Cooking gas is an unnecessary luxury, said Simaru Kandi from Musapada village in Odisha’s Puri district. “Nature has given us all resources to lead a bountiful life,” she explained. “Whenever we need firewood we go, pick some dry branches from the forest near the village. At other times we use cow dung as fuel.”
Many women like Simaru believe they are fine depending on the forest for food and fuel and don’t need Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) as an alternative. They did not sign up for the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), the government scheme that provides LPG connections to families below the poverty line.
According to the Indian government, about 72 million households (93-94 percent of the target) have access to cooking gas under the PMUY. But that's not good news for forest-dependent communities of the coastal pockets of Odisha.
Providing LPG to all the households is part of the central government’s climate action plan, envisaged as a way to cut down poor families' reliance on conventional fuels like firewood and cow dung for cooking. According to The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), nearly 40% of India’s air pollution comes from domestic fuel burning. The government has said that substituting traditional fuels with LPG will not only curb air pollution caused by solid biomass, but it will also curb deforestation.
But the scheme has its detractors, particularly among coastal communities that have long harvested firewood and other resources from the forests surrounding their homes. Villagers say they collect twigs and fallen branches rather than cutting down trees. Thus, the scheme that aims at curbing deforestation has no base; rather, it would distance them from the forest in exchange for a service that doesn’t fit their way of life.
Odisha-based climate expert Ranjan Panda, convenor of Water Initiatives Odisha -- a consortium of civil society organisations and experts, that works on issues related to water, environment and climate change -- said the government should recognise the limitations of the LPG scheme and not push it on communities that aren’t exploiting the forests.
“People will anyway venture into the forests for other needs such as food, greens, leaves, fish, and hence will always bring the dry wood, twigs and leaves. That should be a matter of their right as they protect the local forests,” Panda said.
Costs, inconvenience of LPG keep families away
There are several factors that have kept people from taking up the LPG scheme. The price of LPG compared to freely available firewood in the forest; the troublesome affair of refilling cylinders, even though the consumer gets a subsidy of around Rs151 for each refill, bringing down the cost from Rs710; and the time it takes to cook rice for bigger families.
“Although I got an LPG connection one and a half years ago, we don’t need it to keep our hearths burning,” said Sabana Kandi, the 55-year-old matriarch of a family of 10 in Musapada, who refers to the cooking gas as “a waste of our hard-earned money.”
Sabana said despite promising a smokeless cooking experience, an LPG cylinder isn’t a feasible choice for huge families like hers, where the food needs to be cooked in large quantities. It also can’t be used for farm activities like boiling paddy, which needs a bigger fire and larger quantity of fuel, she added.
“When we got our LPG connection, my daughters-in-law were disappointed on the first day itself as it took a long time to cook rice for the whole family on a gas stove. Cooking cauldrons of rice twice a day on an LPG stove seemed an impossible option,” Sabana said.
Her two sons are marginal farmers and daily wagers and she runs a very small grocery shop. The average family income is Rs9,000 per month. If the family depends exclusively on LPG for cooking, it will need to refill the canisters twice a month. For a family on a tight budget, shelling out between Rs800-1,000 per LPG cylinder is a “huge financial burden,” Sabana said.
For Trilochan Kar, 60, an LPG connection is a waste of money when the forests around Musapada have huge caches of timber – mostly from trees uprooted during recent cyclones.
Villagers in Musapada harvest fallen trees sustainably for firewood and other purposes as part of the Maa Jageswari Eco Development Committee (MJEDC), which protects and manages 1,200 hectares of jungle belonging to Golara Protected Reserve Forest (PRF) under the Balukhand-Konark Wildlife Sanctuary. The villagers under MJEDC, a government-recognised committee formed around two decades ago, take care of two types of forests adjacent to the village. One is the casuarina forest that protects the land from saline wind and sea ingress; another, the tropical forest that is rich with trees like sal, kendu, karanja and jamun, which are sources of minor forest produce, said MJEDC’s registrar Radhakant Kar.
Villagers in Musapada estimated that around 75 percent of them have received an LPG connection; however, less than five percent refill it every three to four months. More than half of the people who got the connection have not refilled their cylinders after the first one was exhausted, and many have not even finished the first one yet. Notably, the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Dharmendra Pradhan, told Parliament in August 2018 that nearly 80 percent of PMUY beneficiaries who had been connected for a year had come back for a refill. It is not known how many of them have come for a third refill or are using LPG for cooking purposes regularly.
But while LPG is an unwanted option in many coastal villages like Musapada, what irks most of the beneficiaries is the lack of follow up by government agencies.
Can the protector of the forest be its foe?
In Tandahar village, around 75 percent of residents have LPG connections, but most still depend on conventional fuel because they can’t afford the gas, even at a subsidised price. However, unlike Musapada, here, the villagers are denied access to the forest.
The restrictions on community access to forests are part of forest protection laws from the 19th century that were strengthened in 1972, under the Wildlife Protection Act. The stricter laws in sanctuaries and reserve forests are enforced by state forest guards and justified by the government as a means of preventing deforestation, said Panda.
The bar on entry to the forest makes is tough for villagers in Tandahar to arrange fuel for cooking, making them dependent instead on cow-dung cakes.
“It is sad that we are denied entry into the forest even to collect dry twigs and leaves despite being recognised by the government for our protection efforts,” said Bengalata Rout, who leads the thengapali in Tandahar village. Thengapali is a citizen patrolling group of five lathi-wielding women who take turns venturing into the forest daily to protect it from clear cutters and timber mafia.
“We ensure that the casuarina forest that has protected us from cyclones since 1972 remains protected. The Super Cyclone [in 1999] had eroded this protective cover, but we recreated it,” said Bengalata, pointing out that villagers have collectively contributed four acres of their private land to the forest.
