The chulha and other cooking fuels indeed have nostalgic value.
But India has to move on to more stable, enabling and pollution-limiting alternatives.
Many of us who existed in the 1970s would remember how, well past the time LPG stoves and cylinders made their way into our grandparents’ homes, the chulha or angeethi continued being used. Kept in the inner courtyard of the house, these earthy cooking contraptions cooked up the most delicious dal, vegetables and rotis.
On a day that dal was cooked in the kitchen on the LPG cooking stove, the conversation was always about “Quick, but no taste!” In fact, who can deny the earthy, ‘artisan’ taste of food cooked slowly on a chulha? To this day, we try to replicate the taste and experience by cooking sometimes in sealed earthen pots on coal embers!
In winters, the chulha/angeethi was particularly advantageous, providing warmth all around as the food cooked. Again, water for bathing was boiled on the chulha, and rotis were made on the chulha because Dadi (grandma) was accustomed to making them while sitting on a low stool on the floor. The LPG stove necessitated the cooking to be done while standing.
Coal was cheaper and easily available through established logistics chains; LPG or “gas” was considered expensive, and a thing to be procured for convenience and satisfaction of ownership -- but used economically. On a regular basis, it was used for tea, snacks and fries.
Chulha and LPG coexisted till the early ‘80s – a good 12-15 years. And this, in urban, relatively well-off families.
India’s rural and remote corners are seeing similar stories unfolding, as the Ujjwala scheme increases its reach. It’s been three years since its launch in May 2016, and it is being assessed for its effectiveness.
Why Project It As A Scheme To Be Written Off?
One would think that this flagship scheme of the NDA has universal acclaim: a clear winner, and acknowledged as such because of:
a) its intent - To provide BPL families (which was later extended to all poor families) access to clean fuel, and prevent ill-health resulting from pollution.
b) extent of coverage – 8 crore connections, that have increased LPG coverage to 90 per cent across the country. This makes it one of the greatest social sector interventions.
c) speed of implementation – 8 crore connections in four years.
And importantly because,
d) it fulfils a need and aspirations of the people – everyone wants a connection, and contrary to the narrative about “gender inequalities” hindering uptake of LPG, it is mostly men asking for connections for “my wife” on social media and other forums.
e) Thus, it is “the right to choice of cooking fuel” that the government has given its people, something that was unavailable to them all these decades.
But no. News reports have been lavishing scathing criticism on Ujjwala, like this one and this and many more, bent upon showing the scheme as “half-baked”, “half-full”, “not so bright” - and even “a failure”.
Apart from the anniversary timing in the month of May, this current widespread denigration has been prompted by a report released by RICE (Research Institute for Compassionate Economics) which studied the scheme in UP, Bihar and Rajasthan and MP. The study found that beneficiaries were still using a mix of fuels, and had not shifted exclusively to LPG.
RICE found that this shift to LPG was prevented by a combination of factors - poverty, relative price of other fuels, and various cultural beliefs.
The variety of factors led RICE to recommend that to encourage consumption of LPG, the government needed to look “beyond costs” and focus on belief sets. Yet, nearly all analyses and reports that quote the RICE study, choose to focus only on the old, long done-to-death factor: high cost of refills.
Some even did more ground reports in other states, to show that stoves had been folded and kept aside, while people continued to cook on chulhas. QED, Ujjwala was a failure.
Why, one wonders, is it not obvious that any scheme that tries to wade past the vastness of the country, the myriad attitudes and norms, including corruption; and various social, economic and geographical structures - would necessarily be a work-in-progress only three years into its launch.
Our opening story shows the long years it took LPG to make a permanent, exclusive space for itself even in urban, well-to-do settings.
Plus, what gives hope that things will get increasingly better is the government’s efforts to consistently incorporate feedback – to not just meet their target, but also increase usage of LPG. For instance, introducing “Chhotua”, a 5-kg cylinder that reduced the upfront cost burden and also the hassle of transportation; the plan to distribute induction and solar cookers to combat irregular LPG supply. Now, advertisement campaigns that will encourage the use of LPG.
The Truth About Refills -- Not The High Price, Stupid!
It appears that ground stories are being cherry-picked to paint a gloomy picture about Ujjwala. Often, by putting the onus of low refills on their “high costs”.
Now, it is common sense that in a scenario where the substitutes – coal, firewood and cow dung cakes – are free; households would necessarily find LPG expensive in comparison. The free substitutes are a disincentive to use or refill LPG. RICE found that nearly 68 per cent households made or collected their fuels – either owned cows and buffaloes to make dung, or had agricultural land from where they collected waste or wood.
Another study by MICROSAVE, an international consulting firm, a complete “Demand-side diagnostic of LPG refills” across 105 villages in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and UP, found that Chhattisgarh had the highest number of instances of no refills at 40 per cent, which were 17 per cent in MP. UP, in fact, had a no-refill percentage at a low 4.
MICROSAVE also, like RICE, found that low consumption of LPG was directly proportionate to free availability of firewood. And hence the lower refills. In Chhattisgarh, with 41 per cent of the land as forests, the average beneficiary consumed only 2.7 cylinders in a year, compared to the national average of 4.32 refills.
