states in India - in relation to absolute poverty as well as multidimensional poverty (India Census, 2011).

Additionally, energy accessibility rates remain one of the lowest in the country. According to India’s latest census (2011), household electrification rate in Odisha was 43%, while just over 35% of the state’s rural households considered electricity as their primary source of lighting. The situation is even worse in relation to availability of clean cooking energy; of India’s six largest states, Odisha ranks the second worst in access to clean cooking energy, with less than 10% of all households currently using LPG.

From a natural disaster perspective, Odisha is often called the ‘disaster capital’ of India. Over the last 115 years, Odisha has been declared disaster-affected for at least 95 years, and has witnessed alarming droughts, super cyclones and recurring floods during this time. Two particularly strong cyclone events to have hit Odisha’s coast over the last two decades include Cyclone Phailin in October 2013 and the massively destructive, Super Cyclone of 1999 with losses of approximately $5 billion.

Through conversations with a number of senior current and retired bureaucrats, it appears that the government’s approach to understanding and contextualizing links between climate change adaptation and energy access remains limited in scope. Although there is growing policy interest in better climate change adaptation planning, the process remains largely focused on short-sighted improvements and largely lacks ‘big ticket thinking’. The government has essentially remained in a ‘giving’ mode – providing immediate cash relief and implements for rural artisans in the aftermath of disaster events.

On the other hand, relatively little attention has been paid towards building long-term capacities of affected population through skill and knowledge development. Without the latter, it is not only difficult to mainstream climate change planning and preparedness within the broader landscape of rural development but in doing so, also defeats the longer-term objective of shifting policy priorities to focus on good governance with effective and quality intervention.

This is not to suggest that Odisha’s government hasn’t done enough. It is one of the better performing governments in the country in terms of raising community awareness and preparedness to disaster management over the past decade. However, there is enormous scope for greater emphasis on collective effort to build synergies amongst various stakeholder groups. In the context of energy access for improved climate adaptation, the stakeholders include, but are not limited to, local and state governments, civil society organisations, bi- and multi-lateral aid agencies, and affected communities and individuals.

Dr Vigya Sharma is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Energy and Poverty Research Group, University of Queensland, Australia.