A long road to clean energy for rural women in Chhattisgarh

  • More than two years after the government’s scheme to provide clean cooking fuel, women in Chhattisgarh are switching back to cooking on firewood.
  • With a lack of financial support for refilling cylinders, limited information and easy access to firewood, sustainability of the scheme is posing a challenge.
  • Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana was launched in 2016, with the objective to improve women’s health by providing clean cooking fuel and to reduce the drudgery involved in collection of firewood and dung cakes.

The Indian government’s scheme to improve rural women’s health by providing clean cooking fuel started off well-intended in 2016. However, over two years later, in the primarily rural state of Chhattisgarh, the scheme’s attempt to switch from firewood to clean fuel is slowly fizzling out.

About 2.5 million families in Chhattisgarh were targetted for receiving LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) connections under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY). But over time, the chinks in the armour have come to the fore. A lack of financial support for refilling cylinders, no easy access to information or training from gas agencies and the easy, cost-free availability of firewood has made the scheme unsustainable in the state.

“We would rather die of poor health, than hunger,” said Kesri Bai Nagesh from Gopalpur village of Mainpur block, when asked her about the health benefits she has experienced after using gas cylinders distributed under Ujjawala scheme.

“Health benefits will be experienced only when we use it regularly, which can be possible when the government can provide us with financial support either by increasing our income so that we can buy expensive cylinders or by further subsidising the cylinder refilling for the BPL [Below Poverty Line] families,” she elaborated.

She further explained that she has a family of seven members but since separate ration cards for her sons, needed for getting cylinders, have not been issued yet, they are bound to use only one gas cylinder and that too only on need-to-need basis.

Her family has decided that since only one ration card has been issued to the family even after regular requests and applications, now, only one member of the family will go for voting in the elections to express their disappointment.

Sukmani, a Gond tribal woman from Gariyaband district of Chhattisgarh got her first gas connection under the PMUY scheme in the year 2017 and paid around Rs. 500 as the first time installation fee. The installation fee as per the notification issued by the government of Chhattisgarh was supposed to be Rs. 200 per connection. But like many in the village, Sukmani was at the mercy of the gas agencies, many of which provided misleading information to beneficiaries, quoting higher prices and adding on extra transportation charges to the remote areas.

When asked about the advantages of LPG cylinder over traditional firewood chulha, Sukmani promptly responded that it consumes less time to cook and is used primarily to make tea for the guests. But her family does not use it regularly for cooking. It is easier for them to collect firewood from the nearby forests than pay for buying gas cylinders –manual labour for collecting firewood is considered cheaper than the gas cylinder prices. And saving time is not an imperative.

Other women in Sukmani’s village also have the same usage pattern for LPG and have availed only one or two cylinder refills in a year. Other reasons explained by the tribal women for preferring traditional chulha to gas LPG cylinders is the large family size in rural areas (around 8-10 family members) due to which cooking all the meals on cylinder means refilling every month. They can’t afford to pay Rs. 900 every month when firewood is available free of cost and easily, they said.

Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana was launched in the year 2016, with the objective to improve women’s health by providing clean cooking fuel and to reduce the drudgery involved in collection of firewood and dung cakes, and since then every state has formed its set of guidelines to achieve the target under the scheme. The government of Chhattisgarh also laid down the guidelines with an aim to benefit the tribal households.

In order to encourage regular use of LPG gas cylinders in the state, gas cylinders of 5 litre capacity have also been launched by the government for those who can’t get a refill for 14 litre cylinders. But the response has been very poor, mentioned the gas agency staff in Mainpur forest area. As for places which are remote and have a larger family size purchasing a 5-litre cylinder will mean more frequent refilling and increased number of trips to the refilling station.

Bhagwati, a cook at the anganwadi (rural child care centre) said that a large amount of firewood is still used as a cooking fuel for preparing mid-day meals at government schools and anganwadi centres and the amount of smoke that she breathes in while cooking is more than the smoke that comes out of the household chulha. Schemes like PMUY should ensure that the government institutions, where programs like mid-day meal is implemented, should use LPG cylinders for cooking.

Other reasons expressed by the women for less frequent usage of gas cylinders included lack of information about the subsidy and cylinder refill cost, among others. Additionally, multiple stories of cylinder blasts have developed fear among the family members due to which they avoid cooking on gas cylinders, reflecting the lack of effective training sessions by the gas agencies on safety measures while using LPG cylinders.

Funding for providing first time gas connection in the state is drawn from funds for management of forest areas and Compensatory Afforestation fund and Management Planning Authority (CAMPA), Joint Forest Management (JFM) and District Mineral Foundation (DMF). Yet there is a lack of any information on the changes observed in the firewood collection from the forest after the implementation of the scheme in forested area and lack of data and monitoring by stakeholder departments on the impact of the scheme on forest cover and women’s health.

As per the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Department of Chhattisgarh, approximately 2.5 million Below Poverty Line (BPL) families have been benefited under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Scheme. But questions hang over the sustainability of the scheme, mainly impacted by the lack of any financial support for refilling after the first-time installation.

Targeting BPL families who never had gas connection earlier has achieved the statistical targets, but more efforts needs to be done to achieve the qualitative goal of the scheme — improvement of women health.

For a state like Chhattisgarh where around 76 percent of its population lives in rural areas and 44 percent of its area is forested, using easily available firewood is one of the major behavioural challenges the state needs to address to ensure that the women empowerment agenda is met.

The state has already been making efforts to improve its Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) and Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) rates and schemes like PMUY can significantly contribute in improving the health of lactating mothers by preventing them from being exposed to indoor air pollution due to the traditional chulhas and drudgery for firewood collection.

For this to happen, a better co-ordination between various stakeholder departments like Food Supplies, Women & Child Development, Health, Panchayati Raj and Forest department is needed from top to bottom. All the government run institutions like anganwadi, government schools, SC-ST hostels, community health centres etc. should regularise use of gas cylinders. Regular impact assessments of the PMUY scheme on women health and forest cover need to be carried out so that the next steps needed in better implementation of the scheme can be identified and a financial support system (like subsidising the gas refilling for targeted income groups) can be put in place.

PMUY which aims to cover all the BPL families by 2020, is a comprehensive scheme addressing multiples issues of clean energy, gender equality and climate actions (carbon stock improvement by forest cover protection); however improvement in women health and women is a gradual process which can be made possible only by adopting better sustainability planning and a participatory approach to understand the monetary and energy needs of households to ensure political and economic empowerment of poor women in the country.

Courtesy: Mongabay