Post-COVID clean cooking schemes: By and for women

Clean cooking schemes designed with women at their centre will help India maintain its progress towards abatement of indoor air quality and help climb the clean household energy ladder in a post-COVID world

By Srishti Singh, Swagata Dey
Published: Thursday 28 May 2020
Indoor air pollution causes 0.48 million premature deaths in India. Photo: Srikant Chaudhary

The Government of India recently announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), under which 8.3 crore Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) beneficiaries are entitled to three 14.2 kg cylinders free of cost.

Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) and Piped Natural Gas (PNG) services have been listed under essential services. These measures are salient in the fight against indoor air pollution, with the lockdown pushing people into cramped spaces.

Indoor air pollution causes 0.48 million premature deaths in India. Women and children bear a disproportionate impact of the unavailability of clean cooking fuel and efficient stoves with higher incidence of asthma and cancer.

A survey by policy advisory firm Dalberg, conducted post-lockdown, highlighted how women had to switch back to traditional chulhas due to financial constraints and uneven supply of LPG. The practice of fuel stacking has a detrimental health impact.

While distribution of LPG is a necessary step, it is pertinent to take stock of PMUY’s performance till date and its role towards abatement of indoor air pollution in post-COVID India. The centre’s latest financial package offers an opportunity for a more robust, sustainable, and multi-pronged strategy for clean cooking in India.

A beneficiary under PMUY is eligible for a free connection and 12 subsidised cylinders (their subsidy is around Rs 30 more than a non-PMUY user). PMUY now covers over eight crore households, taking the nation-wide LPG coverage to 94 per cent.

Yet, sustained use of clean cooking fuels still eludes us. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s performance audit of PMUY finds that a PMUY beneficiary uses less than three cylinders per year, while a non-PMUY household uses seven. What are the reasons that explain this and how should PMUY be strengthened?

Caroline Perez in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men delineates how well-intentioned schemes have not taken off because they failed to account for women’s needs.

For example, an improved stove which depended on servicing by men or one that increased cooking time did not work. A low-cost model called the Mewar Angithi was instead a greater success, as it was designed with active feedback from women. Made from scrap metal to be placed in a traditional chulha, it provided the same airflow as a high-efficiency stove.

Similarly, PMUY’s low refilling figures are driven by reasons that disproportionately affect women. They include lack of affordability and in-household bargaining power, distance, unsuitable modes of delivery and easier availability of alternative solid fuels. However, there are solutions to overcome each of these hurdles.

Solutions to PMUY hurdles 

First, affordability is the primary reason for low refilling figures. The fact that low-income states like Chhattisgarh have lower refilling figures (1.68) is indicative of this. We propose that the scheme of three free cylinders for PMUY users be continued well after the pandemic package is over.

This expenditure can be partly offset by limiting the per household quota of subsidised cylinders to nine instead of 12 for non-PMUY users. An opt-in subscription scheme with three fully subsidised cylinders and options to choose between cylinders can be explored.

In 2019, a BPL household under PMUY was expected to buy an LPG cylinder at market price and received a subsidy of around Rs 217. These households were expected to spend around 13 per cent of their monthly per capita consumption expenditure on clean fuel (LPG here).

At the same time, an average middle-income household in India would have spent seven per cent and those in the top 30 percentile would have spent even less. This differential is greater for rural and urban areas, and further varies between states. Why should the most marginalised have to pay a premium for good health?

Three fully subsidised cylinders would be a step towards ensuring equity. If PMUY households continue to buy three cylinders as before, a parity in average use can then be ensured because these households have already expressed a willingness to pay for three cylinders.

We must also bear in mind that volatility in incomes of PMUY users would also be greater as they usually do not have guaranteed incomes. A promise of three fully subsidised cylinders can help such households tide over the lean months.

An option to pay in installments can also be considered if it does not create implementation hurdles. Additionally, the option to purchase smaller and more affordable five-kilogram cylinders can be promoted more actively. SBI’s research also suggests four fully subsidised cylinders for PMUY households.

There is now conclusive evidence to show that women choose to invest in cleaner cooking fuels or stoves. A study led by Esther Duflo has shown that there would be a three per cent increase in stove adoption in Odisha if women were empowered. Higher transfers in women’s accounts and options to spread payments would give them an opportunity to invest in cleaner fuels.

Second, there must be an additional focus on states like Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Assam where households have easy access to fuelwood and have reported higher household air pollution disability-adjusted life year or DALY rates.

It is important that fuel stacking be discouraged. We can include low cost options like Mewar Angithi for adoption in areas with high fuelwood use. At the same time, we should actively promote solar-powered stoves to drive down costs, as the technology is becoming increasingly affordable.

This is important because LPG is a non-renewable resource. Taxes on fuel efficient stoves should be rationalised to ensure sustainable supply and demand. We need greater coordination between the Union Ministry of Renewable Energy, that is responsible for Unnat Chulha Abhiyaan and the Union Ministry of Petroleum, responsible for PMUY.

Third, Caroline Perez also underscores the need for women to be able to access clean fuel independently. If delivery points are far away from houses, this would make them dependent on men. Further, the delivery systems need to be strengthened, especially in a post-COVID world of intermittent lockdowns.

Uptake of LPG has been found to be higher in households located in villages with high-adoption rates. This community network should be tapped wherein village level incentives such as guaranteed home delivery by employing local village youth, especially women, may be explored.

A positive externality of this would be monetisation of tasks usually done by women, thereby formally recognising a form of unpaid labour. Non-price instruments such as information campaigns that target women at the village level, need to be institutionalised.

As we get ready to coexist with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, intermittent lockdowns might well be part of the new normal. An affordable and continual supply of  clean cooking fuel needs a place at the heart of all future reforms.

Additionally, clean cooking schemes designed with women at its centre will help India maintain its progress towards abatement of indoor air quality, and help climb the clean household energy ladder in a post-COVID-19 world.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.