30 March 2016

Fuel stacking is the phenomenon of households simultaneously using a number of different fuels, often ranging from collected wood fuel, to kerosene, LPG or electricity. Fuels sticking can exist both for lighting (kerosene and electricity) and cooking (wood, LPG, kerosene, electricity). Our field studies in Lalitpur  and Rupandehi Districts of Nepal and Wayanad District of Kerala and Koraput District of Odisha in India, have shown that fuel stacking is a fairly common phenomenon.

A study of India using data from the large-scale household data of the National Sample Survey (NSS) from 1987 to 2010, found that fuel stacking was going down for lighting, but increasing for cooking (Chao-yo Yang and Johannes Urpelainen, 2014) For the former households were switching from kerosene to electricity; but for the latter they were adding LPG to the mix of fuels used, but were not abandoning wood. The study finds that while high income reduces fuel stacking for lighting, it does not do so for cooking.

Why does fuel stacking for cooking continue despite increases in household income? Why do households not switch fully from an unclean (unclean in the sense of leading to indoor air pollution in the deposit of black carbon) fuel, such as wood, to LPG? In this short note we illustrate the gender factors in the persistence of fuel stacking by looking at Dalchowki Village of Lalitpur District in Nepal. From the example of this village we identify some gender factors in the perpetuation of fuel stacking. Of course, we do not claim that these are the only factors that lead to and perpetuate fuel stacking. But the gender factors identified here (of relatively low involvement of women in non-income generating labour and women’s limited say in decisions on household expenditure) would have a wider relevance in understanding this phenomenon in poorly developed rural areas.

The village of Dalchowki, Lalitpur District, Nepal, sits on top of a ridge from which, some claim, on a good day you can see Mt. Everest. That view might in the future help develop tourism; though there is already some tourism as ‘Dalchowki Rising Homestay’ provides services to those who visit a nearby temple.

At present, however, the village economy has already been somewhat transformed by the development of milk production, made possible by access to electricity and all-weather road access to the Kathmandu Valley, but sparked off by loan for installing a chilling plant to cool milk. Running this plant with the available electricity, the family collects milk from this village and other nearby villages and sell it in the nearby town.

With the chilling facility being available, farmers in the village have increased their production of milk from about 500 litres/day to 1,200 litres/day in the peak season, October to March. The resulting income of (Nepali) Rs. 1,200/day is higher than the daily wage rate of Rs.500/day for unskilled and Rs.1,000/day for skilled work in Kathmandu.

Electricity was available in the village for 15 years, but it was only when a Saving and Credit Cooperative (SCC) loan was secured that the economic transformation took place. SCCs are meso-level organizations that allow the poor to access loans, despite not having the required assets as collateral. SCCs are the Nepali equivalent of micro-credit groups.

The first loan for the chilling plant was taken in the man’s name; but when another loan was needed for a truck, thi was in the woman’s name. Correspondingly the chilling plant and truck are registered in their respective names of husband and wife.

All households in Dalchowki are involved in rearing buffaloes for milk. Women and men share the main job of collecting fodder, but caring for the buffaloes is mainly the task of women. Men, however, take the milk to the chilling centre, and the money is paid into an account in the man’s name.

With the increase in income in the village, all houses now have LPG. But wood still remains the main fuel for cooking; while LPG is only used occasionally for making tea or snacks.  People say that the recent blockade of LPG supplies from India has made them wary of relying on LPG; but there clearly are gender factors at work inhibiting a full transition from wood fuel to LPG or electricity for cooking.

As mentioned above, women have the main responsibility of caring for the buffaloes. This additional labour, however, does not seem to utilize all of their available time. In addition, this animal care work keeps them within the homestead. As a result, though milk production has increased women’s labour in income production, this increase has not resulted in women seeking to use labour-saving cooking devices, such as electric rice cookers or LPG stoves.

In the case of electric rice cookers, we were told that they did not like the taste of rice from an electric cooker and that they liked the flavor that wood smoke added to the rice! There may well be a taste for smoke-flavoured rice, but one could hypothesize that a substantial increase in demand for women’s labour would, over time, overcome preferences for smoke-flavoured rice.

What is of interest is to look at the only two cases in which there a full switch to LPG. One case is of a woman who runs a shop-cum-eatery. In the shop, since quick service is required LPG is used to the fullest. In a second case, a woman has switched to LPG after she observed its beneficial health effects (smoke not getting in the eyes) in Kathmandu. When her children offered to get her a TV, she asked them to instead give her a LPG cylinder and stove.

These two examples of a full switch to LPG illustrate two different points. The first is that when there is a high demand for women’s labour in income generation, then women are likely to go in for investment in labour-saving equipment, such as LPG. The second is that even when women do see the health benefits of LPG as against wood, they can make the switch when they have control over expenditure. We saw in Dalchowki’s main income earning activity of milk production that the money from milk is deposited in men’s accounts. In this situation, women would have a possibly difficult negotiation to carry out in securing LPG for its benefits to women’s  health. Since men stay away from cooking they may not even see the ill-effects of wood smoke on health. 

In the absence of these two conditions, that of a high demand for women’s labour in income generation and of a low role of women in deciding on use of household income, one would expect that, despite an increase in household income, fuelstacking (viz. the simultaneous use of various types of fuel, wood, electricity, LPG) would continue to be a feature of energy use for cooking in Dalchowki. 

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