3.1. Problematising state-society explanations of remote-electricity issues: the case of Kai Besar, Maluku

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Krisna Satya (Universitas Gadjah Mada)
Max Richter (Monash University)


National governments seek to provide all citizens with basic services and utilities, including access to electricity. Program Indonesia Terang is a major new pathway for providing adequate, reliable and affordable electricity to areas that the national grid has not yet reached. Such rural electrification programs need to consider social and technical aspects of both new installation areas and the great many locations with established but imperfect electrical systems. Within a broader framework of Australia-Indonesia Centre macro-modelling, micro-grid/grid extension planning and other activities guided by RI-ESDM, this paper draws on an ethnographic case study in Kai Besar, Maluku. Electricity provision on the island is based on a cable-&-poles network with diesel-powered generation, a solar array, biomass and (in process) micro-hydro. While there are technical issues, such as the worn-down central generator and diesel/solar switching problems, the central concern of this paper – ultimately not unrelated to the technical concerns – is the mistrust and troubled relations between citizen-customers and the various energy providers. In particular, power failures, billing disputes and a proposed ‘pre-paid’ arrangement have caused tensions in the capital, Elat. We ask why these situations arise, and what can anthropology offer on the topic. Explanations that rely on state-society divisions tend to blame villagers as forever complaining and ungrateful, or see state-led electrification as yet another means for controlling the citizenry. This paper seeks to articulate a more complicated picture. We focus on communications, actions and misunderstandings between PLN, community members, state actors, Pertamina and private vendors, and highlight interplays between political economic structures and local-level interactions (cf. Li, 2007; Winther, 2008).