After cooking for decades on earthen stoves lit with firewood, women in Sarmathla village in India’s northern Haryana state were excited when they received cooking gas stoves and connections about five years ago.
The gas cylinders which use liquified petroleum gas (LPG) meant that they would not have to collect firewood and breathe in the smoky fumes emitted from stoves called “chullahs.”
They are among millions of poor rural households given subsidized gas connections and cylinders under a government program launched in 2016 to help women move away from using highly polluting sources of cooking such as wood and animal dung to a cleaner cooking fuel.
But in most homes in Sarmathla, the cylinders now lie unused in a corner of the kitchen as many return to lighting their stoves with firewood.
“I am a poor person and everything has become so expensive. As daily wagers, we barely earn four dollars a day,” said Santosh Devi, a village resident. “Tell me, should I buy food for children or buy a gas cylinder?”
A series of price increases in the past year and a half has made cooking gas cylinders unaffordable for many poor households already struggling to cope with soaring food prices and incomes that declined due to the pandemic.
The approximately $13 price tag of a gas cylinder is almost double compared to six years ago when the project was launched. And although the government last month announced a $2.50 subsidy for those with subsidized gas connections, most village residents say they still cannot use it as their primary source of cooking.
Cooking gas prices in India have jumped massively as international crude prices have spiraled — India is heavily dependent on imported natural gas.
The soaring costs pose a challenge to the ambitious program that aimed to tackle the severe health challenges caused by indoor air pollution. Along with building toilets and homes for the rural poor, it was one of the flagship programs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government meant to dramatically improve the lives of poor households in the countryside.
The government subsidies had given more than 80 million rural households access to a clean energy source for cooking until last year, according to government figures.
But Poonam Devi, a resident of Sarmathla, said she uses it sparingly.
“I only cook vegetables on gas but I make everything else on a wood fire,” said Devi as she rolled out Indian bread for the family of seven. “Sometimes I use it when guests come.”
Experts worry that this will set back efforts to address the severe health problems caused by toxic kitchen fumes. While this village depends mostly on firewood, cow dung and agricultural waste are other traditional sources for cooking in India’s vast rural areas.
“The indoor air pollution caused by these solid fuels is equivalent to a person smoking a significant number of cigarettes continuously at the same time,” said Abhishek Jain, director of Powering Livelihoods at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in New Delhi.
Calling it one of India’s biggest public health challenges, Jain said, “Broad estimates suggest that India loses half a million of its population every year prematurely because of indoor air pollution. That is the scale of the problem we are dealing with.”
The women in this village know the health consequences of the sooty flames only too well.
“I cough and I get congestion and breathing problems due the cooking. So I try to cook on gas when I can,” said Paramwati, a Sarmathla resident whose tiny kitchen traps the fumes.
It is not just poor households that have been affected — even better-off families in this village, who do not benefit from government subsidies, are struggling to cope with the high prices of cooking gas.
“I have to think many times before I can refill this cylinder. I can only do it when I manage to save $13 or I have to wait until my husband gets his salary,” said Manju Chhoker.
That feeling is widely echoed across the village. “It is a huge challenge to cope with inflation and the high prices of gas. When it is time to refill the gas cylinder, I get really worried,” said another resident, Satya Prakash Rajput.
According to studies, the number of households using clean energy as the primary fuel for cooking rose exponentially from about 30 percent to nearly 70 percent between 2011 and 2020. Those gains are now under threat, say experts, as affordability emerges as a huge barrier.
“At the very least this has stalled the progress, at worst this has reversed some of the progress,” says Jain. “So, unless prices would get more affordable through either subsidy support by the government or a decrease in international prices, households may not now shift to liquified petroleum gas for most of their cooking.”
That means women in Sarmathla village may have to continue to lug firewood and cope with the fumes in their kitchens to light their stoves.