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Rural challenges persist on power and clean fuel

Providing access to clean fuels, mainly LPG, is another huge challenge for India. Only five states including Telangana (92), Puducherry (92), Chandigarh (96), Goa (97), and NCT of Delhi (99) have over 90 per cent households with access to clean cooking fuel.

IPSITA PATI AND NANDLAL MISHRA | New Delhi |

India has made significant progress in providing access to electricity and clean fuel to its households in the last half-decade, finds the recently released NFHS-5 (2019-21) data. With a rise of 9 percentage points since 2015-16, almost 97 per cent of the population have electric connections out of which those located in urban areas are very close (99 per cent) to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals target of universal access to electricity.

About 96 per cent rural population too have access to electricity. On the contrary, despite a rise of 15 percentage points in access to clean cooking fuel since 2015-16, overall situation paints a grim picture. Only 59 per cent households in the country reported using cleaner cooking fuels like LPG, CNG, electricity, Biogas etc. More than half of the rural population (57 per cent)
depends solely on solid fuels.

In urban areas, the results are much better (90 per cent) though a little more effort is required to achieve the SDG target of universal access to clean cooking fuel. SDG 7.1 aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services by 2030. India’s journey so far has been remarkable in achieving near-universal access to electricity in the last one and half decade.

As per the central government’s Saubhagya dashboard, 99.9 per cent of rural households in the country have been electrified andless than 20,000 homes lacked electricity access as of March 2019, but as per NFHS-5 (2019-21), more than 4 per cent of people in rural areas had no access to electricity.

All the southern states and the union territories of India have nearly achieved the target of 100 per cent electrification of households but some states in the north and northeast lag behind. Uttar Pradesh (91 per cent), Meghalaya (92), Assam (93), and Jharkhand (94) still have less than 95 per cent population with access to electricity. Despite remarkable progress, only 89 per cent population of rural Uttar Pradesh have access to electricity.

Several districts of Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh reported below 90 per cent access to electricity supply and need special attention. In 2015-16, Bihar ranked at the bottom of all States with just 60 per cent of its households having access to power. Since then, it has made significant progress in expanding electricity access to near-universal coverage (96 per cent) in the last five years. Thus, in some states, government policies and schemes are not performing adequately while in others, the difficult terrain makes accessibility a difficult task.

In addition, these estimates only portray households that have received connections. They do not convey whether there is a steady supply of electricity or less frequent power-cuts, the biggest challenge faced by rural and remote areas of our country.

Providing access to clean fuels, mainly LPG, is another huge challenge for India. Only five states including Telangana (92), Puducherry (92), Chandigarh (96), Goa (97), and NCT of Delhi (99) have over 90 per cent households with access to clean cooking fuel. On the other hand, only one out of three households in Jharkhand (32 per cent), Chhattisgarh (33), Meghalaya (34), Odisha (35) and Bihar (38) is using clean fuel for cooking. At least 80 out of the 707 surveyed districts fell below the 25 per cent mark. Moreover, there exists a blatant north-south and countrywide rural-urban divides in access to clean cooking fuel.

According to the Global Burden of Disease data, solid fuel use is responsible for about 13 per cent of all mortality and morbidity in India. Apart from these health-related risks, it also forces women and children into the drudgery of collection of solid fuels like firewood, cowdung cakes etc., putting their safety in jeopardy. In such a scenario, the central government scheme Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) was expected to act as a boon. But, in states such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Rajasthan, Odisha, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura, more than 70 per cent rural households rely on unhealthy fuel sources.

Five years after launch, PMUY has added crores of beneficiaries to the list, but the sustained use of LPG remains a distant dream. The plausible reasons for a majority of households not using LPG might be the high refill costs mainly in last two years. The performance audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on PMUY as on 11 December 2019 identifies other reasons as well.

Lack of infrastructural requisites in the house, delay in installation process, and the lacunae in identification of beneficiaries prevents the scheme from achieving targets. Instances were found where domestic cylinders were diverted for commercial purposes. The current LPG price is on the verge of reaching Rs. 900 and currently no subsidy is being provided as the Union government has stopped direct transfer of subsidy to bank accounts. This has put immense financial burden on poor PMUY beneficiaries to continue using LPG. This may further decrease the refill frequency that had earlier decreased from four to three cylinders per year.

People living in rural or remote areas seldom have knowledge about risk factors associated with solid fuel use. Even in high-literacy states like Kerala, a higher proportion of households reported using a combination of both unhealthy and cleaner fuels. Only the sustained use of clean fuels, with a move away from traditional biomass for cooking and heating will help in achieving the target of SDG target 7.1 by 2030.

To improve the use of clean cooking energy by all households, significant planning to improve the availability, accessibility and affordability to clean fuels in rural areas is the need of the hour. Government’s focus must not be only on disbursing connections but making the LPG sector a real contributor to overcoming this deep-rooted challenge affecting energy access, health, and gender disparity.

(The writers are, respectively, a postgraduate student at Banaras Hindu University and a doctoral fellow at International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.)