Nandita Badami

AnthropologyUniversity of California / Irvine

Award Information

2016 IDRF Program

AnthropologyUniversity of California / Irvine

Cultures of the Sun: The Politics of Solar Energy in India

Sunlight has played an often overlooked, yet significant role in Indian political history. In 1930, Gandhi undertook his famous Salt March to protest the British taxation of salt by making his own, and encouraged other Indians to do the same. Gandhi's method was simple: he mobilized sunlight, a resource accessible to all Indians, to extract salt from sea water. Today, as India gears up to become one of the world's largest producers of solar energy, similar rhetoric is employed in government, policy and NGO circuits, reminding people that sunlight is a democratic energy source, freely accessible to all. My dissertation focuses on this apparent socially transformative potential of sunlight at a moment when solar energy is being globally hailed as a zero carbon alternative to fossil fuels. Although sunlight maybe "free" and freely available, it is precisely this quality that binds it to social, political and economic relations. In recognizing this, my project asks: How might we understand solar energy as a social technology? What kinds of social identities and political formations are engendered and dissolved through this technological manifestation of sunlight? How do these interact with existing historical and religious modes of relating to the sun in India? I explore these questions through a multi-sited ethnography in India, engaging bureaucrats involved in formulating solar energy policy, urban residents bypassing unreliable state electricity grids with rooftop solar modules, villagers experiencing electric modernity through solar-based NGO initiatives, and spiritualists looking beyond the economic in their harnessing of the sun's energy. Each site affords me the opportunity to examine social relations that have begun to accrue around sunlight as it emerges as a crucial component of contemporary economic and political systems.