With this year’s drought, the queue of women with head loads of fuelwood out of the nearby forests gets longer. However, it is not entirely a new sight; it has just become more visible. And it delivers a dire message: India’s fuelwood market is emerging as the most sensitive index for crisis in rural livelihood.
The fuelwood market is truly pan-Indian with close to 12 million people (mostly women) involved in collection, selling and processing. Its annual turnover is in the range of $16-17 billion. However, this big business doesn’t follow any conventional norms. It is a zero-cost (capital) business for its practitioners.
After the oil crisis of 1971, when India seriously thought over energy security, the fuelwood trade got prominence as a major source of energy. Till the 8th Five-Year Plan, India used to plan seriously on fuelwood as a key component of rural energy security. Of late, there is not much debate or planning over it. The demand-supply gap has become 121 million tonnes (mt).
Long forgotten in the quest for commercial energy security, fuelwood is still used by around 72% of rural households and 33% urban households. And its volume is rising 0.5% annually. It is still the largest use of wood in the country; the spread of kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) has not made any dent in its consumption.
This stealthy rise of the fuelwood business is an outcome of deep rural distress. It has metamorphosed from a trade to fill a demand-supply gap to a crisis-driven survival option. It has become the new free economy of the country’s poorest. So fuelwood tragically becomes the most authentic expression of ecological degradation in India’s dominantly biomass-based villages—a source of energy that yields so little monetary value but still manages to lure so many people.
In fact, the loss of agriculture as a survival proposition has forced people to think over alternatives. Nearly 50% of India’s agricultural lands face erosion and drought as frequently as once every three years. Thus agriculture needs more inputs such as fertilizer, pesticide and irrigation—now more than ever. Low landholding in India already makes agriculture expensive and discourages the mostly small and marginal farmers from it. Less agriculture means less agricultural residue for fodder, restraining them from keeping a large number of livestock, the second-line survival option. For this cash-deficient population, fuelwood is the next best option, as it doesn’t involve capital investment.
Forests have been accommodating many of these people displaced from agriculture. The forest-dependent population has gone from 184 million in 1996 to 226 million in 2006. But forests are thinning away and the restriction over profitable forest produce leaves people opting for twigs and dry branches to sell as fuelwood.
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that consumption of fuelwood has also gone up from 78 mt in 1996 to 96 mt in 2006. In fact, the population from non-forest areas also depends more on forest now: 513 million in 1996 that went up to 632 million in 2006. Another pointer that people are using fuelwood as a tool of survival is the trend of the rural poor shifting to inferior fuels such as leaves and twigs. Good fuelwood is being reserved for selling. Surveys show that fuelwood collectors keep usually one-third of the fuelwood for self-use.
This crisis, like others, is an awful thing to waste. Given its economic importance to rural dwellers, fuelwood collection should become a legitimate forestry activity. Till now, we have been looking at this trade from a narrow conservationist perspective. Recognizing fuelwood would actually also be a sensible forest conservation step forward, since fuelwood chiefly comes from dried twigs and branches, not from felled trees.
Moreover, in the future, we have to make the vast rural areas energy-secure. Given the current energy balance, this possibility seems remote if we only stick to conventional energy sources.
Richard Mahapatra is a Delhi-based development writer. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org