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Understanding the Gender Dimensions of Energy Poverty

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    12th Jun, 2021
Understanding the Gender Dimensions of Energy Poverty


  • Energy supply is crucial to a country’s development, and it is for this reason that energy poverty is a serious concern.
  • Lack of access to energy not only deprives a person of basic necessities (heat, light, cooking fuel) but also strips them of options for a holistic development.
  • Multilateral organisations like the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Bank recognise energy accessibility as a crucial driver of social, economic and human development.
  • The Energy Progress Report, 2019states that globally, the electrification rate has reached 89 percent, and in absolute terms, the number of people without access to electricity has reduced from 1 billion to 840 million in 2016.
  • However, this is still a huge gap in terms of energy accessibility, especially when it comes to women and that too in rural areas.

Thus, it becomes important to analyse why India’s rural women are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to clean and modern energy.

What is Poverty and ‘Energy Poverty’?

  • Poverty is defined as the absence of choices and opportunities required to lead a life of dignity. Among these opportunities is clean and modern energy.
  • The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) defines ‘energy poverty’ as the absence of modern cooking fuel, and of electric light to carry out basic activities after sundown.

Where does India stand in terms of energy poverty?

  • By this definition, India is energy impoverished, with an estimated 580 million people continuing to be dependent on traditional biomass for cooking even in 2030.
  • As of 2011, 86 percent of rural households, and 20 percent of urban, relied on biomass for cooking.
  • A family of eight in the rural regions, on average, burns 70–80 kg of fuel wood each week. It is most often the women who walk some two km twice a week to fetch the wood.
  • Clean and modern energy can bridge the energy poverty gap and empower rural communities. India should move to transition from conventional fuel to clean and modern energy. 

How far has India reached in attaining access to energy for all?

  • India, however, is far from achieving Goal 7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—i.e., “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
  • The country is home to 780 million people who have no access to modern energy; they rely on traditional sources like biomass for cooking. 

On a global scale, around 3 billion people do not have access to improved cooking technologies.

  • Although India has made progress in electrifying households through schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna (PMUY), there are still around 239 million people across India who have no access to electricity.
  • The 2011 Census of India found that nearly 87 percent of the rural population remain dependent on solid fuels for cooking, and 580 million people across the country will remain without access to clean cooking fuels in 2030.

Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY)

  • The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas rolled out the scheme Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) in May 2016.
  • The scheme aims to safeguard the health of women & children by providing them with a clean cooking fuel – LPG.

Current energy mix of India

  • India’s total electricity generation has grown at 5.85 percent per annum since 1990–91.
  • However, the energy mix remains biased toward fossil fuels, the availability of efficient peaking power capacity is limited, and the availability of contracted generation capacity for ancillary services and demand response is unstructured.
  • Gas-based capacity is limited by the availability of affordable domestic gas at administered prices.
  • Moreover, stranded capacity in private projects based on imported gas and LNG remains a problem.
  • As of 31 March 2021, Renewable Energy (RE) generation capacity is at 21 percent (94.4 GW) of the total generation capacity.
  • However, coal still accounts for 55 percent of the installed generation capacity.

India is running the world’s largest clean energy programme to achieve 175 GW of renewable capacity, including 100GW of solar power and 60 GW of wind power by 2022.

Women, the most affected one by ‘energy poverty’

  • As societal and cultural norms endow the primary responsibility of securing food and energy to women, it is them who are most affected by energy poverty.
  • Apart from comprising 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty, globally, women also have poor access to technology and resources, due to societal constraints.
  • This contributes to women’s time poverty, ill health, and increased level of drudgery, leaving them at the losing end of economic and social development.
  • Research has found that a woman’s lack of agency in household decision-making is crucial in her family’s failure to transition from traditional fuel to clean cooking fuel.
  • The woman’s lack of voice in family decisions, in turn, is caused by her not contributing to household income.
    • Data shows that India’s female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) is only 27 percent, as opposed to the males’ 96 percent.
    • According to research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),  around 66 percent of the work done by women in India is unpaid (at 352 minutes per day) as opposed to 12 percent for men (52 min per day).

