What Led to the Failure of a Biogas-Fueled Community Kitchen in Kurudampalayam, India?

A man stands in a white cluttered room with black writing on the wall
Kurudampalayam, Tamil Nadu, India
What Led to the Failure of a Biogas-Fueled Community Kitchen in Kurudampalayam, India?

Saraswathi, 56, of Kurudampalayam in Coimbatore district never used the community kitchen when it was operational in 2016. The project was run by biogas technology from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) but stopped functioning within a year due to a lack of patronage and maintenance issues.  

“Only my husband and I live here. All our children are married. A liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder would last over four months. Instead of carrying every ingredient to cook meals from my house to the community kitchen, I preferred to purchase firewood for a few rupees. Anyway, it cost much less than an LPG cylinder,” Saraswathi said.

Though the plant was revived last month, the community kitchen has remained closed since 2017. Saraswathi said, even if it reopened, she would only depend on it when she ran out of LPG.

A woman stands with her hands on her hips next to a tree and a wooden gate
Saraswathi, 56, of Kurudampalayam in Coimbatore district / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam. 

Based on the BARC’s Nisargruna plant, the community kitchen was equipped with 21 stoves for locals to use free of charge but only a fraction were used. “The District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) implemented the project in our panchayat with BARC funds worth Rs 30 lakh. Additionally, the district collector donated Rs 10 lakh for building the kitchen. The BARC also did Nisargruna technology transfer to make the project a reality,” D Ravi, Kurudampalayam panchayat president, explained.

Every day, the plant could process two tons of organic waste but only a few families utilized the biogas produced. R Kaliammal, 67, a goat herder, was one of the beneficiaries. She has a big family so her food and fuel costs are high. “I now spend nearly two hours collecting firewood from the forest. When it rains, I have to sun-dry it too. In such a situation, I have to resort to an LPG cylinder,” Kaliammal said.  

Reminiscing about how easy things were when the community kitchen was functional, Kaliammal said, “My daughter-in-law and I would take the required vegetables, rice and pulses from our home and cook every day at the community kitchen."

"It saved us the time and effort required for collecting firewood.”

Thulasimani, 45, lived close to the community kitchen and also accessed it regularly. “The street is long and extends further to the north. For those located at a distance, carrying all the ingredients and vessels from their homes seemed unfeasible. Eventually, they stopped using the facility,” she said.

However, the rising LPG price is a concern for Thulasimani’s family of five. “An LPG cylinder costs Rs 1,110 and it does not even last for 45 days!”

A concrete biomass plant
A polygonal view of the biogas plant / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam. 

The panchayat stalemate

The community kitchen project was a promising endeavor to make a fortune out of solid wastes but it failed as the few women who cooked there only used it once a day. “The young ladies felt shy and only older women accessed it regularly,” said Ravi, who oversaw a 20-member team supervising tasks such as waste segregation and plant operation.

Taking note of the low patronage, the panchayat decided to shift the kitchen to a smaller area next to the biogas plant and began construction for the new site. The existing building was repurposed into a community hall in 2016.

Pointing to the raised pillars at the site where the new kitchen was proposed, Ravi said they could not complete the construction as “our term got over and the panchayat elections were paused for the next three years.”  

The community kitchen, which the Kurudampalayam panchayat had tried to lease out to a women’s canteen or self-help group. It's a yellow building with brown shutters.
The community kitchen, which the Kurudampalayam panchayat had tried to lease out to a women’s canteen or self-help group / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam.
The Nisarguna Bio Methanation Plant in Coimbatore, which is a red and beige building.
The Nisarguna Bio Methanation Plant in Coimbatore / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam. 

With the panchayat non-operational from 2016 to 2019, waste segregation also came to a halt. “We used to collect Rs 30 per house under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Besides operating the biogas plant, we made extra money by selling segregated and recycled wastes. This paid the salaries of sanitation and maintenance workers at the plant,” said Ravi, who got another term as panchayat president following the 2019 polls. 

Additionally, the panchayat had received corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds for waste segregation and plant operation. “Dimexon Diamonds Ltd Coimbatore & Emerald Jewel Industry offered Rs 24,000 and Rs 40,000 monthly for three consecutive years,” said Ravi. As many as 45 sanitation workers had been tasked with collecting segregated waste from 13,000 families in 11 wards, with each worker handling 150 households.

Besides generating employment, the activity kept the panchayat clean and tidy: Kurudampalayam won the Panchayat Sashasktikaran Puraskar awards in 2014 and Tamil Nadu government’s Clean Village Campaign award in 2016.

An older woman in a yellow sari stands next to a goat on a street.
R Kaliammal, 67, a goat herder and a beneficiary of biogas, now spends nearly two hours collecting firewood from the forest / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam. 
A woman stands in front of a scrap wood pile.
For Thulasimani, the rising LPG price is a concern. She says an LPG cylinder costs Rs 1,110 and does not even last for 45 days / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam. 

According to biogas plant operator Geetha, unsuitable municipal waste segregation became a vexing issue once the panchayat ceased to exist.

