Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | How clean burning fuel has empowered women in India

According to the World Bank, lack of access to energy is a fundamental barrier to progress in many parts of Africa and South Asia and has an impact on a wide range of development indicators such as health, education, food security, gender equality, livelihoods and poverty eradication.

Energy access has been at the core of the development agenda of the Indian government. India achieved 100% village electrification in 2018 and is targeting to provide access of electricity to all households by 2019.

The government also targeted universal access to clean cooking fuel. Traditional unprocessed biomass cooking fuels such as wood and cow dung, have serious health implications for women and children who are most affected by indoor air pollution. In the past, attempts were made to improve stoves that can use unprocessed biomass. However, this was not effective. LPG was considered the best solution. Almost 45% of Indian households didn’t have an LPG connection till 2014. As experts such as Kirk Smith, professor of Global Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkele, had pointed out, India had got into a “chulha trap", where a large poor population was denied clean cooking option.

Since 2014, governments have adopted a clear strategy to have city gas distribution (CGD) networks in cities and towns, under which piped natural gas (PNG) is provided to urban residents and push the LPG resources to rural areas.

The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) was launched in May 2016 with the objective of providing free LPG connections to 50 million women belonging to below poverty line (BPL) households over a period of three years.

The ministry of petroleum and natural gas made a budgetary provision, set clear targets for the public sector oil marketing companies (OMCs), and constantly monitored progress.

Increasing access at such a fast pace comes with its own set of challenges. The three public sector OMCs coordinated and overcame many of the challenges, primarily relating to distribution channels, low consumer density, rolling stock of cylinders, import facility, capacity of bottling plants, and transport to inaccessible rural areas. LPG distributors, local NGOs, and self-help groups were involved to make it an inclusive social movement.

Ujjwala has empowered women and protected them and their families through the use of clean burning fuel. It is helping prevent a significant number of acute respiratory illnesses caused by indoor air pollution. Research has also shown that people using solid biomass frequently suffer from headaches, nausea, and chronic bronchitis.

Using LPG saves time for women as they do not have to collect solid fuel and then use it for cooking, with this cooking time can be effectively used in other economic activities. Women going to the forests for collecting firewood are also often exposed to health and safety issues, even sexual harassment. There is a definite positive impact on forest cover and the environment from stopping the use of firewood.

There is misplaced apprehension that though these connections have been provided, people may not be taking refills. Using LPG for cooking instead of solid fuel requires behavioural change. Such behavioural change sometimes takes up to five years.

LPG panchayats, launched in 2017, help in bringing about this change in cooking behaviour in rural areas. According to the design, LPG panchayats bring together about 100 LPG customers on a semi-structured interactive platform to discuss safe and sustainable usage of LPG, its benefits and the linkage between clean fuel for cooking and women’s empowerment. Every LPG panchayat is expected to share the experience of early local adopters of clean fuel, an exercise on comparing the costs of alternative biomass fuels, safety demonstration and feedback on services. An LPG worker is not just providing an energy service. She has become a social change agent.

After meeting the initial objective of PMUY, the target was later revised to 80 million LPG connections by FY2020. According to the official PMUY website, by January 2019, 64 million LPG connections have been provided under the Ujjwala scheme, resulting in it being considered one of the most successful and effective social sector programmes in India.

Debasish Mishra is leader, energy, resources and industrial products at Deloitte India.

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