Renewable energy can get India’s returned rural migrants back to work

Renewable energy can get India’s returned rural migrants back to work
A migrant worker walks along a railway track to return to his home state of central Madhya Pradesh, during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ahmedabad, India, May 19, 2020

During India’s lockdown, many workers moved back to their rural villages from the cities – and many have stayed there.
But employment opportunities are limited in India’s rural areas.
Local renewable energy solutions could generate new livelihoods for these internal migrants.
The COVID-19 lockdown halted economic activity in India’s cities, and the loss of their daily livelihoods left millions of internal migrants economically vulnerable.

Furthermore, the process of returning to their native rural provinces was particularly distressing – and those bitter memories are causing many migrants to remain in their villages, even since a partial easing of the lockdown. But Indian villages hold limited employment opportunities – and so the question is whether India can unlock new jobs in its rural areas to absorb this workforce productively.

A solution
One way is to leverage decentralised renewable energy (DRE) solutions as an enabler for rural commerce. For instance, CEEW-Villgro’s Powering Livelihoods project assisted rural units to leverage solar energy-powered sewing machines to decentralise the manufacturing of cotton masks.

However, the larger opportunity to leverage DRE solutions might be in agriculture and the agri value chain. These are not only a key provider of rural livelihoods. Many internal migrants operated micro-businesses, like roadside food establishments, in the cities. Albeit informal, they were entrepreneurs in their own right – and this entrepreneurial experience in the food and agriculture space should be harnessed. Apart from supporting jobs and entrepreneurship with better power supply, this can also address broader policy issues like energy poverty, agri-productivity, food security, emissions, gender, health and resilience to climate variability.

DRE solutions could be used across agriculture-related applications like pumping water, storing, drying and cooling of produce, cooking and lighting, agro-processing and pre-made food packaging. To give an example, a 2018 CEEW report narrowed down on machines like reaper binders, knapsack sprayers and rice transplanters as those holding the maximum potential for DRE in the farm sector.

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