This is an important point, because, to the extent that substitutes are freely available, the validity of the policy prescription to “increase subsidy per cylinder, to increase LPG usage” is reduced.
Further, a working paper of IIM-A on Ujjwala led by Prof SK Barua had conducted field visits across the states of UP, Gujarat, Bengal and Odisha, and found varying responses regarding refills.
The Gujarat beneficiaries interviewed did not report any issues, including price of refills; majority of UP beneficiaries had issues with price of refills; in Odisha and West Bengal, the majority did not complain about price of refills.
The MICROSAVE study found that refilling turned out to be a costly affair – because adding to the total price of the cylinder were a) transportation costs, with warehouses long distances away; and b) lost wages from being absent from work, to procure the cylinder. Both of these add about Rs 150-200 to the cost of the cylinder.
Another factor that acted as a disincentive for refills was the inconvenience of carrying heavy cylinders over long distances – especially in MP.
The IIMA study had found that by itself, after subsidy, the cost of the cylinder was in the range of Rs 450-480. This comes to about Rs 15 per day for a household, which is not unaffordable.
But because the subsidy accrued in the bank account later, the upfront cost of Rs 800 was found excessive and an unnecessary indulgence by households. Especially with free substitutes available.
The transport costs in ferrying the cylinder from the warehouse, which is a long distance away need to be worked on. And to consider a possibility whereby the households can pay only the subsidised price upfront.
The Continued Use Of Chulha
All three studies quoted above found that beneficiaries continued to use chulha.
However, as the RICE study says, there are factors beyond economics that drive households to continue using chulha.
While one cannot undermine poverty, and the affordability factor in ordering refills, the RICE study had an interesting finding: that 63 per cent of the “richest households” mix fuel sources and use chulha on a daily basis. Better taste of food, health and thorough cooking were the factors identified.
MICROSAVE found one reason for this to be that rural households’ pattern of cooking is different from urban users: the large families require large cooking pots and pans that do not fit on a cooking stove; they cook large quantities of fodder for cattle and heat water during winters, both of which use large amounts of energy; finally, they eat grains that must be cooked slowly. All these would make LPG use prohibitively expensive.
All these are practical considerations, and not related to price of refills, or even to cultural beliefs. A combination of these make biomass fuels a completely irreplaceable product. It would not be wrong to conclude that it appears that villagers never intended using LPG full-time.
Given all this, does it make sense for the government to push for converting to exclusive LPG consumption at all?
Should Government Push For Exclusive LPG Consumption?
Efforts to remove supply-side bottlenecks, improve delivery mechanisms and educate and influence the last-mile will need to be an ongoing process. Possibly, even introduce new credit mechanisms, as MICROSAVE suggested.
Ultimately, an increase in general economic well-being – along with passage of time that entrenches habits – would serve to increase consumption of LPG and movement away from solid fuels in the natural course.
The next, younger generations also are expected to adopt it faster. In fact, the government is planning on an advertisement campaign that highlights that unless they (villagers) get LPG, they wouldn’t “get a daughter-in-law”!
However, interventions such as increasing subsidy may not be a good idea. As the IIM-A study points out: internationally, LPG prices have remained low in the last two years, but any increase in price will adversely affect LPG consumption by the beneficiaries. A higher subsidy would put a pressure on government finances; higher consumption of LPG by the country would also increase India’s import bill. Thus, Prof Barua from IIMA has suggested keeping other options open, such as introducing solar cookers.
Other Solutions Towards Clean Fuel, Alongside Ujjwala
Just as we urban citizens have a choice to mix cooking modes – LPG, coal for barbecue and Dum cooking, induction and solar – so rural people must also have the same right to choices.
The government would have done a good enough job in providing the “right to healthier cooking facilities” to people and enabling access. But dictating choices would mean interference, and curbing other rights.
For instance, all the studies found that villagers considered food cooked on cow dung healthier. Instead of dismissing their belief, this could be made a subject of study. After all, certain ayurvedic medicines are prescribed to be prepared slowly, using cow dung cakes only.
If they want to continue using dung cakes, smoke safety pipes or chimneys can be built from the chulha that open outside, to enable fumes to vent out. Several studies talk about smoke from cow dung acting as an air-purifier and an insect repellant.
Chulhas kept in courtyards rather than closed rooms are not so unhealthy; government could consider constructing small sheds outside, for those who don’t have courtyards.
For coal, another technology can come in handy: a special kind of cooker known as ‘ICMIC cooker’ which originated in Bengal and Assam and is still available in select places. ICMIC cookers are made of copper or aluminium and resemble large ‘tiffin-carriers’; they slow-cook food in tiered containers, using coal embers in small quantity. The coal smoulders slowly over hours in the lowest compartment, with food in separate containers above. The author has personally used this cooker – it results in zero smoke and may be a viable alternative to LPG, being both low-cost and clean.
Such win-win - from the WHO’s perspective, from the government’s “clean fuel” point of view, as well as the villagers’ point of view -- solutions are the need of the hour, and the government must proactively seek out such indigenous yet ingenuous modes of cooking simultaneously, alongside its ‘Mission-mode’ manner of implementing Ujjwala.