30 March 2016

Just 13 per cent of rural Indian households and less than 8 per cent of rural Nepalese households use clean cooking energy, meaning that tens of millions of women in rural India and Nepal are subject to indoor air pollution of black carbon. Many years ago, a Nepali cardiologist, Dr. Pandey, had estimated in a paper published in Lancet that such rural women were subject to as much lung damage as men smoking four packets of cigarettes a day. This serious health problem of rural women and children who sit with their mothers as they cook, has now begun to get some serious policy attention. WHO estimates millions of deaths of women due to household air pollution.

Though neither government has adopted a target year by which all rural women will use clean cooking fuel, different sections of the Government of India, including the policy organization, Niti Aayog, have come out with statements on the issue of clean cooking energy for rural women. These statements, however, have one important weakness – they all pay attention only to the supply side of the problem.

Arvind Panagariya and Anil Jain of Niti Aayog point out that universalizing access to LGP will take long to achieve, and therefore electricity should be added to LPG as a clean cooking fuel. The question, however, is: will making LPG or electricity available be sufficient to induce a change in household cooking fuel away from wood fuel? Or, in other words, is a supply side approach sufficient to change women’s use of cooking fuel?

There have been many projects which have distributed LPG to rural women. A study of the large Deepam project in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh found that there were substantial failures after the initial subsidy period, more so in villages where women were not much involved in income-generating activities (World Bank, 2002, Energy and Development Report). In Bhutan, even with more than 80 per cent of rural households having electricity, wood still provides 90 per cent of rural energy use (ADB, 2014, Bhutan: Gender Equality Diagnostic of Selected Sectors). In South Africa too rural households have access to electricity, but continue to use wood fuel for cooking.

There are at least two gender issues involved in the persistent use of unclean cooking fuel, related to the conditions under which labour-saving technologies will be adopted and the nature of decision-making in the household. Clean fuels are not only good for women’s health, they are also labour-saving systems of cooking. But monetary cost, both capital costs of equipment and running costs of fuel, are involved in switching to clean fuels. Wood, on the other hand, is collected largely by women with their unpaid labour, meaning there is no monetary cost involved.

Where there are few opportunities for women to use the wood-collecting labour saved in income-generating activities, it is unlikely that they will spend cash to economize on their own labour time. As a study of rural China pointed out, “… the expenditure on the purchase of items which reduced reproductive toil would always come second to productive, income generating expenditure,” Lucas, Barnett and Ding (2003, Energy, Poverty and Gender, The World Bank)). Such economizing of women’s labour time is more likely to occur where women are substantially involved in income-generating activities. Thus, it is increasing pressure on women’s time in production that is likely to lead to the adoption of clean cooking methods, which are also labour-saving methods.

In addition, men dominate household spending decisions. Ignoring impacts on women’s health, they are likely to utilize available money on entertainment goods, such as TVs. In a recent field trip to Dalchowki village in Nepal, we found one contrary case – a woman who was offered a TV by her children, instead asked them to get her a LPG stove and cylinder.

Overall, studies across China, Laos and Sub-Saharan Africa have shown that rather than a supply-side approach of distributing LPG equipment, projects that target women’s income-generating activities are likely to have a greater impact on women’s energy use.

Panagariya and Jain write, “If electric cooktops were adopted, universal electrification could translate into universal clean cooking fuel as well.” There is a lot riding on that if. It is related to the end use and purchase of equipment. In that if is the role of women in household decision making on end use. It is the difference between fuel access and use.

The point is that policy must notjust expandaccess or the supply, even subsidized supply, of LPG and electricity, lead to its use in household cooking. Along with access a demand-side change is needed. An increase in women’s income-generating activities will both increase pressure for the adoption of labour-saving, clean fuels and also increase women’s say in household decision making. With such changes in women’s labour roles and gender relations, the if  could turn into a reality of universaluse of clean cooking fuel.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals’ indicator (7.1.2) brings out clearly the required demand-side change when it refers to, “Percentage of population with primary reliance on clean fuels and technology.” Such a statement of not just access but reliance on or use of clean fuels needs to be brought into government-level policy discussions.

Dev Nathan
Researcher, MSSwaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai
Visiting Professor, Institute for Human Development, New Delhi
Visiting Research Fellow, CGGC, Duke University, USA