Negotiating Access: The Social Process of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) Cookstove Dissemination Intervention in Himachal Pradesh, India
Negotiating Access: The Social Process of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) Cookstove Dissemination Intervention in Himachal Pradesh, India
Yiting Wang, MESc 20141
For decades, governments and aid agencies have disseminated millions of improved cooking devices and fuels to address a variety of environmental, health, and livelihood issues in the developing world. This paper is an ethnographic case study of a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cookstove intervention by a community-based organi-zation, Jagriti, to disseminate LPGs to hill women in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. I conducted a combination of household surveys, participant observation, and semi-structured interviews with villagers, Jagriti’s director, and local gas agencies managers. The undirected diffusion of LPG made its way along the webs of caste delineations, income levels, and the social networks of field promoters. I argue that removing barriers of access for the poorest of the poor is a negotiated and contested social process. Despite Jagriti’s efforts to enhance access to LPG, realizing the full extent of its benefits depends on fundamental improvement of the gas delivery infrastructure and socioeconomic conditions of the marginalized.
For more than 10 years, a Tempo truck has carried cylinders of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to villages in Lag Valley in the Indian Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh. Usually on the 16th and 30th of the month, the truck drops off refilled gas cylinders at roadside shops and picks up empty ones. Villagers hike up or down for as much as 30 minutes to retrieve the full bottle and pay the shop owners a 20-rupee handling fee. More than 600 households were customers of the gas distribution agency in Kullu town by July 2013.2
The initial spread of LPG cookstoves in Lag Valley was largely the result of efforts by a community-based organization called Jagriti (“awakening” in Hindi), based in Kullu town. In this article, I use an ethnographic case study of Jagriti’s program to detail the processes of dissemination and adoption of LPG and the challenges of maintaining sustained use. I highlight how the diffusion of LPG during its initial and undirected stage made its way along the webs of caste delineations, income levels, and the social networks of the field agents themselves. I show how access to and enjoyment of modern energy services are a much-negotiated social process.
From June to August 2013, I carried out a combination of household surveys (n=38) and ethnographic research. This involved semi-structured individual and focus group interviews, and participant observations in eight villages in the Lag Valley and in Jagriti’s office3. About 90% of the surveyed villagers established LPG connections and acquired LPG stoves through their membership in women’s saving and credit groups (WCSGs), created and supported by Jagriti4. The story of the initial process of stove diffusion is reconstructed through the accounts of Mamta Chandar, Jagriti’s director, the village women, and the gas agency managers.
Access to clean and reliable energy service is fundamental to sustainable development (Ailawadi and Bhattacharyya 2006, Pachauri et al. 2012). Smith et al. (2005: 21) find that LPG “reliably produces much lower air pollution” and “emits far less” greenhouse gas than kerosene and poorly combusted and non-renewable solid bio-mass. The common definition of ‘access’ includes both physical access to fuel and equipment, and real access in terms of the household purchasing power, the cost of fuel and equipment, and access to a fully functioning energy market (Pachauri and Spreng 2004). In this article, I will show that this definition of ‘access’ stops short of capturing the dynamic socio-political barriers that determine who can fully enjoy the benefits of the service.
Jagriti’s mission is to empower the “poor, disadvantaged hill women.”5 In 2000, it launched an initiative to reduce women’s drudgery by promoting energy-efficient cooking devices. One of the pro-grams was to encourage the adoption of LPG cookstoves to replace the traditional biomass burning stoves. According to Mamta, the reasons for choosing LPG were manifold: “It is cleaner, easy to operate, better for health and above all is, and was at that time, a social status symbol.” Sleek aluminum LPG stoves with knobs to turn on and off the fire stand in clear contrast with the prevailing traditional stoves (chulha in Hindi) that are made of mud, stone or metal tripod (Figure 1). Another common stove used for heating and cooking is the tandoor stove made as a metal box with a built-in smoke pipe.
The hurdles to LPG adoption are multifaceted, too. While state-owned oil companies supply LPG from both domestic production and import, the distribution network is a hybrid of public and private players. The government contracts private dealers to run the gas agencies, who are then responsible for establishing LPG connections and delivering cylinders to end-users. Little incentive exists for gas agencies to extend delivery into rural are-as where demand for LPG is low and over-head costs are high (D’Sa and Murthy 2004). Although structural disadvantage continues to exist, rural LPG connection is increasing slowly (ibid.). In Himachal, the percentage of LPG-dependent rural households increased from 21.8% in 2001 to 32.7% in 2011, while that of firewood-dependent declined from 72.2% to 64% ( (Census of India 2011).
Figure 1. Note the LPG stove and the red gas cylinder in the upper two photos, as well as the tradition metal tripod stove (left) and the tandoor stove (right) in the same kitchen. The cylinder was stored in the cabinet in the lower right photo. The woman on the lower left photo preferred cooking the thick bhatura bread on her mud chulha, even though she too had a LPG stove.
The standard application process for an LPG connection is quite burdensome. According to gas managers in Kullu and the neighboring town of Bhundar, the process consists of the following steps6. First, the aspiring LPG user comes to the gas agency to fill out an application form, bringing with her one form of proof of residence (e.g., ration card, electricity bill), and one form of ID. She then goes to the post office to get a date stamp on a letter issued by the gas agency, officially confirming her applicant status. Then she goes to the district court for an affidavit—a customer declaration sanctioned by the court stating that the resident does not have a second gas connection in the house7.
