Finding a healthy way to cook

As questions arise over the Ujjwala scheme’s success, it would be prudent to introduce alternative clean sources of energy

Updated - August 24, 2021 12:31 pm IST

Published - August 24, 2021 12:15 am IST

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath gives a free LPG cylinder to a beneficiary under 'Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana', in Mahoba

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath gives a free LPG cylinder to a beneficiary under 'Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana', in Mahoba

In India, many women in poor households who use firewood or dung cakes for cooking spend long hours collecting firewood and making dung cakes. This is drudgery. It affects their health and puts the safety of women and girls in jeopardy. Using firewood and dung cakes also leads to indoor pollution, as chulhas (firewood-based stoves) using these sources of energy release carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Both these gases have an adverse impact on the health of the family members. They also impact the environment.

The earlier solution to this problem — smokeless or fuel-efficient chulhas for cooking — was introduced in the 1980s. The National Programme on Improved Chulha was launched in 1984. This was backed by training programmes for making and maintaining these chulhas. But these programmes failed when subsidies were withdrawn, governments lost interest, people could not be convinced to use the new chulhas and did not participate, target beneficiaries were not properly identified, and there was little quality control.

Introducing LPG

The Indian government then introduced Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) in June 2013 under the PAHAL scheme on an experimental basis. The scheme finally covered 291 districts. Access to this clean energy was expected to alleviate the public health burden posed by household air pollution on women. With rising incomes, the lower classes were expected to be covered by the scheme. The scheme, it was thought, would improve women’s access to education, leisure, and the labour market, and also improve the environment, climate, and human health.

In 2016, the Modi government launched the LPG scheme as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMYU). NITI Aayog laid out a road map for universal access to LPG by 2025. The subsidy for LPG increased from ₹12,000 crore in 2016-17 to ₹21,000 crore in 2017-18 (Petroleum Analysis and Planning Cell, 2018), and 94% of all households had an LPG connection as of September 2019, an increase from 56% in 2014-15.

However, as per evaluation studies, many LPG connection holders were found to still be using other fuels like firewood and dung cakes. This is because men, who usually make the decision of buying the refill, often do not agree to a refill which is expensive for the poor. Studies found that the poor use LPG mainly for making tea or snacks while they continue to use firewood or cow dung for their main cooking, as these sources of fuel are free of cost and easily available. Usually, as low value is attached to women’s time in production, the opportunity cost of women’s labour is low even when a capital subsidy is available, and women have to depend on traditional fuels. LPG is used for cooking when the opportunity cost of women’s labour is considered high, such as in the peak season in farming. On the other hand, urban households with reasonably high incomes and rural households belonging to upper income groups consider LPG refill a necessity for full cooking. Official data show that 48% rural households used LPG (2018) but only partially. The other problems in accessing LPG are administrative and include the distance to LPG distribution centres, long waiting time, and rising costs of LPG cylinders.

Despite these findings, the Prime Minister recently introduced Ujjwala 2.0 under which one crore additional PMUY connections aim to provide deposit-free LPG connections to those low-income families who could not be covered under the earlier phase of PMUY. Under Ujjwala 2.0, migrants will not be required to submit ration cards or address proof. The amount allocated for this purpose is ₹14,073 crore this year.

It is clear that the planners have not looked at the evaluation studies of Ujjwala 1.0 and the official data on the performance of the scheme. LPG cylinders are not a priority for the poorest. They sometimes even sell the cylinder to meet their urgent needs.

One size cannot fit all

There is no doubt that crores of poor and middle class women need better sources of cooking energy that are time saving, healthy, easily accessible and affordable. LPG works well, but only for non-poor households. Others need affordable alternatives to choose from, such as solar energy and solar cookers, smokeless chulhas, biogas plants and electric cookers where electricity is cheap. Good research and development efforts need to be made in the public and private sectors to explore these alternatives. As one solution may not fit all, there is a need to offer a set of energy sources to households so that each of them finds a suitable energy for itself. Women in India can achieve energy security for cooking only through cheaper and efficient alternatives.

Indira Hirway is Director and Professor of Economics, Centre for Development Alternatives

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