Forest of Policies and Regulations

  • Electricity Act (EA), 2003: The EA, 2003 is an omnibus legislation that replaced three previous legislations, defining the structure of the electricity generation and supply business in India and the regulatory arrangements to manage it efficiently.
  • National Electricity Policy (NEP), 2005: The NEP, 2005 provided a roadmap for implementation of the new legislation and the new unbundled, institutional arrangements to achieve the objectives of inclusion through electricity access; economic growth through the supply of quality power at reasonable prices; and private sector participation in ramping up capacity, whilst enhancing efficiency through competition.
  • National Electricity Policy (NEP), 2021: The government is now revising the 2005 policy and preparation is underway for a draft National Electricity Policy, NEP 2021, by a specially constituted expert committee.
    • NEP 2021 will focus on optimum regulatory arrangements for the future, outline a template of some successful initiatives, set new medium-term objectives that build upon past achievements, and identify pathways to achieve these objectives.

Why clean energy is essential?

  • Exposure to air pollution: A  household which has access to improved cooking technologies is exposed to indoor air pollution measured at 25-50 micrograms per cubic meter per day, as opposed to an exposure of 400-500 micrograms per cubic meter per day for a household that does not use improved cooking fuel and technologies.
  • Premature deaths: It is estimated that one of every four (25 percent) of the annual 4.3 million global premature deaths caused by Household Air Pollution (HAP) occur in India.
  • Detrimental health conditions: Some 400 million people in India, of whom 90 percent are women, rely on solid biomass and are exposed to detrimental health conditions that manifest as respiratory and pulmonary diseases, or other disorders like blurred vision.

What are the impacts of energy poverty?

The impacts of continued reliance on traditional fuel are multi-faceted, especially for women.

  • Slow transition: India’s slow transition to clean and modern energy can partly be attributed to the lack of understanding of the gender dimensions of this energy poverty.
  • Health issues: Rural Indian women, on average, spend five to eight hours every day on cooking-related activities; 20 percent of this time is used in securing fuel wood alone. The heavy workload takes a toll on the health of these women who are often, to begin with, undernourished.
  • Mortality risk: Poor nutrition, compounded by the workload, altogether increase their susceptibility to anaemia and respiratory diseases, and in turn raising their risk to pre-natal mortality and post-natal complications.
  • For India’s women, energy poverty ultimately accrues in time poverty. It holds them back from
    • engaging in income-generating activities
    • availing opportunities to enhance their skills set, getting education
    • adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change

Energy Poverty and Climate Change

Amongst the multi-pronged effects of energy poverty on women is related to climate change.

  • Rural women, being primarily responsible in their households for securing food and energy, are highly dependent on local natural resources.
  • Climate change—and the extreme weather events that it causes—can impact the availability, accessibility and stability of various food systems, local natural resources, and traditional food sources. This forces women to travel longer distances to find clean drinking water and fuelwood.
  • Increased floods, in particular, mobilise the arsenic contamination in soil, in turn polluting the ground water.
  • Women and children—assigned by traditional gender roles to be primarily responsible for securing clean drinking water—are the ones who get affected the worst.
  • Even the benefits attributed to advances in technology fail to accrue to the rural women.
  • Due to lack of resources, their low economic contribution and disposable income, lack of decision-making power and property rights, these women are unable to use technologies that can help them access clean water or modern energy (e.g., solar energy services and LPG).

Why green economy should be India’s focus area?

