(Ujjwala 2.0 series) Communicating harms, reducing prices, and challenging inequality should be central to a redesign of the Ujjwala program
By Aashish Gupta and Sangita Vyas
This article is part of a series of commentaries submitted by prominent Indian researchers and their collaborators on how the next phase of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana could better sustain LPG usage among the poor. Click here to access a summary of the major recommendations, along with links to the rest of the series.
When we introduced ourselves to Dubey Ji, a respondent in our 2018 Survey of Rural Sanitation and Solid Fuel Use, he remembered that we had come to his home four years ago. In a pucca house with green stone flooring, he sat on his narrow bed, wearing glasses. He was thin and coughed often. A half-read newspaper was nearby. On the shelf above him were books neatly wrapped in saffron cloth. Dubey Ji had recently received an LPG cylinder and stove through Ujjwala. His family could afford labourers which cut wood for them, and they used the gas stove only to make chai. Dal, sabzi, roti, chawal – all were made by Dubey Ji’s daughters’-in-law on the chulha. Dubey Ji believed that food cooked on a chulha was healthier and tastier. In contrast, gas ki roti gas karti hai – rotis cooked on gas cause indigestion. He thought that cooking with solid fuels was healthy for the person cooking too – fumes purified the eyes because they caused tears, and in blowing into a traditional stove, a woman did kasrat – exercise. Clearly, Dubey Ji had never cooked anything on anything.
In another part of the same village in Madhya Pradesh, we met Rajni Bai, a dalit woman who had also gotten a cylinder, a stove, a regulator, a pipe, and even a lighter through Ujjwala. Rajni Bai’s household did not own any land or animals. She did not have access to dung or agricultural produce to burn in a traditional stove. She had appreciated the cylinder and the gas stove immensely. The cylinder lasted her two and a half months. She had used it “carefully”, supplementing it with wood collected from the nearby forest. But when we interviewed her, the cylinder had been sitting empty for fifteen days. Rajni Bai could not afford a refill. The rains had made the wood wet and harder to burn, but she made all the food, including the kali chai they drink in her family, on her mitti ka chulha.
Rajni Bai and Dubey Ji are at opposite ends of the chart below, from our co-authored working paper, “Persistence of solid fuel use despite increases in LPG ownership: New survey evidence from rural north India.” In the poorest decile of households in rural north India, the 2018 survey found that more than 60 per cent used a traditional chulha only. Slightly more than 20 per cent used both a traditional chulha and a gas stove to cook yesterday. Among the richest households, like those of Dubey Ji, these figures were lower, but only slightly. More than 60% of the richest had either exclusively used chulha yesterday, or had used both chulha and gas stoves.
Using cleaner fuels such as LPG is essential to reducing rural air pollution and improving population health. What can public policy do to achieve exclusive use of clean fuels in rural India? Three strategies seem worth investigating: communicating the harms of solid fuels and the benefits of cleaner fuels; reducing the cost of LPG cylinder refills in rural areas; and finally, promoting gender equality within households, particularly in cooking and related tasks.
Like Dubey Ji, 92% of the respondents in the survey said food cooked on a chulha tastes better than food cooked on gas, and more than 86% believed that food cooked on chulha is healthier. Fortunately, only about 22% agreed with Dubey Ji’s third statement, that cooking food on chulha is better for the health of the cook than cooking food on gas. Even among those believing that cooking on a chulha harms health, the health harms most often invoked by respondents were not respiratory, but to the eyes of the person cooking. A large campaign communicating the respiratory impacts of solid fuel use, hopefully something at least as big as communication campaigns against tobacco, may change these beliefs. Similarly, advertisements and demonstrations that food cooked on gas can be as tasty and healthy as food cooked on chulha would be helpful.
Reducing LPG prices, particularly in rural areas, where residents are poorer and solid fuels are easier to access, would also be helpful. One relatively simple way is to build on the experience of the National Food Security Act. Under this act, 75% of rural households are classified as priority households and entitled to subsidised rations. Another 10% of extremely poor households have been identified as Antyodaya households, eligible for higher grain amounts at even lower prices. If priority households could become eligible for even higher subsidies in a revamped LPG pricing regime, and Antyodaya households could become eligible for cylinders at prices close to zero, exclusive LPG use would likely be higher.
Finally, public policy must recognize that in households such as Dubey Ji’s, if Dubey Ji was doing his share of the cooking, a complete transition to LPG would have happened already. Our survey asked questions on who cooks food, who makes dung-cakes, and who collects wood in rural households. We found hardly any men who contributed to cooking or making dung-cakes. Current Ujjwala messaging, which focuses on the benefits of clean fuels for women, reinforces this inequality. Advertisements which show that gas is so good that even men can cook with it will challenge both misinformation on LPG and gender inequalities in household tasks.
(Aashish Gupta (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Sangita Vyas (email@example.com) conduct research with r.i.c.e., a research institute for compassionate economics. Gupta is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, and Vyas is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.)