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Why the rural cooking energy infrastructure needs a rethink

28 April, 2016

Rural infrastructure to provide clean energy for cooking is vital for sustainable development and promoting good health in our country where about 850 million people reside in villages. Globally, about 2.5 billion people use biomass for cooking. About 80% of our rural population still depend on wood and cow dung for cooking.

Emission of poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, benzene and nitrous oxide while cooking from solid fuels including coal and biomass has serious health consequences. International Energy Agency studies and World Health Organization (WHO) reports indicate that about 1.6 million people die of asphyxiation due to smoke from indoor cooking with biomass.

According to a study in Tamil Nadu, use of such fuels for cooking leads to emission of 1,500-2,000 micrograms per cu. m of particulate matter (PM) compared with 40-50 micrograms per cu. m of safe emission recommended by agencies in the US and Europe. Such emission levels go down to 76 micrograms per cu. m and 101 micrograms per cu. m when liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or kerosene, respectively, was used. The health and environment studies show that PM particles of size 10 micron or below present in smoke from biomass cooking seriously damage the respiratory system when inhaled. Smaller particles of 2.5 micron size cause incalculable harm to the health of humans. It is feared that diseases such as asthma, lung cancer, tuberculosis, cataract, ischemic heart disease, intestinal disease and adverse impact on pregnancies leading to low birth weight babies are outcomes of smoke and other gaseous emissions during cooking in closed spaces.

Infrastructure development for providing access to the large population in the country for use of cleaner fuels is clearly important. According to available National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, the country has provided LPG access to 68.4% of urban population and only 15% in rural areas.

If we were to include kerosene too as a clean fuel for cooking, this access in rural areas improves to about 20%. There is a very uneven distribution of LPG network in different states of the country. Broadly, these can be classified in three categories. The first group of states are those which have poor access to LPG both in rural and urban areas. Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal fall under this category. Uttar Pradesh presents a contrast where in urban areas such access is about 67%, but in rural areas it is less than 7%. The second group is of states which have a good LPG connectivity both in urban and rural areas. Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu fall in this category. Lastly, there are other states which present a mixed picture. But a clear conclusion which can be drawn is that rural access of LPG is very poor in almost the entire country and marketing network needs large expansion in these areas.

The Narendra Modi-led government announced in the Union budget 2016 that it will provide free LPG connections to 50 million below poverty line (BPL) households over the next three years. An amount of Rs2,000 crore has been earmarked for this in the current year’s budget and similar amounts are expected in the coming two years. The overall strategy to address this significant health hazard for all families is, however, not very clear. Let me enumerate some important gaps in policy.

First, a universal access to LPG will require a very large expansion of marketing network by oil companies in most states. Nearly 140 million families do not have access to LPG. Especially in the rural areas, there is very little presence of such network of LPG dealers. We are importing about 40% of our LPG needs which may go up in the coming years. Expansion of pipeline network and rail connectivity will be crucial to support marketing network and ensuring availability. A strategy on meeting these large needs is urgently required.

Second, while the initial investment may get BPL families connectivity, the regular consumption will need to be paid. This may require a policy review. In many states such as Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with dense forest cover, the tribal and forest dwellers have traditional rights over locally available fuel. Why should they switch to LPG and pay for its use when so far they were getting their fuel for free? The strategy in their case may require a focus on providing a very modern cooking stove. A multidimensional approach will be far more useful than LPG-centric one-dimensional strategy.

Third, the current LPG network focuses on 14.5kg LPG cylinders. It will be necessary to expand the 5kg cylinder network which can be used by low-income groups in conjunction with other modes. This can reduce their overall costs and improve affordability.

Lastly, when a modern cooking stove is used, smoke goes out of the chimney. A design change will be needed for rural houses. As of now, there is no clear public policy on rural housing designs.   

B.K.Chaturvedi is India’s former cabinet secretary and former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, now called the Niti Aayog.

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Why the rural cooking energy infrastructure needs a rethink

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