When people try to manage limited resources together, why do they sometimes fail and sometimes succeed? Since the time of Aristotle, scholars and laymen alike have twisted their minds around the subject. With the frightening prospect of severe future climate change, a growing world population, and steadily increased stress on global resources, the significance of securing "our common future" only grows by the day.
In the remote islands of the Sunderban delta of West Bengal, India, 4.5 million people live and work without access to the national electricity grid. The inhabitants use sources of fuel like kerosene, wood and cow dung. As customers of off-grid solar PV mini-grids, installed by the state and other implementing agencies, some now have access to electricity. Between 1996 and 2011, 18 solar mini-grids were installed on the islands, supplying each customer with 70-200 W daily.
The power plants have limited capacity, and tariffs are based on flat rates. Customers are not allowed to consume more electricity than the agreed upon limit, but in most cases, no current meters or circuit breakers have been installed. The high level of compliance throughout the past decade has surprised both scholars and practitioners, who have characterized the supply systems as a "rural electrification story".
However, the situation has gradually changed. Customers have stopped paying electricity fees, started consuming more electricity than allowed, and stretched illegal cables over to their neighbors. At the same time, the capacity of the mini-grids has declined. This gives rise to the question: why did the customers comply with the agreements for a decade, and then stop complying, while at the same time knowing that their actions would negatively affect supply?
A multiple case study from three Sunderban Islands was conducted to shed light on this question. Thirty-four interviews were conducted during fieldwork in August 2011, with people involved at all levels of the supply chain - customers, operators, monitors, funders and implementing agencies. By employing data from fieldwork and earlier research on the subject, variations in compliance between contexts and in time are explored.
Questions like the ones posed in this thesis are extensively discussed within the field of common resource management. To answer the research question, the thesis starts with common resource literature and aims to take an explorative approach to the subject. Trust is identified as a useful concept to trace the variables affecting the variations in levels of compliance. By employing trust as an analytic concept, the thesis finds that compliance has been influenced by a combination of factors, with different combinations of variables leading to different outcomes between contexts and in time.
Levels of compliance have varied with capacity of the technology, the type of institutional set-up, degree of and type of enforcement, customers’ knowledge and expectations of the technology, and expectations of other customers' and institutions' actions. In addition, the situation found in the Sunderban Islands has been shaped by global developments in recent decades, affecting the customers' general hopes and dreams for their lives.