Tuesday, July 7, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: A perspective on cooking energy [Part 1]

As you know, at Samuchit Enviro Tech one of the primary activities we do is supply a number of renewable options to meet cooking energy needs. What does one want from their cooking energy source? The three most important things, from the perspective of a typical homemaker-cook are: versatility of performing all the typical operations that she wants to carry out, convenience and ease of operation, and affordability. If the homemaker is also conscious about sustainability issues, she will additionally (but not at the expense of the other features) desire the cooking energy source to be environmentally benign. 

The most popular cooking energy source of today is LPG, and it scores 10 on 10 as far as versatility and ease of operation are concerned. Its affordability however is perceived as questionable, and although it is very 'clean' in its use, as it is a fossil fuel, it cannot be considered environmentally totally benign. 

The government addresses the cost issue by providing subsidy on LPG for household use. The technologies Samuchit Enviro Tech offers try to come close to LPG on its benefits, try to address the cost issue too, AND environmentally are better options, without doubt. 

Since for us, LPG is a 'competing' technology, I have tried to do some comparative analyses, over the years, and would like to share some of my musings on this issue. 

Let's first address the issue of the perceived costliness of LPG. 

I am sure all of you have seen advertisements appealing people to forgo subsidy on household LPG cylinders. The implication here is that we are entitled to the subsidy on LPG, but we will do the poor people who cannot afford LPG a great service, by forgoing it. 

It is not however clear as to how this is supposed to help poor people. 

By forgoing the subsidy, the consumption of LPG is not going to reduce. The logic perhaps is that if people have to pay higher for LPG, they will practice economy and use it more efficiently. However, that will hold true if the higher price was imposed on the household. If I am voluntarily giving up subsidy, obviously I am able to afford the higher price, and therefore there is no motivation for me to reduce my LPG consumption! So no extra cylinders are going to be available for distribution, by people voluntarily giving up on subsidy. 

No plan has been announced to increase the subsidy (to make the gas cylinders affordable to more people) if a certain number of people voluntarily give up the present subsidy. 

So, I don't see what purpose will be served by this 'sacrifice'. 

A couple of years ago, when it was decided to limit the number of subsidised cylinders per connection to 6 cylinders per year, I felt it was a step in the right direction. It provided a positive incentive for using LPG more efficiently. However, a lot of hue and cry was raised about this measure, and the decision was relaxed to 12 cylinders per year, which is as good as the original status. 

The outcry about reducing the subsidy on LPG as well as the current appeal to 'voluntarily' give up LPG subsidy are both based on the same assumption - that people are entitled to get cooking gas at a subsidised price, because cooking with LPG is expensive. 

Let's look at some numbers to understand how much do we actually spend on cooking energy, with or without subsidy, and what would be the cost if we were to use some non-LPG fuels. 

Let's assume that a family uses 1 LPG cylinder per month. The weight of gas in a domestic LPG cylinder is 14.2 kg and its cost is INR 460 (in Pune), with subsidy. Thus, daily expense of cooking energy for this family would be INR 15. If they decided to forgo the subsidy, the cylinder will cost them INR 640, and their daily cooking energy expenditure would be marginally higher - INR 21. 

Actually even the so-called unsubsidised price for household LPG is in itself subsidised compared to the commercial price. If the family was to shift to LPG purchased at commercial rate, which is about INR 65 per kg at this point, they would spend about INR 30 per day on cooking energy. 

A number of people argue that the pricing of LPG is in itself flawed, and it should be available in the market at a much cheaper cost anyway. But for the present analysis, I am using the prices that are currently prevalent in the market, irrespective of the justification of the pricing. 

Let's compare the above costs with the cooking energy expenditure incurred by a family that does not use LPG. 

If the same amount of cooking was to be done on kerosene, 1 litre kerosene would be required every day. In the open market, cost of kerosene is INR 70 per litre! If the family is below poverty line, they are supposed to get subsidised kerosene through PDS system, but we all know how well that works! 

If the same amount of cooking is to be done on wood, about 3-5 kg of firewood would be required daily. If this is purchased, the cost will be about INR 30-50 per day. If it is to be collected, it may take at least half a day, so the cost would be the wage for half a day's work. Based on the daily wage rates prevalent in Maharashtra today, this cost amounts to as high as INR 100! Of course people can and do use a lot of agricultural residue from their own farms, etc., but there are other hidden costs in this approach, which we will not go into at this point. 

What does this mean? This means that those who cannot afford to shell out the lump sum cost of the LPG cylinder, are actually spending much more for their daily cooking energy need! Even the unsubsidised LPG user ends up spending less on a daily basis, compared to people not using LPG for cooking. On top of that, the LPG user, even when using the most basic LPG stove, faces much less safety and health hazards, and enjoys far greater user friendliness in the cooking operation, compared to the kerosene users or firewood users, using the traditional cooking technologies. 

So, if every citizen is entitled to clean and safe cooking energy, who is entitled to subsidies or any other government support, LPG users, or non-LPG users?

(to be continued...)

Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech


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