Regional Diversity of Energy Use in India: A Historical Perspective

Regional Diversity of Energy Use in India: A Historical Perspective


Sayako KANDA

Keio University


As a rapidly growing economy, India faces a serious energy scarcity. One of the features of India’s energy consumption is a diversity of energy sources ranging from fossil fuels to renewable ones. Regionally different energy sources for power generation are essentially determined by India’s geographical diversity. Meanwhile, the consumption of non-commercial energy is on the increase, because rural areas are still dependent on a variety of locally available fuels for cooking and lighting. An inflated number of energy-related government offices reflects this diversity of energy sources. In this respect, India’s history of energy conversion is different from the phased linear pattern of energy conversion experienced by the most industrialized countries. This column places the development of this feature of energy consumption in a historical perspective.

          The market for commercial energy emerged in the early nineteenth century when the commercial production of coal began in East India. Coal production gradually expanded, reaching thirty million tons in 1947. Although coal played a significant role in the development of modern industries during the colonial period, the high cost of energy was one of the major hindrances of India’s industrialization, as Morris D. Morris has suggested. Another problem was that coal was distributed unevenly from one region to another, because coalfields were mostly located in East India, where more than ninety percent of coal was produced and the majority of coal companies were based. While East India enjoyed abundant and cheaper coal, West and South India were at a great disadvantage in this respect. Instead of coal, hydro-electricity was expected to solve energy shortages in these areas. Thus, although the market for commercial energy formed during the colonial period, it evolved according to regional differences in energy production and consumption.

          Indigenous fuel-consuming industries, including sugar, iron, charcoal, silk, paper, and salt, had been consuming a variety of ‘traditional’, non-commercial fuels. Grass, straw, reed, wood, charcoal, and animal dung were obtained through market and non-market transactions. India’s ecological diversity reflected regional differences in the choice of fuels. By the late eighteenth century, some areas, especially coastal West India, saw the formation of a wider regional fuel market mainly due to massive deforestation caused by centuries of logging, grazing, and shifting cultivation. In other areas, like Lower Bengal, where industries had customarily obtained locally available fuels, market transactions of fuel developed only to a limited extent.

          High prices and shortages of commercial energy during the colonial period had an adverse effect on fuel use in indigenous industries. Not only did these industries miss the opportunity to modernize through energy conversion, they also had to rely more and more on the market to secure sufficient fuels, as overall energy shortages encouraged commercialization of wood and other traditional fuels even in relatively energy-rich East India. The commercialization of traditional fuels, however, did not lead to an emergence of a trans-regional market, but rather strengthened the regional diversity in fuel consumption that had existed for a long span of time.

          Regional diversity has persisted after independence and is one of the features of India’s energy consumption even today. It appears that by maintaining regional differences in energy consumption, India had been sustaining a supply–demand balance of energy and saving energy in circumstances where energy was scarce and expensive. Robert Allen argues that the high cost of labour and cheap energy in eighteenth-century England generated an incentive to substitute energy for labour. By this line of argument, India’s expensive energy and relatively cheap labour would have incentivized India in the opposite direction: to save energy rather than labour.



Allen, Robert C., The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Kanda, Sayako, ‘Environmental Changes, Emergence of the Fuel Market, and the Working Conditions of the Salt Makers in Bengal, c.1780-1845’, International Review of Social History, vol.55, supplement, 2010.

Kanda, Sayako, ‘Enerugi Sijo no Keisei to Enerugi Riyo no Chiikisei [The Formation of the Energy Market and Regional Diversity of Energy Use]’, in Akio Tanabe, Kaoru Sugihara, and Kohei Wakimura eds, Gendai Indo 1: Tayoka Shakai no Chosen [Contemporary India Series 1: Challenges of Diversity-driven Society], Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, forthcoming (in Japanese).

Morris, Morris, D., ‘The Growth of Large-Scale Industry to 1947’, in Dharma Kumar, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of India, vol.2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.