They’ve also worked to protect a mangrove patch on the village outskirts, now a favourite haunt for local birds.
“There was no mangrove cover in our place earlier,” Bengalata said. “We spotted a sapling growing in the water body on our village outskirts after the Super Cyclone. We protected and nurtured it and now a large patch is dotted with mangrove species.”
The villagers do depend on the Golara forest for firewood and say they collect dry leaves and twigs and never cut living trees. “We only collect what the trees have shed,” Bengalata explained. “However, if the forest department officials see us with dry twigs, they seize the bundles and torch them.”
Lalita Rout, a member of the forest protection group in Tandahar stopped collecting wood scraps from the forest after forest department officials started torching her bundles, citing laws that restrict collection of products from forest sanctuaries. She now uses cow dung, twigs and by-products of coconut trees like shells and branches, to fuel her hearth.
She received an LPG connection two years ago but says as she can’t afford to pay for refilling the cylinders, she has not used it even once. “My neighbour says cooking is easy with LPG, but I will not use it if I don’t get it for free,” Lalita said.
Sulochana Rout of Tandahar village said every six months someone from her family has to hitch a ride to the nearest town, Balidokan, 25 km away, to get their cylinder refilled at the dealer’s outlet. Sometimes when the dealer has no stock they have to shell out Rs1,000 or more for a refill against the original price of around Rs700. “An entire workday is wasted just in getting an LPG cylinder refilled,” Sulochana said.
Panda said the government should consider providing bigger subsidies to those in need. But, he adds, a complete transition to LPG use is not a silver bullet for helping the environment. “Though LPG saves people from indoor pollution, it is still a fossil fuel and adds to global warming,” Panda said.
For Sabitri Swain, there are other reasons to use firewood and dry cow-dung cakes aside from the cost.
“We cannot do away with the ash we get from burning conventional fuel. We need it every day for disinfecting the cattle-shed and keeping it dry and also to process fish before cooking them,” she said.
She can afford to refill her cylinder every four months as her husband, who works in Surat, sends money regularly. But she prefers to mix conventional fuel use along with LPG, since used alone, her cylinder would run out in 15 days.
Restriction on forest entry detrimental for community, ecology
There are others who have neither access to forest resources nor an LPG connection to fall back on, and it’s these people who need utmost attention, according to Sudarshan Rout, a resident of Bagapatia. Bagapatia is a resettlement colony the government has created for residents who lost homes when their villages in Satabhaya gram panchayat (under Rajnagar block of Kendrapara district) were consumed by rising sea water.
Giridhari Dalai, 50, a daily wager, has to shell out between Rs1,200 and Rs1,600 per month to buy firewood from sawmills to meet the requirements of his family. He does not have an LPG connection. The villagers also do not have access to a mangrove forest close to their colony, which falls under the Rajnagar Mangrove Division and is thus protected. Fuelwood collected from mangrove forests used to be the main source of fuel for them.
According to Sudarshan’s wife Sasmita Rout, the former sarpanch of Satabhaya and now a resident of Bagapatia, around 200 of the more than 570 families residing in the rehabilitation colony have received an LPG connection. The others neither have access to the mangrove forest nor can they access cow dung since most of the relocated people gave up their cattle when they moved to the resettlement colony due to the lack of pasture land, Sasmita said.
When the villagers used to have access to the mangrove forests, they took care of its protection and regeneration, Sudarshan said. While they did collect firewood from the forests, he said it never negatively impacted the protective cover. The rich knowledge of protecting the forest has trickled down to them from their ancestors and even now the forest department is seeking their support to put off forest fires, he added.
According to a working paper – Sustainable Woodfuel for Food Security – prepared by the Food and Agricultural Organization, it should not be assumed that wood-fuel is always harvested from living trees, which would release carbon if they were harvested for energy use. Wood-fuel collectors always prefer residue, such as dry wood, dead trees or branches. The paper further suggests that residue, if not used as fuel, would be consumed in other ways or decomposed by natural processes and would lead to the same amount of carbon emissions as burning. Thus, wood-fuel’s net emissions of carbon into the environment are close to zero, it says.
Community initiative results in increase of mangrove cover
Community reforestation efforts may be a reason the mangroves in Odisha are bucking the decline seen elsewhere. According to the 2019 Forest Survey of India Report, Odisha accounts for only 5.04 percent of India’s mangrove cover, but there has been a slight increase in mangrove cover in the state from 215 square kilometres in 1999-2001 to 251 sqkm in 2019.
Hemant Kumar Sahoo, a conservationist who works with the forest-dependent communities of Odisha, gave them credit for the increase.
“For a community, the forest is a renewable resource having myriad facets impacting their lives, livelihood, culture, traditions and beliefs positively,” he said. “In coastal areas, while the local communities are dependent on forests for their sustenance, they are also the reason behind the sustenance of the biodiversity-rich natural forests. They manage the forests for its sustainable use and enrich it with their traditional knowledge.”
Sahoo worries that transitioning forest-dependent communities from firewood to LPG without providing them a sustainable source of income may drive people to other wood-based alternatives so they’re able to earn enough money to refill their LPG cylinders.
“If one is not allowed to collect firewood that is dry and dead, he may tend to steal a living tree and sell it outside at a throw-away price,” he added.
Panda believes the government should provide LPG and other efficient fuel to communities at a subsidised price but said community access to coastal forests should not be restricted.
It is because while forests provide them with fuel, food, fodder, medicine and much more, it is their intervention which protects the forests and maintains the ecosystem, he said.
An original version of this story was published on Mongabay India on 17 Jan. 2020. Reporting was supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network's Bay of Bengal project.
Banner image: A woman cooking with firewood / Credit: Pragati Prava