How LPG improves rural women's health

Topics LPG | LPG subsidy

Social norms around the division of household work disproportionately burden women in India. Women spend significant amounts of time (approximately 50 hours per week) on domestic chores, of which cooking and cleaning house, clothes and utensils form the bulk, while 15-20 per cent of the time spent on household work consists solely of child care, according to the last Time Use Survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 1998. This allocation of time to household chores is accompanied by low female labour force participation (about 25 per cent), which has declined in rural areas (and remained stagnant in urban areas), by most accounts. 

It is fairly well-established that technological changes, such as the introduction of washing machines and refrigeration, improved women’s labour supply in the developed countries by saving time spent on domestic chores. Mass electrification of rural households in South Africa enabled large, immediate shifts in home production technology, raised female employment and plausibly stimulated net labour supply increase. Can inducing households to shift from traditional cooking stoves that use solid fuels to more efficient and cleaner LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) stoves in rural India lead to similar impacts on women’s time-use?

In order to expand access to LPG, the Government of India launched the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) in April 2016. The PMUY is the largest programme on access to clean fuel in India’s history and the world, reaching about 72 million women and their families between April 2016 and June 2019. The programme specifically, and LPG access in general, can significantly impact women’s time spent on domestic chores. How has the programme fared on this count?

In an ongoing study in the rural areas of Indore district in Madhya Pradesh, this writer, along with Sisir Debnath of IIT Delhi and E Somanathan of ISI Delhi surveyed 3,000 households and the primary cooks in these households across 150 villages in November-December 2018. The survey collected detailed information on the households’ use of cooking fuel, and time-use of the primary cook through a 24-hour recall.

More than two-thirds of surveyed households have an LPG connection. However, mixed use of fuels is very common — households often use wood and dung cakes even when they have LPG access. Sixty-eight per cent of households with LPG connections reported collecting firewood in the previous month. Women spend disproportionately more time on fuel collection: Out of four visits made by the household to collect firewood in the previous week, three were made by the primary cook,  almost always a woman. Each visit takes about four hours. The primary cook spent 10 hours in the previous week making dung cakes, on average. Only 39 per cent of households with LPG connections used LPG exclusively for cooking the previous meal.

These data imply that, on average, women in rural areas may be spending an entire day per week in fuel collection. In addition, cooking time on the traditional chulha takes 30 minutes more per meal compared to using an LPG stove. Thus, a shift to regular usage of LPG for cooking can potentially save women’s time spent in both fuel collection and cooking.

Our data analysis shows that women’s time spent on income-generating work (either paid or on own business/farm) is lower by almost 30 minutes per day and women spend this additional time saved on leisure activities, if the household has an LPG connection, compared to a non-LPG household. But in PMUY households, relative to non-PMUY households (in the sample of all households with an LPG connection) time spent on work is about 40 minutes higher due to reduction in time spent on household chores.

Since PMUY households are socio-economically more disadvantaged than non-PMUY households — more likely to be Scheduled Castes/ Tribes, less educated, casual labourers, and not owning much land — this finding suggests that in households that are poorer, LPG usage releases more time for income-generating work by women. On the other hand, regular LPG usage may increase the leisure time of women in economically better-off households.

These findings suggest that more efficient technologies of home production can improve women’s welfare by allowing them to allocate their time more optimally, in addition to the potentially positive impact they may have on their health through reduction in indoor smoke. The PMUY programme, therefore, is a step in the right direction — households must shift from using solid fuels to exclusive use of a clean and more efficient fuel.

But our survey data also indicate that ignorance of the adverse health impacts of sustained inhalation of smoke from solid fuels is pervasive, while familiarity and taste-based preferences lead to regular usage of traditional fuels even in areas that do not have freely available firewood and LPG costs less than firewood bought from the market. Concerted efforts towards raising awareness about the benefits of using LPG and the adverse long-term health effects of indoor air pollution are, therefore, imperative as the government plans the next phase of the Ujjwala programme.     
The writer is Associate Professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi

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