The government's decision to recognise clean cooking as a public health necessity was a welcome first step. The results of Ujjwala’s first avatar were exemplary. Its second version could address severe health and gender challenges
Air pollution kills more Indians than any other risk factor with nearly 1.6 million people dying due to it. While discourse around the issue reaches a crescendo every year as pollution worsens in Delhi, much of it is usually focussed on ways of combating its outdoor sources.
What usually gets left out in this conversation is the huge impact indoor pollution — caused largely because of burning of biomass fuels all through the year — has on public health. The cost is obviously enormous: Nearly 600,000 Indians died due to indoor or household air pollution in 2019.
With nearly half of the country’s population relying on wood, dung and kerosene, household fuels are the single biggest source of outdoor pollution in India. A study conducted by University of California-Berkeley in May 2019 concluded that if India eliminated emissions from these sources — without making any changes to industrial or vehicle emissions — it would bring the average outdoor air pollution levels below the country's air quality standard. Mitigating the use of household fuels could also reduce air pollution-related deaths in India by approximately 13 percent, the equivalent to saving about 270,000 lives a year, the study added.
When the government launched the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna in 2016, it took the first step to mitigating the use of biomass fuels, by providing capital cost subsidies to poor women to adopt a clean-burning cooking fuel or LPG.
The scheme has been a game changer — successful in providing an LPG connection to nearly every household in India, and increasing LPG coverage from 55 percent in 2014 to nearly 90 percent. Nearly 80 million households have benefitted from it so far. Its implementation has also helped India make significant progress in reducing household air pollution exposure, with the percentage of people exposed to household air pollution going down from 73 percent to 61 percent between 2010 and 2019.
While much has been accomplished, much more still needs to be done. For one, access to a connection doesn't necessarily imply its usage, and studies have shown that even though connections exist, LPG consumption by Ujjwala beneficiaries and other poor households continues to remain low. In 2017-18, the average consumption of LPG by a PMUY household was only 3.4 cylinders per annum in contrast with 5.5 cylinders by an average rural household and 7.4 by an average urban household.
Tied to the issue of usage is the issue of affordability. It’s a factor particularly important for poor households, who continue to stack LPG with biomass for their cooking needs, and usually switch to cheaper biomass fuel when they are unable to afford an LPG cylinder.
There are also other barriers that prevent poor households from regularly using LPG — recurring costs, service delivery and supply security at the household-level, geography that determines ease of access to traditional biomass fuels, behavioural and cultural factors (taste, tradition), and availability of appropriate domestic infrastructure for safe usage. It’s no surprise then that even with an LPG connection, nearly 81 percent rural households still continue to use solid fuel.
To encourage regular use of LPG by poor households, and inversely less biomass burning, requires introducing more interventions to bolster usage, or an Ujjwala 2.o. To incentivise frequent usage of LPG, experts suggest doing a few things: first, introducing a two-tier, differential pricing for households (LPG at subsidised rates for identified poor households, and at unsubsidised price for other consumers); two, providing LPG at affordable rates to current beneficiaries to discourage them from switching back to using of biomass; and third, raising awareness about the impact of its use.
Additionally, the government could also consider widening the scope of the scheme to include urban and industrial India, where the urban poor reside. Delhi, for example, has more than 1.7 million living in slums, and studies suggest that just half of them use LPG.
However, will poor households be willing to pay to switch to LPG? An analysis of the National Sample Survey data, done by the Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre (CCAPC) suggests that households should be willing to use LPG as the primary cooking fuel, if the fuel costs are within 4 percent of their total monthly expenditure, making targeted subsidies a crucial factor. The government shouldn’t view these subsidies as a financial burden though, since their benefits far outweigh the costs incurred.
The government's decision to recognise clean cooking as a public health necessity was a welcome first step. In Ujjwala’s first avatar, it focussed on dissemination of LPG cylinders to households across India. The results were exemplary. Its second version, if focussed on increasing adoption of clean fuel, could hold the unlikely key to not just tackle India’s air pollution woes, but also address severe health and gender challenges associated with use of dirty fuel for cooking in a more comprehensive way. Ujjwala 2.0, in that sense, has the promise of being truly path breaking.Shikha Sharma is a New-Delhi-based independent journalist and photographer. Twitter: @ShikhaSharma304. Views are personal.