In LPG age, cow dung cake makers are still painting the town brown

While the government claims it has made several people from Odisha’s rural areas switch to clean fuel, people still depend on animal waste fuel to burn their hearths and earn a living

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Thursday 17 January 2019
Photo: Getty Images

At a time when the Union government is boasting that six crore people have switched to LPG cylinders or cleaner cooking fuel under its Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), there are a few in Odisha who still make a living by painting the town brown. These are those who have been dependent on cow dung cakes not only to cook but also to put food on the stove.

While the government has been able to facilitate ease of living to around 34 lakh women in Odisha through the Ujjwala scheme, it is the women and children who are mostly involved in selling cow dung cakes in the state. They make Rs 50-100 a day in the trade.

The family of Manasi Mana, 12, of Batighar village in the state, rears cows and  she is among 25 children in the seaside village who are part of the cow dung trade there. They say they do this because wood and kerosene supply in the village is short and that leaves them with little option but to depend on animal waste fuel  “Most of the cow dung makers are below poverty line and have no choice but to involve their children in this line of work,” said Amarbara Biswal a human right activist.

These women and children, who are already a vulnerable and exploited group in rural India, have no access to or know how of any other career opportunities.

“I know of no other job. I am not educated and I can’t work anywhere else. That's why I kept working as a cow dung maker. I have not even heard of the Ujjwala scheme,” said Sabita Mallick, 17, who lives in Santhapura village in Odisha’s Kendrapara district.

Sixteen-year-old Sabi Mandal of Kansarabadadandua village, seconds Sabita while saying, “The cow dung cake helps us earn a precarious livelihood. From early in the morning till sunset, all members of all families are busy working to earn a little money. We make 25 to 50 cow dung cakes in a day and earn around Rs 50 to Rs 100.”

Not just burning it, but even making these cakes affects one’s health. Most cow dung makers suffer from chronic respiratory problems, skin problems and chronic backache. 

“I now have knee joint pain from sitting cross-legged for a large part of the day and also find myself unable to breathe at times,” said Bharati Das, who lives in Kharinashi villag and has been in this trade for years now.

Although the PMUY is touted as government giving free LPG cylinders to beneficiaries, this is not the case. In bulk purchasing, the government has set the cost of LPG connection as Rs 3,200.

“Making cow dung cakes is a traditional activity in rural areas and with the rising of prices of LPG cylinders, many villagers depend on these cakes. It’s not just limited to Dalits. Earlier, in Ramanagar village in the state, just one Dalit woman used to make these cakes. But now, many women, even from upper castes, make the cakes, which cost Rs 2 each,” Mahadev Das of Ramanagar village.

But, what could be worrying is how the country is witnessing a downward trend in animal trade. Incidents of cow vigilantism have reduced the number of cows and buffaloes making their way to animal markets. Even the iconic Pushkar Fair saw a dwindling footfall. This can affect this sole source of livelihood for the villagers.

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