Excerpts from the working paper “Outdoor Air Pollution in Rural North India” by Nikhil Srivastav and Sangita Vyas, published by Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (r.i.c.e.), based on visit to Reusa, a block in Uttar Pradesh:
By January 2017, the Ujjwala Yojana, a government scheme that subsidizes liquid petroleum gas (LPG) connections, was sweeping across Reusa in advance of elections in the state. Under the program, the government provides a free gas cylinder, regulator, and pipe. Loans are given to households for the stove and the gas in the first cylinder. Over time, these loans are supposed to be paid back incrementally as beneficiary households pay the total unsubsidized rate for refills until the loan is paid off. As of January 2017, it could take nine refills before the loan is paid off, but this number varies based on the subsidy amount.
Refilling a cylinder costs almost half the average monthly per-capita expenditure in rural India, and rural households often go through a cylinder each month (National Sample Survey Organization 2013). After the first cylinder had run out of gas, a number of the respondents we interviewed had not gotten it refilled, citing the expense. The scheme identifies beneficiary households based on indicators of deprivation identified from the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census.
In the villages we visited, many households had received a cylinder and stove through Ujjwala, but many poor households had also been left out. The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas estimates that 100 million households did not use LPG before Ujjwala started, and the program aims to reach only half of these households. Although a few of the women we spoke to mentioned that cooking with LPG is easier and takes less time than biomass, many people believe that food cooked on a biomass chulha is tastier and healthier than food cooked using LPG.
One woman, a teacher in a private school, explained: “On the chulha, cooking something is a pain in the neck. It also takes more time. It is easier to cook on gas. But some men here say that the chulha is better than gas. Food gets cooked properly on a chulha. For example, everyone says that on gas the roti remains raw, it does not cook properly. Instead, if you cook it in a chulha, the heat in there cooks it slowly and fully.”
Since many households will not receive LPG through the Ujjwala Yojana, and many beneficiaries continue to use biomass even after receiving LPG, the negative health impacts associated with cooking with biomass may persist even despite the government program.
Burning biomass for heat
Every morning and evening, households were burning fires made from crop residue that they had brought from their fields. Respondents universally reported that they would burn fires for heat from Diwali until Holi, a period of about five months. In Reusa, we saw no evidence of the implementation of policies that aim to curtail the burning of biomass for heat. Even rich households who live in pacca houses and have plenty of warm clothes and blankets burn fires for heat.
One respondent happened to be the pradhan – village leader – and, although everyone in his family was wearing thick sweaters and shawls, he had an even bigger fire than other households in the village. For households who own at least some land, crop residue costs no more than the labor required to remove it from the field and bring it home. It is therefore relatively easy for households to burn fires, even though they may not be necessary for survival. Burning fires in north Indian cities is less common during the winter, although some households still do it.
One reason urban households are less likely to burn fires could be because, in cities, it is more difficult and costly to acquire materials to burn and there is less space for making fires. Another reason could be because urban households are richer and more likely to have warm clothes, better-insulated homes, and heaters, although this probably does not fully explain the difference.
The crop residue that is not fed to animals, burned for heat, or used as fuel for cooking, is burned on the field. In December 2015, the National Green Tribunal banned crop-burning in several north Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh. Yet, many farmers still burn their fields without facing punishment. In practice, there is no ban. No respondent brought it up, nor were any shy to talk about what they burned on the field. This indicates that there is either little awareness of the ban, or a general understanding that it is not implemented.
Crucially, the ban is impractical for farmers because clearing fields requires hiring labor, a cost that, in most places, does not make sense to incur because the cleared residue cannot be sold. An informal doctor, who also farmed land, explained, “Once sugarcane is cut, too much residue is left behind. It has many leaves. So collecting those leaves would cost money. One will have to hire labourers for collecting the leaves, after which the person would get his field tilled. So instead, the leaves are burnt in the field itself.”
Biomass-based power plants, which generate electricity from crop residue, have been identified as a solution to the problem because they generate a market for the product. However, data from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy show that biomass-based capacity made up only 1.6% of India’s total capacity as of April 2016. The government also offers subsidies for machines that help farmers plant new crops without having to remove the dry stalks from the previous harvest, but despite subsidies, these machines are still too expensive for most.
Rural industry and electricity generation
Small-scale industries are scattered throughout Reusa. In January 2017, small factories had been set up to produce gur – jaggery – from the harvested sugarcane. These factories use for fuel the dried sugarcane pulp that is left over after extracting the juice. Brick kilns, which use coal, were also in operation. Emissions from small factories like these, and larger ones, occur across rural India. State pollution control boards, among their other functions, must inspect factories and power plants to ensure compliance with emissions standards.
But enforcement is lax. For instance, a 2011–2012 survey of 47 coal plants by the Centre for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy organisation, found that roughly two-thirds of them, in both urban and rural areas across 16 Indian states, had visible particulate matter emissions, suggesting that they were violating particulate matter emissions norms.
Pollution estimates based on satellite data suggest that rural air quality in north India is often high enough to make people sick. The polluting activities we saw in Reusa in January provide several examples of the types of activities that could be leading to poor air quality in rural north India. Certainly, variation in the factors that contribute to ambient pollution across place and time is likely. That rural ambient pollution could significantly contribute to poor health among rural Indians points to the need for more research on human exposure, and more comprehensive government monitoring policies.
The findings of our fieldwork suggest that the government policies that aim to curtail pollution-generating activities in rural areas are either not designed effectively, or not implemented well. A first step towards spurring better policy design and implementation would be to monitor rural ambient pollution in order to better understand variation in air quality over time and space. That there are significant externalities associated with pollution-generating activities indicate that air quality should be a policy priority.
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