An Alarming Threat

Harassed by the ever-growing insecurity over availability of fossil fuels, India has recently decided to establish a strategic resource of petrol and diesel for six months consumption. On the other hand, the finance ministry is getting restless as the sky-rocketing government subsidies on petroleum fuels eats into the foreign exchange reserves. So scarce and sensitive has fossil fuel become that it virtually dictates global politics and brings about energy insecurity. How should India approach this problem?

The solution lies in the backyard of our villages. India has to shift to other forms of energy, and arguably, the most sustainable option is to return to our biomass resources. Unknown to the petro-experts, 91 percent of India’s total energy need is met from biomass like fuel-wood, leaf litters and agricultural residues. India has to look for a solution to its energy crisis in these sources. Fuel-wood is easily the most important and viable option for averting a future energy crisis.

Fuel-wood dominates all energy sources though it has a low calorific value and is less efficient as compared to charcoal, kerosene, and propane gas. However, it is still the most preferred domestic fuel for rural people. Of the total of about 70,000 villages in the states, over 30,000 villages are in the proximity of forests. A multi-billion dollar trade thrives on India’s highly biomass based economy. Contrary to popular belief that alternate fuels will replace fuel-wood, it is still the preferred energy source according to the National Center for Applied Economic Research (NCAER).

India is witnessing a peculiar situation. Fuel-wood consumption is increasing both in rural and urban areas at the rate of about 2.4 percent annually between 1980 and 1994. But in higher-income brackets, there is a decline in consumption of bio-fuel, which is accompanied by growth in consumption of LPG and kerosene by about 9.3 and 11 percent a year. But these are still negligible sources in rural areas with only 1.3 percent household using these fuels for cooking. Kerosene is used for lighting purposes and in remote villages it is yet to make an appearance. The number of people using the forests for their energy requirements will also increase, according to the NCAER4.

The government policy of replacing fuel-wood with kerosene and LPG will be a gigantic task, and require mean billions of rupees in subsidies. In the 1991 census consumption of fuel-wood was surveyed for the first time. According to it, 151 million households in India used fuel-wood, of which 111.5 million households were in rural areas, constituting 92 per cent of total rural population.? In its report of 1979, the Planning Commission’s working group on energy policy projected that by 1983 fuel-wood consumption would go up to 140 million tones. An expert group called the Advisory Board on Energy, appointed by the Planning Commission in 1985, estimated that the demand would go up to 300-330 million tones in 2005.

Going further into possible scenarios, the subsidies presently being provided for household commercial fuels such as kerosene and LPG could be withdrawn. This will suddenly increase the demand for fuel-wood, and, without any policy for fuel-wood and alternative energy sources, the forests may be threatened. Therefore, long-term policies should be framed keeping these considerations in mind. Governments have to lean on such options in future.

But the biggest hurdle is government policy: collection of fuel-wood is still illegal and is considered as the biggest threat to the forests by the Indian forest bureaucracy. However, the Indian Institute of Forest Management experts believe that fuel-wood collection can be sustainable if forests can be regenerated. Almost all states however have come out with legislation banning fuel-wood collection.

Moreover, the government in April this year stopped funding the National Improved Chullas Programme, which was started in 1984-85 to encourage effective uses of fuel-wood. The idea was to introduce efficient wood-based stoves, which will consume less fuel-wood. There were 33 million improved stoves till December 31 2000, but according to the NCAER survey during 1992-95 nearly one-fourth of the stoves installed had stopped functioning within a year of their installation.

Fuel-wood collection is a major source of income for about 11.28 million rural population. Immediately after the oil crisis of 1971, India thought about its energy independence and found fuel-wood to be a way out for ensuring energy for its dominant rural population. After three decades, the government has to think again about the same issue, but to act.

by Snehasis Das

(Published in Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, July 4, 2003)