Ujjwala refills: Bihar shows an encouraging trend
Ranju Devi of Haripur village of Alauli block in Khagaria district of Bihar took the PMUY LPG connection in June 2016 and by June 2017 she has taken 9 cylinder refills. She works as a tailor and lives with her husband who is a carpenter by profession along with her two children. The family has no cattle or farmland. Devi has removed her old biomass chulha and switched to LPG as she says she finds more time for her tailoring jobs.
Unlike Devi, most people in rural Bihar are using LPG in conjunction with their existing biomass chulha. This is similar to the experience of many other countries where it is found that even after many years of LPG use, rural households rarely abandoned biomass based cooking.
It will be best to look at the refill behaviour of people who have had the Ujjwala connection for at least 10 to 12 months. As per data from the three states run oil marketing companies (OMCs) – IOCL, HPCL and BPCL, in the first three months (June to August, 2016) of the launch of Ujjwala in Bihar a total of 4,52,239 connections were issued. Out of these till August 2017, 62 per cent customers have taken four or more refills; 13 per cent have come back for 3 refills; 12 per cent bought 2 refills; 8 per cent came back for 1 refill while 5 per cent haven’t bought any refill so far.
People in the villages use a combination of kerosene, cow dung cakes, charcoal, crop residue, saw dust, dry leaves, twigs and fuel wood in the traditional biomass chulha. Several factors seem to be at play simultaneously pushing households away from biomass and towards LPG and in some cases pulling them back to biomass.
Farming households and particularly those with cattle have easy access to cow dung and crop residue. “We can’t throw away the biomass that we have, can we,” says Santara Devi of Mohammadpur Soora, block Gaighat, district Muzaffarpur, Bihar. She uses both LPG and biomass chulha.
People also talk about recurrent conflicts about biomass that happen in their neighbourhoods. “My life is gone, but why should my daughter and daughter in law go to others’ orchards to collect fuel wood? They will only be beaten up by the others,” says Rajni Devi of village Chatariya in Darbhanga district of Bihar. She took an Ujjwala connection in August 2016.
Devi’s family used 3 LPG cylinders consecutively for three months, however when her son, the sole breadwinner of the family fell ill with tuberculosis, the family switched back to cooking on a traditional chulha. After a gap of 8 months, in July 2017 the family has again ordered for LPG refill.
Households with younger or working women in the family with reliable opportunities for cash income are pulled towards LPG. It’s more attractive when there is a need for control over meal timings such as when men have to leave for work at a fixed time early or when children have to take tiffin to school early in the morning.
When the fuel wood/biomass produced at home or field has alternative economic use (e.g. in Makhana- fox nut industry or parboiled rice as seen in certain areas in Darbhanga), it hastens the switch to gas.
Also, cooking on LPG is cheaper than using fuel wood. Whenever there is a ready market for labour or market for fuel wood, people can see the real cost of cooking on biomass, in other cases this perception is foggy. Those who purchased biomass from the market mostly because they did not have cattle, land or family labour say that LPG is comparable or even cheaper than the cost of fuel wood.
A family of five requires an estimated 70-80 kg of fuelwood and about 600 pieces of dungcakes for cooking meals twice a day. The dungcakes cost 50 paisa a piece and fuel wood costs anywhere between Rs 7 to 10 per kg. This amounts to a monthly expenditure on cooking fuel in the range of Rs 825 to 1000. Rehana Khatoon of Haripur village of Alauli Block in Khagaria District of Bihar who got the Ujjwala connection 6 months back and has used 6 cylinders so far says that she finds LPG cheaper. She has a family of ten and her husband is a sharecropper.
As per another estimate one labourer would require 4-5 days to collect enough fuel wood for a family of five to cook for a whole month. At a wage of Rs 200 a day this amounts to a cost of Rs 800 to 1000.
In Bihar the cost of an unsubsidised LPG cylinder refill is around Rs 650. Many of the PMUY beneficiaries had opted for a zero interest loan to pay for the first LPG cylinder refill and the LPG stove hence their initial LPG subsidy is going towards the EMI.
Getting an LPG connection is a one time decision; getting a refill is a decision that is to be made afresh every month or so taking into account several factors including any emergency expenditure that the family needs to prioritise. This is also the reason why all Ujjwala customers remember the exact number of refills they have taken so far. Reducing the refill narrative to just numbers seems to undermine the context in which these poor families are making this decision. While the overall graph of refills may be a fluctuating one, the LPG adoption seems to be on course in Bihar.
(Nidhi PrabhaTewari and Neha Joshi work as social sector specialists with the Ujjwala Programme and the cases presented here were collected during a field work in Bihar in July 2017)
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