Government schemes have helped the entry of cleaner cooking fuel in rural homes, but ensuring sustained use over traditional biomass substitutes is a challenge

A woman in a village cooking by using traditional biomass fuel (Photo by Adam Cohn)

A woman in a village cooking by using traditional biomass fuel (Photo by Adam Cohn)

“We have a LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinder at our home in the village, but we use wood and cow dung for cooking and heating water,” says 42-year old Joginder Mishra, who hails from Dayanatpur village in Gautam Buddha Nagar District in Uttar Pradesh. A driver by profession, he uses LPG fuel for cooking when in Delhi, but not at his village home.

Explaining the reason for this practice, Mishra says, “Why would we use LPG that costs INR 1,000 (USD 14) a cylinder when we have cattle in our home and the dung is free?”

Mishra’s words are in sync with the complex ground reality of energy transition in rural India. On the one hand, the government is providing free cooking fuel connections to underprivileged people under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana (PMUY) scheme, which is a positive step in bringing clean energy access to the masses. On the other hand, the actual uptake of modern cooking energy is fraught with economic and behavioural challenges.

Indoor air pollution

There are big concerns about the impact of indoor air pollution on the health of people in India, particularly for those living in rural areas, where inefficient burning of biomass in homes is prevalent. As many as 480,000 people died in India due to air pollution in 2017, according to a report by the India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative, a collaboration of top health organizations that include Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI).

In this context, a scheme like PMUY is a much needed boost for the health security and well being of those living below the poverty line. In fact, an in-depth survey conducted by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) looked into the efficacy of government programmes that aim to bring access to modern energy to the poor and found that “PMUY has been a critical factor in enabling this transition.”

The Access to Clean Cooking Energy and Electricity- Survey of States (ACCESS) survey covered 9,000 households in 756 villages across six most energy-deprived states of India — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. It tested the impact of schemes on parameters like availability, health and safety, quality of cooking, convenience of cooking and affordability for PMUY; and capacity, duration, quality, reliability and affordability for Saubhagya — a government scheme to provide electricity access to all households.

The report found that the share of households using LPG in the six states has increased from 22% to 58% since the last survey done in 2015, and the share of households using LPG as their primary cooking fuel has increased from 14% to 37%. It also said that the number of households falling in the bottom of the energy ladder reduced from 78% to 44% since 2015. The success was attributed to the increasing uptake of cleaner LPG fuel in rural areas largely driven by the PMUY scheme.

Challenges in sustained use

However, it noted that the even though the government is providing subsidies to adopt clean cooking energy, the rural population is still struggling with its sustained usage. The high price – for those with limited means – of fuel refills means that freely-available biomass is often a more attractive option.

Mishra admitted that his family gets the cylinder refilled only once a year, while normally 10-12 cylinder refills are expected from a household for all cooking needs. There’s a trend that most of the households are opting for: supplementing their biomass consumption with LPG instead of relying solely on the latter for cooking needs.

“Policymakers now need to look beyond providing connections to households and turn their attention to ensuring affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy for all,” says Arunabha Ghosh, CEO, CEEW. “Energy access across rural India must be further improved to improve the standard of living, meet rising aspirations, and fulfil economic potential.”

Even as one-third of rural households have gained access to clean cooking energy, only 6% have managed to reach the top of the energy ladder, experts say.

Rahul Kumar Jat, a distributor of Indane LPG supplier in Sehor district in Madhya Pradesh, pointed out that even accessibility is an issue when it comes to home delivery of cylinders. “In my district, each village is far from another and in forest areas. Hence delivery is very difficult. While on an average 25% of households get home delivery of cylinders, in our district, it is just 10%.”

Jat also mentioned that even though the government is providing account-linked subsidies, many poor people are not able to derive the benefit as most of them have inactive bank accounts due to lack of transactions.

Maintaining momentum

The government on its part is trying to address the challenges to keep the momentum going. “It is important to understand that stacking will happen, but we are now trying to make it more affordable for them,” says Ashutosh Jindal, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. “Instead of 14 kg cylinder, we are coming up with 5 kg cylinder, which the people can buy after the consuming the first (free) one.”

The CEEW report also mentioned that the country has made significant strides in bringing electricity access to the poor. As much as 80% of rural households in the six surveyed states depend on grid electricity and solar energy for their primary lighting needs, up from 44% in 2015. A total of 30% less households now burn kerosene oil for lighting compared with the situation 2015.

At the same time, the median hours of daily electricity supply has increased from 12 to 16 hours collectively in all the six states. However, the reliability and quality of electricity continues to be a prime challenge in achieving a complete energy access. Often the voltage received is not adequate or damages the appliances.

For Mishra, getting reliable electricity supply in his village is still a distant dream. “We burn kerosene oil for lighting. We only get electricity for few hours and can’t even use a generator as it is expensive,” he says. “So much more needs to be done.”

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