Barriers to Clean Fuel Use: A Photo Essay

Shibbu, like thousands of other children in Uttar Pradesh, is struggling with a respiratory tract infection caused due to high levels of ambient air pollution during a North Indian winter.

Solid fuel use is a significant contributor to air pollution in India. High levels of air pollution kill babies and limit physical and cognitive development among those who survive. Pollution causes respiratory tract infections among small children and is also considered to have inflammatory effects on the heart, causing chronic cardiovascular diseases among adults. Studies show that lung function is lower on average among women who cook on solid fuel, and it is on average lower among all adults who live in villages that have a greater proportion of households cooking on solid fuel (Gupta 2019). Research suggests that an average child in India is shorter (height for age) than they would be if exposed to very low levels of air pollution (Spears et al 2019).

A gas agency worker counts LPG cylinders.

In May 2016, the Government of India launched the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that aims to promote the use of clean cooking fuel. The programme subsidises liquified petroleum gas (LPG) connections for households by providing a free gas cylinder, regulator, and pipe. In September 2019, it was reported that 8 crore households had received benefits under the programme, and that the scheme had helped expand the use of LPG as cooking fuel to 95% of the population from 55% in May 2014 (Times of India 2019).

A woman in rural Uttar Pradesh preparing the afternoon meal for her family on a chulha.

Although Ujjwala has substantially increased the proportion of households having access to LPG connections in India, a large population continues to exclusively use solid fuels like wood, cow-dung cakes, and crop residue for cooking. Refilling a cylinder is expensive and often amounts to a large fraction of a household’s monthly income, making it difficult for many households to pay for a refill. On the other hand, households consider other solid fuel options to be free.

Food being cooked on chulha, while the LPG stove sits idle. This family had used LPG earlier in the day to boil some water.

A common belief among the rural population is that food cooked on a chulha tastes better, and many believe that food cooked on LPG is not good for health. As a result, almost all households who own an LPG connection also own a chulha. They cook a few things on LPG and the rest on chulha.

Kande, as cow-dung cakes are called in Uttar Pradesh, neatly lined up on a rooftop to dry. At the far side, a small heap of kandas, called bhatiya, covered with a plastic tarp is visible.

The preference for food cooked on chulha and widespread poverty are not exclusive hurdles in getting rural residents to use LPG. Easy access to solid fuels like wood, crop residue, and cow-dung cakes, among others, are also responsible for ubiquitous solid fuel use in rural India. People often have cows or buffaloes in their houses and women are tasked to make cow-dung cakes of the generated waste.

A woman cooking a meal on chulha while her son sits beside her,  exposed to smoke from the chulha. The woman's husband is sitting on the cot.

Gender inequality within Indian households is another barrier for clean fuel use in rural India. Men control decision-making and women are the ones who cook. Both women and children are most vulnerable to lung damage caused by cooking with solid fuels. Moreover, no monetary value is placed on women’s time spent in making cow-dung cakes, and hence, solid fuels are perceived to be free.

Young men carrying an LPG cylinder inside their house.

Because gas cylinders are heavy (around 30 kg), many women have to rely on men in the family to get a gas cylinder refill. The lines are clearly drawn between the roles that men and women play around clean fuel use—men will bring the cylinder home and then hand the responsibility over to the women to use it for cooking. Another reason why women have to rely on male family members is due to their own restricted mobility. Women, especially young women, are expected to stay home and avoid public spaces. 

A young woman making chai on an LPG stove.

On average, families that are rich and where women hold a higher status are more likely to use LPG cylinders for cooking. This is because women in such families are able to convince their male partners and other important male members of the household to get an LPG refill. Moreover, richer families are also better able to afford a continued flow of LPG refills, rather than having to wait to get a new cylinder. This makes them more likely to use it regularly than poorer households.

A young daughter-in-law making khichdi on an LPG stove on Makar Sankranti.

For the Ujjwala Yojana to succeed, increased access to LPG is not sufficient, the programme will need to challenge gender norms and change people’s behaviour to encourage them towards exclusive LPG use.