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Efforts to Lower Indoor Air Pollution in India

Globally, over three billion people, which is about half the world's population, cook their food using solid fuels like charcoal and firewood on traditional stoves or open fires. This generates huge amounts of smoke, creating indoor air pollution, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), kills millions of people every year.

In India, this kind of pollution is of particular concern, where women and their young children, who usually stay near their mothers while they are cooking, bear the effect of the health issues caused by indoor pollution.

This led the Indian government to unveil a huge program—Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY)—in 2016, to boost the adoption of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), which is a clean fuel substitute that can be used for cooking. The program offers a combination of financial incentives in the form of loans and subsidies to cover the capital cost of stoves and LPG cylinder installations, and aims to create awareness about the advantages of clean cooking.

So far, about 70 million poor women, typically in rural India, have gained from the program in the 35 months since its introduction. Until now, few analyses of the program have been carried out to comprehend if the acceptance of this new technology has led to sustained use of LPG. If LPG does not replace solid fuel use, the predicted environmental and health benefits of the program will not be entirely realized.

In their research published in Nature Energy, scientists strived to understand how the introduction of the program has changed both the acceptance and use of LPG. They employed an LPG sales dataset from one district of a southern state of India (Koppal district in Karnataka state) to conduct their analysis. This is a novel method, as earlier analyses have depended mainly on self-reported survey data, which may suffer from intrinsic biases.

The research looked at four questions: First, the researchers examined how long it would have taken to reach the present level of LPG acceptance in a business-as-usual scenario, in other words, in the absence of the program.

Second, they asked to what degree PMUY consumers are employing LPG compared to general (non-PMUY) rural consumers. As part of this survey, the scientists compared PMUY customers' use of LPG with that of other rural peers, instead of with urban or average national consumers' use of the fuel, as the rural population has easier access to non-monetized solid fuels such as firewood, as well as distinct lifestyles and livelihoods compared to the urban population.

The typical narrative that the use of fuels is expected to increase slowly as people become more acquainted with them, led the team to also study whether LPG use for PMUY beneficiaries will grow over time. Lastly, the team analyzed the influence of price fluctuations and seasonal variations on LPG consumption.

The analysis shows that the program has accelerated LPG consumer enrolments by about 16 months in the region evaluated, while the LPG consumption by program beneficiaries is projected to be about half that of the average rural consumer (2.3 compared to 4.7 cylinders of 14.2 kg LPG yearly). This, in turn, is about half of what would be needed by an average family in India to cook solely with LPG—a regular rural family would need around 10 cylinders per year.

The team examined up to five years of LPG purchase data for general rural customers since they implemented LPG and found no apparent changes in LPG consumption with experience or time for these users. In their first three years as customers, roughly 75% of consumers' LPG cylinder purchases either stayed the same or varied by one to two cylinders.

The study also shows that consumers are sensitive to variations in LPG prices and that there is a substantial seasonal difference in purchases of LPG over a year. Refill rates in summer when agricultural activities are lesser, are for instance around 10% lower than rates during cropping and harvest seasons when people are busy with agricultural activities.

Our work reaffirms that there is a distinct difference between the adoption of a new technology and its sustained use. The PMUY was specifically designed to promote adoption, and based on that metric, this program is an unparalleled success, with near universal LPG access expected within the next couple of years. However, if we focus on the ultimate goal of smokeless kitchens, PMUY must be modified to explicitly incentivize regular LPG use.

Abhishek Kar, Study Lead Author, Young Scientist Summer Program, IIASA

Kar continued, “Our study suggests some obvious mid-course corrections to the program to encourage regular use of LPG. This includes the use of seasonal vouchers during low cash flow periods for poor rural agricultural households, and behavioral nudges and stronger information and education campaigns."

Kar is also a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

According to the scientists, the rural general population (non-PMUY beneficiaries) should also be targeted by incentives to promote regular LPG use, as their average usage is still very low across rural India. As some African nations are planning to imitate India's PMUY, the lessons from this assessment could also be very significant to policy beyond India.

Increasing the adoption of LPG among rural, poor populations is a daunting task, which the government of India has admirably achieved. Getting people to use LPG regularly is however a far more difficult task. Addressing this requires further research to better understand the barriers to regular use and to establish effective strategies to overcome these.

Shonali Pachauri, Study Co-Author and Researcher, Energy Program, IIASA


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