Clean(er) cooking in India: We need a transition to better solutions along with smarter policies

Lack of access to cylinder distribution networks means that schemes such as PMUY have not succeeded as expected

By Noble Varghese
Published: Friday 05 May 2023
Globally, about 2.3 million people die prematurely every year owing to indoor air pollution. Photo: iStock.

This article is the first of a series on the rationale for India needing clean cooking.

Around a third of the world’s population — nearly 2.4 billion people — currently lack access to clean cooking solutions, costing damages worth trillions of dollars to the climate and local economies.

Globally, about 2.3 million people die prematurely every year owing to indoor air pollution, mostly due to wood-based cooking fuels. 

India isn’t far behind when it comes to the sad state of affairs related to clean cooking. Most of rural India, despite the best efforts of the government, continues to burn highly polluting fuels in traditional inefficient stoves for cooking and/or heating purposes.

Also read: India’s clean cooking transition: Why development financial institutions play major role

Over 56 per cent of households in rural India, or around 520 million people, still use some form of wood, charcoal, kerosene, coal, agricultural residue, animal waste or other biomass to cook food, according to the National Sample Survey Office.

Why is this such a big problem? Why does India, or any other country, need to dedicate its economic resources and policymakers’ attention to clean(er) cooking fuels urgently and at scale? 

There are multiple problems associated with a significant chunk of a country’s population using polluting fuels on a daily basis, perhaps twice, maybe even three times a day — it can worsen air quality (ambient and indoor); cause adverse long-term health impacts; impact GDP due to sickness and loss of productivity; and deforestation as well.

Indian households urgently need to shift from cooking fuels such as firewood, cow dung, or other biomass to cleaner, healthier substitutes.

Such a transition can play multiple roles — providing energy access to the country’s poor; reducing health issues and premature deaths, mostly among women and children in rural areas; as well as helping India achieve its net zero targets by reducing carbon emissions. It can also boost the country’s GDP by reducing the economic burden resulting from the use of unsustainable fuels.

The Rajiv Gandhi Gram LPG Vitrak Yojana (also called the RGGLV scheme), launched by the Union government in 2009, was a promising step in this direction. The scheme was later relaunched as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) in 2016. It aimed to replace solid and other biomass-based polluting cooking fuels used in urban and rural households in India with Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG).

Through the scheme, more than 96 million households in India have received LPG cylinders till the end of 2022. India has a total of over 310 million active LPG cylinder customers, consuming roughly 2,480 million LPG cylinders in a year (assuming the usage of an average of eight cylinders per household in a year). 

However, this rapid expansion of LPG access has not guaranteed a sustained transition to clean cooking for households that received these cylinders. 

Unexpectedly, over 50 per cent of the households that received new LPG cylinders as part of the scheme did not choose to refill it even once due to high costs of refill, cultural or behavioural beliefs and/or lack of significant accessible cylinder distribution networks.

Also read: India’s poor are being forced to return to unclean cooking fuels; here’s why 

As of February 2022, the average cost of an LPG cylinder refill (14.2 kg) across India was approximately Rs 1,100. An average Indian household requires eight such cylinders solely for cooking in a year, translating to annual spending of nearly Rs 8,800 on cooking fuel alone.

On the other hand, the average annual income limit of a family to be listed Below Poverty Line (BPL) is Rs 27,000, according to the tenth Five-Year Plan. This means an average BPL family (the primary beneficiary of the PMUY scheme) have to spend a third of their annual income on cooking fuel alone. 

The lack of an extensive LPG distributor network, especially in rural geographies, is a hurdle to the clean energy transition. The additional costs involved in transporting the cylinders, given the poor distribution infrastructure in rural areas and the freely available alternative that is wood or cow dung, helps us understand why the PMUY’s LPG distribution scheme has not taken off as expected. 

The Indian government, nonetheless, continues to promote clean cooking solutions, including other forms of clean cooking like electric cooking (e-cooking), especially solar photovoltaic (PV) connected e-cooking. 

One such solution is Indian Oil Corporation’s (IOCL) patented, hybrid grid+solar PV powered e-cooking system that houses a proprietary thermal battery that does not need replacement during its entire lifetime.

It “can cook two full meals for a family of four on any given day,” according to IOCL’s Head of Research and Development who was involved in the development and testing phase.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded IOCL’s new cooking system as the future of India’s clean cooking revolution at the India Energy Week exhibition held in Bengaluru in February 2023. He claimed that it would reach 30 million households by 2025-26. 

Given the potential in the Indian context, such decentralised, off-grid solutions (although the system can be connected to the grid as well) seem like the best possible clean cooking alternative India needs to encourage at both the policy and market levels. 

Both of these can only happen if the government steps in through policy mandates, subsidies and financial mechanisms that will help open up the market for e-cooking in India and drive behaviour change in the way India cooks.

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