The BARC website estimates that 400-500 grams of biodegradable waste is generated per person every day. Despite the operational issues, BARC still believes the biogas plants could potentially divert the waste from being left in dumping grounds causing further health hazards.

A DRDA official, on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the plant workers did not receive salaries during the special officer (block development officer) period which forced workers to leave their jobs. Shortly after, the area became a hotspot for men to consume alcohol.

Discussing the operational issues during the special officer period, Nandhakumar, general secretary of Thannatchi—an NGO that supports the panchayat in several projects—said, “All of a sudden, a block development officer (BDO) was burdened with the humongous work of many villages which was previously carried out by several panchayat presidents, vice-presidents and ward members.”

Despite repeated attempts, the Kurudampalayam BDO refused to comment on the issues, including failure to pay salaries, segregate the waste to continuously operate the biogas fueled-community kitchen and maintain the biogas plant.

Knocking on all doors for revenue

In a bid to maximize biogas utilization and revenue generation, Kurudampalayam panchayat tried to lease out the community kitchen to a women’s canteen or self-help group. It also explored the idea of selling biogas to bakeries and restaurants but none of these efforts gained momentum.

“Snacks are prepared daily on high flame. But the biogas pressure was simply not sufficient for us. Hence, we switched back to commercial LPG,” said a bakery owner on condition of anonymity. He had accessed the free biogas for a while.

Chythenyan, a research associate at the Centre for Financial Accountability, said “Low pressure for flame is a common problem with biogas as it contains some amount of wetness due to water vapour. Hence, a compressor can help the biogas to be supplied at a constant pressure like LPG cylinders."

To promote waste segregation, the panchayat initially offered two free dustbins of Rs 20 to every household. However, the low response forced them to train all sanitation workers to do the segregation before the waste entered the corporation bins.

“We also collected plastic waste separately for Rs 10 per kilogram from houses and sold it to recycling plants… The biogas slurry was also sold to farmers as an organic fertilizer at a subsidy rate of Rs 10 per kilogram,” said Ravi.

Alcohol bottles on a concrete floor.
The alcohol bottles found at the biogas plant / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam. 
Half-constructed pillars of a small community kitchen with a tree next to them
The half-constructed pillars of a small community kitchen that was planned in 2016 / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam. 

Though all these measures had generated revenue, it was insufficient to meet the needs of the panchayat. “We needed approximately Rs 5 lakh per month to segregate wastes and run the biogas plant. The state government provided only Rs 3,600 per sanitation worker on 27 routes whereas the actual salary paid was Rs 6,000 on 45 routes from the panchayat money,” said Ravi.

Not just that, the panchayat had been segregating waste from only 11 out of 15 wards due to a fund crunch. “If we were to input the segregated wastes from the entire panchayat to the plant, we would have added another 25 routes with 25 more sanitation workers and supervisors,” Ravi said. 

Explaining how a top-down approach could render biogas projects defunct after a few years, Nandhakumar said the government should reflect on the outcome of such schemes or look into the operational hindrances to find a long-term sustainable solution.  

Admitting that there was a lack of follow-up of old schemes when several projects were being pushed, a state government official, on condition of anonymity, said, “All schemes cover the hard costs of implementation whereas most schemes only allot little to no funds for maintenance thus leading to the failure of projects.”

Expert view

Compressed biogas was an idea that the Tamilnadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA) general manager in charge of Karamallayan suggested to make individual households adopt the project. “But it needs a massive decentralized plant to bottle biogas, which will incur a huge cost,” he said.

Chythenyan suggested a different model for maximizing biogas utilization. “A community-owned enterprise fueled by community-based biogas and benefit-sharing with the public are important aspects. Kurudampalayam community kitchen should be turned into a community canteen that offers food at low rates to the public.”

According to the TEDA website, 189 community and toilet-linked biogas plants have been built in Tamil Nadu but most of them are defunct. “A lot of research has been done on why community biogas plants are not surviving. Maintenance is one major issue,” Karamallayan said.

Though TEDA is not currently operating biogas projects, he said the agency is ready to revive the defunct community plants if the government gives its approval.

Beginning afresh

Despite the huge expenditure involved in the erstwhile biogas plant, Ravi is keen to revive production. “Though we thought a community kitchen would be a place for women to share knowledge along with food, it failed as they preferred privacy. Now we are searching for an effective solution to fully utilize the biogas, besides hoping for CSR funds and NGO support.”

Giving an interesting insight into how the government has shifted away from community-based toilets to individual ones—to instill a sense of ownership—Chythenyan said, “Community kitchen models might not work in progressive states like Tamil Nadu as more and more people lead private lives.”

Women like Thulasimani felt a community hall was more important as it served the entire village. Ravi said, “We are also trying to convert the biogas to electricity and sell it to grid. This will help in generating some revenue for the panchayat. We will keep trying and learning, no matter how many operational issues we encounter. We are determined in our step towards the non-stop operation of the plant. Success is not very far.”

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published by 101Reporters on December 9, 2022, and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: The defunct input processing unit at the biogas plant that fueled the community kitchen in Kurudampalayam panchayat / Credit: Gowthami Subramaniam.

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