After decades of cooking on firewood-lit earthen stoves, women in the village of Sarmathla, in the northern Indian state of Haryana, were thrilled when they received gas stoves and connections about five years ago.
The gas cylinders using liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) meant they didn’t have to collect firewood and inhale the smoky fumes emitted by stoves called ‘chullahs’.
They are among millions of poor rural households receiving subsidized gas connections and cylinders under a government program launched in 2016 to help women switch from using highly polluting cooking sources like wood and animal dung to cleaner cooking fuels.
But in most homes in Sarmathla, cylinders now sit unused in a corner of the kitchen as many relight their stoves with firewood.
“I am a poor person and everything has become so expensive. As day bets, we barely make four dollars a day,” said Santosh Devi, a villager. “Tell me, should I buy food for children or buy a gas bottle?”
A series of price hikes over the past year and a half have made cylinders for cooking unaffordable for many poor households already struggling with soaring food prices and incomes that have shrunk due to the pandemic.
The price of about $13 for a gas cylinder is almost twice what it was six years ago when the project started. And although the government last month announced a $2.50 subsidy for those with subsidized gas connections, most villagers say they still can’t use it as a main source for cooking.
Cooking gas prices in India have skyrocketed as international crude oil prices have soared – India is heavily dependent on imported natural gas.
The rising costs pose a challenge to the ambitious program, which aimed to address the serious health problems caused by indoor air pollution. Along with building toilets and houses for the rural poor, it was one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s flagship programs designed to dramatically improve the lives of rural poor households.
According to government figures, government subsidies had given more than 80 million rural households access to a clean source of energy for cooking by last year.
But Poonam Devi, a Sarmathla resident, said she uses it sparingly.
“I only cook vegetables with gas, but everything else I do on a wood fire,” Devi said as she rolled out Indian bread for the family of seven. “Sometimes I use it when guests come over.”
Experts fear this will set back efforts to combat the serious health problems caused by toxic kitchen fumes. While this village mainly depends on firewood, cow dung and agricultural waste are other traditional sources for cooking in India’s vast rural areas.
“Indoor air pollution from these solid fuels is equivalent to one person continuously smoking a significant number of cigarettes at a 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 top public health challenges, Jain said: “General estimates suggest that India loses half a million of its population prematurely each year to indoor air pollution. That is the magnitude of the problem we are dealing with.”
The women in this village know only too well the health consequences of the soot flames.
“I cough and get congestion and breathing problems from cooking. So I try to cook with gas whenever possible,” said Paramwati, a Sarmathla resident whose tiny kitchen collects the exhaust fumes.
Not only poor households are affected – also wealthier families in this village, who do not benefit from government subsidies, are struggling with the high prices for cooking gas.
“I have to think many times before I can refill this cylinder. I can only do it if I manage to save $13 or I have to wait for my husband to get his salary,” Manju Chhoker said.
This feeling is reflected throughout the village. “It’s a big challenge to deal with inflation and high gas prices. When it comes time to refill the gas cylinder, I’m really worried,” said another resident, Satya Prakash Rajput.
According to studies, the number of households using clean energy as their main fuel for cooking increased exponentially from about 30 percent to almost 70 percent between 2011 and 2020. Those gains are now under threat, experts say, as affordability is proving to be a huge obstacle.
“At the very least, this has stalled progress, at worst it has reversed some of the progress,” says Jain. “Unless prices were made more affordable through government subsidies or a drop in international prices, households would now not be able to switch to LPG when cooking.”
This means the women in Sarmathla village may still have to haul firewood and deal with the fumes in their kitchens to light their stoves.