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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Sambit Patra, who is also the party’s contestant for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections from Puri, Odisha, created a wave of criticism against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Ujjwala programme, under which the Union government claims to have provided over 51 million—51,407,565 at last official count—free connections of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), distributed in standard-sized cylinders familiar to most people in India. Patra had tweeted a video of himself eating food at a home, while an older woman in the background cooked on a chulha, a traditional earthen hearth that uses firewood or other natural combustibles. Twitter users used the video to point out that the government had failed to deliver an LPG connection to the woman. “Who says the old woman did not receive a connection under Ujjwala? She told us that her daughter-in-law cooks on LPG...," Patra later claimed, while sharing another video of the woman.

The family that offered Patra food cooked on a traditional chulha is not an outlier. In fact, most households in rural Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh—despite having an LPG connection—have not switched over to exclusive use of gas. My colleagues and I at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, or r.i.c.e, a non-profit research organization, surveyed 1,550 households in late 2018 about their cooking fuel choices in the earlier mentioned states.

Burning solid fuel for cooking causes high levels of indoor air pollution. This smoke is dangerous. It can kill infants, stunt child development and contribute to heart and lung diseases. A recent study shows that solid-fuel use not only affects the health of the family which uses it, but is also harmful to their neighbours.

Between 2014 and 2018, the region saw a 44.2 percentage point increase in households with an LPG connection. In fact, over three-fourths of all households in Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh now have LPG gas connections, and 43% of them reported having received one from the government. These statistics are encouraging. But like the household that offered food to the BJP spokesperson mentioned above, almost all households still own a chulha. As many as 37% of households reported having used both a chulha and LPG stove the day before they were asked as part of the survey exercise. And about 36% of them were found to be cooking all items using solid fuel.

Ujjwala beneficiaries are less likely to exclusively use LPG for cooking. They are also poorer, and the cost of a gas cylinder forms a large portion of their monthly expenditure. In our study, only 27% of households reported exclusive LPG use, and an even smaller fraction—only 15.2%—of Ujjwala beneficiaries were found to do so.

The reasons for such sparing use of gas stoves went beyond the high cost of a refilled LPG cylinder, which is not free. The beliefs and attitudes of people had a lot to do with their choice of fuel. We asked respondents a series of questions about their beliefs vis-a-vis cooking with LPG and solid fuel: Which is easier to cook? Which makes the food taste better? Which is better for the health of a person who eats the food? And, which is better for the health of the person cooking? Over two thirds of the respondents considered cooking with LPG easier and healthier for the person who cooked. However, over 85% of the survey’s respondents also saw solid fuel as a better option for taste and the health of family members eating the food. A household’s fuel use is associated with its beliefs. Households which believe that food cooked on a chulha tastes better, and is healthier for the people eating it, were more likely to report using solid fuel the day before asked by the survey.

In Indian households, the health of young women who do most of the cooking appears to be less valued than that of other household members who do most of the eating. For both rich and poor households, irrespective of whether they believe cooking on a chulha is bad for the health of the cook or not, a similar proportion of households reported using solid fuel for cooking.

Societies around the world tend to be heavily invested in praising their own culture and food. Because taste is a subjective matter, they can be justified in doing so. But the effect of air pollution on people’s health is a scientific fact. And in this case, there is enough evidence to show that indoor smoke caused by burning solid fuel not only affects the person who cooks, but also the health of her family members and her neighbours. This gives rise to a public health emergency among the country’s poor.

The BJP spokesperson might be correct in saying that the old woman who fed him did receive an LPG connection under the Ujjwala scheme. As noted earlier, the numbers recorded are indeed high. But like most people in the government, he is wrong in assuming that by delivering so many LPG connections the government has finished its job. It has not, and it may take a long while before it does.

If the Ujjwala LPG-connection scheme is to accomplish its goal, which is the improvement of cooking conditions for women and enhancement of Indian citizens’ health, then the government needs to work on changing people’s attitudes and beliefs. This could be a long drawn-out process.

Nikhil Srivastav is a researcher with Research Institute for Compassionate Economics

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