  • Employment opportunities: According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the green economy, in the next 20 years, will create about 60 million new jobs, a significant proportion of which are in the fields of technology and infrastructure.
    • Investments in Renewable Energy such as solar power, wind, geothermal, and hydro, are estimated to be capable of creating some 40 percent of these green jobs.
  • Green jobs for women: In this regard, off-grid energy systems carry a promise in transitioning from traditional fuels to clean and modern energy, as well as with generating green jobs for women. Off-grid solar energy (mini-grid, micro-grid, and stand-alone grid) can reach remote areas in the country where grid electrification cannot.
  • Combating carbon emissions: This can set the path to transitioning to renewable energy and combating carbon emissions; they are also more reliable and affordable in the long run. Rural households, in particular, can benefit from off-grid solar energy as they consume less energy.
  • Empowering communities: Moreover, off-grid solar energy has the ability to empower communities, especially the women, by generating economic and welfare opportunities.
    • For example: The non-government The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), has a programme called “Light a billion lives” which, along with its implementation of the community project of providing solar lighting system, has helped create income-generating opportunities in the supply chain of clean energy products.
      • The organisation selected women from self-help groups, and trained and mentored them to become local energy entrepreneurs.

Other similar projects (mini-grids and off-grid solar energy systems)



By (Organization)

Solar Powered Reverse Osmosis

  • Pioneered the use of solar energy to power reverse osmosis for water purification; mini grid power to run up to 10-15 hrs day, provides 2000 litres of clean portable water to 1000 households in Haryana.

Grassroots and Rural Innovative Development(GRID)

Dungarpur Solar Initiative (DSI)

  • DSI was responsible for training, mentoring, educating the tribal women of the Dungarpur district, to assemble, repair, maintain solar lamps.
  • They were also enabled to carry out skill transfer and promote solar enterprise in the local community.
  • They manufactured, installed, repaired, maintained several ranges of solar products—solar toys, solar home systems, solar street lights, and off-grid solar projects.

Dungarpur renewable energy technologies private limited (DURGA)

What needs to be done?

  • Gender-sensitive policies: Gender-neutral policies that aim to provide equal opportunities do not always result in equal outcomes; for this reason, gender-sensitive policies are required.
    • For instance, a policy that recognises the prevalent intra-household gender hierarchy will meet with greater success in ensuring that the household not only invests in solar lamps (which men would more easily agree to) but also solar cookers (from which men might not directly benefit, given that they spend less time in the kitchen.)
  • Visualizing women as means to achieve energy security: It is important to view women not only as end-users of the various energy services but also as entrepreneurs, designers, innovators who act as means to achieving energy security.
  • Increased awareness: Awareness needs to be backed by the guarantee of consumer rights – for e.g., on supply quality standards, efficiency benchmarks, ease of payment of bills, compensation for failure to adhere to the standards, and other issues that are part of the draft Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020.

Draft Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020

  • The draft Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020 seek to
    • specify time limits for distribution companies for giving new electricity connections
    • address grievances (delayed and accumulated bills, faulty meters etc.)
  • Women-centric green skill initiative: An important initiative that could be taken by the government is to direct the National Green Skills Council of India to bring into its mandate, a policy that focuses specifically on women. The rollout of green skill initiatives that are women-centric, would instil a sense of security and encourage women to take part in India’s green economy.

National Green Skills Council of India

  • Skill Council for Green Jobs is one of the most recently launched initiatives of the Government of India aligned to the National Skill Development Mission.
  • It is promoted by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
  • The creation of the SCGJ was approved in 2015.
  • Established as a not-for-profit, autonomous, industry-led society, the SCGJ was incorporated under the Societies Registration Act XXI, 1860 on 1st October, 2015.
  • Effective government measures: Government should take proactive measures to
    • implement socially progressive policies and programmes for women
    • pump in more stimulus packages, subsidies and grants into community-based energy projects
    • address gender equality
    • make the otherwise expensive clean energy technology available to the rural poor
  • Focus on RE production: When it comes to production of renewable energy (RE) in order to reduce the dependence on coal-based power, significant changes are needed in the capacity mix, with distributed localised generation (gas or RE or hybrid) and contracted capacity—pumped storage or gas based—for ensuring grid stability.


For a country such as India, which is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the clean energy sector is crucial as it can help in tackling climate change and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. And only thing which can hinder the progress is India’s gender-blind energy policies.

Thus, the current focus should be on women-centric policies. There is a need to ensure the participation of women in renewable energy programs at every level including the beneficiary, employment, business, and policymaking to enhance women empowerment and consider the specific needs of women in energy policies in India.