Ranju Devi of Haripur village, Alauli block, of the Khagaria district in Bihar, took a cooking gas connection under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) in June 2016. Until June 2017 she had taken nine cylinder refills. Ranju Devi, a tailor, lives with her husband, a carpenter, and their two children. She has done away with her old biomass chulha, replacing it with a stove. She finds more time for her tailoring now.
The family has no cattle or farmland.
However, unlike Ranju Devi, most people in rural Bihar use LPG in conjunction with their existing biomass chulhas. This is similar to the experience in many other countries where it has been found that even after many years of LPG use, rural households rarely abandon biomass-based cooking.
It would be best to look at the refill behaviour of people who have had the Ujjwala connection for at least 10-12 months. As per data from the three state-run oil marketing companies (OMCs)—IOCL (Indian Oil Corp. Ltd), HPCL (Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Ltd) and BPCL (Bharat Petroleum Corp. Ltd)—in the first three months (June-Aug 2016) of the launch of the Ujjwala scheme in Bihar, a total of 452,239 connections were issued. Of these until August 2017, 62% customers had taken four or more refills; 13% came back for three; 12% bought two; 8% came back for one refill while 5% have not bought any refill so far. This is an encouraging picture.
People in villages use a combination of kerosene, cow dung cakes, charcoal, crop residue, sawdust, dry leaves, twigs and fuelwood in the traditional biomass chulha. Several factors seem to be at play, simultaneously pushing households away from biomass and towards LPG and pulling them back to biomass.
Farming households and particularly those with cattle have easy access to cow dung and crop residue. “We can’t throw away the biomass that we have, can we? " says Santara Devi of Mohammadpur Soora, Gaighat block, Muzaffarpur district of Bihar. She uses both LPG and biomass chulha.
People also talk about recurrent conflicts about biomass that happen in their neighbourhoods. “My life is gone, but why should my daughter and daughter-in-law go to others’ orchards to collect fuel wood, they will be beaten up," says Rajni Devi of Chatariya village in Darbhanga district of Bihar. She took an Ujjwala connection in August 2016.
Rajni’s family used three LPG cylinders consecutively for three months. However, when her son, the sole breadwinner of the family, fell ill with tuberculosis, the family switched back to cooking on a traditional chulha. After a gap of eight months, in July 2017 the family has again ordered an LPG refill.
Households with younger or working women value LPG more. With reliable opportunities for cash income, households are drawn towards LPG.
LPG is more attractive when there is a need for control over meal timings such as when men have to leave for work at a fixed time or when children have to take a packed lunch to school early in the morning.
When the fuel wood/biomass produced at home or field has alternative economic use (e.g. in makhana—the fox nut industry or parboiled rice, as seen in certain areas in Darbhanga), it hastens the switch to gas.
LPG cheaper than fuelwood
Whenever there is a ready market for labour or market for fuelwood, people can see the real cost of cooking on biomass. In other cases, this perception is foggy. Those who purchased biomass from the market mostly because they did not have cattle, land or family labour, say LPG is comparable or even cheaper than the cost of fuelwood. A family of five requires an estimated 70-80kg of fuelwood and about 600 pieces of dung cakes for cooking meals twice a day for a month. The dung cakes cost 50 paisa a piece and fuel wood costs anywhere between Rs7-10 a kg. This amounts to a monthly expenditure on cooking fuel in the range of Rs825 to Rs1,000. Rehana Khatoon of Haripur village of Alauli block in Khagaria district of Bihar, who got the Ujjwala connection six months back and has used six cylinders so far, says she finds LPG cheaper. She has a family of 10 and her husband is a sharecropper.
As per another estimate one labourer would require 4-5 days to collect enough fuelwood for a family of five to cook for a whole month. At a wage of Rs200 a day, this amounts to a cost of Rs800 to Rs1,000.
In Bihar, the cost of an unsubsidized LPG cylinder refill is around Rs650. Many of the PMUY beneficiaries had opted for a zero-interest loan to pay for the first LPG cylinder refill and the LPG stove hence their initial LPG subsidy is going towards the EMI.
The newer LPG distributors are particularly happy with Ujjwala as this has really swelled their subscriptions. They say that it would have taken them over 10 years to reach the numbers that they have reached in one year. Ujjwala customers value the home delivery of cylinders and expressed satisfaction at their experience so far.
Getting an LPG connection is a one-time decision; getting a refill is a decision that is to be made afresh every month or so taking into account several factors including any emergency expenditure that the family needs to prioritize. This is also the reason why all Ujjwala customers remember the exact number of refills they have taken so far. Reducing the refill narrative to just numbers seems to undermine the context in which these poor families are making this decision. While the overall graph of refills may be a fluctuating one, LPG adoption seems to be on course in Bihar.
Nidhi Prabha Tewari and Neha Joshi work as social sector specialists with the Ujjwala programme. The cases presented here were collected during field work in Bihar in July 2017.