After the application is approved, the woman receives an LPG registration card and pays 1450 rupees ($24 USD) as a security deposit for the first cylinder. For households below the poverty line (equivalent of $1.25 USD/day), the fee is reduced to 800 rupees. Normally the agency sells the entire package for 4000 rupees ($65 USD) including one gas stove, rubber pipe, cylinder regulator, deposit for cylinder, and installation charges. Adding a second cylinder—which allows uninterrupted usage during refills—costs another 1800 rupees ($30 USD). If she already has her own stove, a 200-rupee “check-up” fee is applied in addition to the security deposit. Market price to refill the standard residential 14.5 kg cylinder is around 1000 rupees ($16 USD), compared to 450 rupees with subsidy. In comparison, daily non-agricultural wage in rural Himachal is around 250 rupees.
To overcome some of the hurdles, Mamta convinced the Kullu gas agency to start delivery in Lag Valley, assuring its owner that hundreds of households would sign up through Jagriti’s subsidy program. She then negotiated with LPG and pressure cooker dealers to buy stoves in bulk at reduced costs and later arranged delivery into the villages. Mamta also told women to prepare the required documents before she transported them to the agency, which eased the application process significantly for the villagers.
Diffusion of LPG
Dissemination of the information about the LPG subsidy progressed through Jagriti’s WCSGs. Jagriti hired “group organizers” (GOs) from among the village women, who typically are from the higher Raj-put caste (under the official category of Other Castes)8. Each GO oversees the activities of about 20 WCSGs. GOs are tasked with spreading the information of the LPG program among the WCSGs.
This process of word-of-mouth dissemination of information initially skewed the distribution toward higher castes and wealthier households. During the initial phase, the GOs were mainly reaching out to WCSGs in their own higher caste villages. “It was a big lesson for us that reaching the poor is not easy,” recalled Mamta. She attributed the bias to GO’s caste affinity. Subsequently, Jagriti installed a new policy to ensure that lower castes (or “Scheduled Castes” in the official term for the ‘untouchables’) also had the opportunity to buy LPG stoves. Jagriti requested that the women contribute less than half of what the agency would charge for an entire package. It encouraged the groups to lend money to members to purchase stoves. Group lending as a financing mechanism was initially limited since the groups had little savings and members did not have enough trust for each other. Almost all households interviewed paid the package cost without borrowing from the group. One WCSG leader from a relatively lower caste village shared what happened after the GO told her that her group of 18 members was allocated four slots in 20029
We had a meeting to discuss the matter. Most people did not want LPG because they were afraid of explosion and that if they get gas, their ration status might be revoked10. Jagriti gave us three days to raise money and you have to fill the forms and prepare the documents. After these processes, some people quit.
This suggests that more political-economic barriers exist even after information has reached the poor. There were also incidents of higher caste women spreading rumors about the danger of the LPG, especially those offered at such low rates, to their lower caste neighbors. Mamta speculated that this was probably a reaction of the higher caste women feel-ing “left out” because they were not WCSG members. She and the GOs went into the field frequently to raise awareness, demonstrate how to use LPG properly and safely, and to address confusions (e.g., regarding the ration status).
Challenge of Delivery and Sustained Use
Utilization of LPG remained low despite perceived benefits, mostly due to the high cost and logistical difficulty of refilling gas. The average number of refills for the previous year of the surveyed house-holds was 3.5 cylinders, or 0.6 cylinders per capita11. The national average remained around 7 – 8 cylinders per household since 2006 (Ranjan 2012). LPG cookstove users universally appreciated how fast it cooked and that it did not blacken their dishes, saving them time and effort in fire preparation and pot-scrubbing, compared to traditional stoves. However, LPG usage was selective: mostly to make tea and rice, to a lesser extent daal (the common bean soup), and almost never roti (the Indian bread in almost every meal). These dishes required constant high power, and people were used to the taste of roti made over chulha or other wood-fired stoves. Some women said LPG gave roti a bad taste. Further-more, LPG stoves were used mainly to save time: when the cooks were hurried, hosting guests, or heating up leftovers. This selective usage, according to users, was a means of rationing gas. For them, spending too much disposable income on LPG was not economical when the villagers had fairly stable access to firewood and a large family requiring significant amounts of cooking.
Refilling cylinders was a challenge itself. Users had to drop off their empty cylinders at the shop before the scheduled delivery date, though sometimes they were too busy to be on time. Truck delivery could be delayed for several weeks, according to villagers, while the gas agency explained that delay could be caused by a shortage of supply or bad weather and road conditions. One shop owner once misplaced the women’s gas ration cards and stopped offering handling service. A shop could simply be too far. One woman said she went to the gas agency to demand delivery to her village of Baagan, which was a 5-km steep climb from the main road, but the gas agency refused on the grounds of “not enough demand.” Most LPG users desired a second cylinder but were not ready to spend more money, especially without subsidy.
Micro practices and processes captured through this ethnographic exercise—aspects that are often neglected in policy formulations—cumulatively affect the poor’s access to and enjoyment of modern energy services. Jagriti’s intervention to ensure vertical diffusion of a new technology suggests the importance of understanding social stratification. While some see low demand for LPG and high overhead costs as de-incentivizing better gas service, I argue that low demand largely comes from rural residents’ sense of inaccessibility. This inaccessibility takes the form of bureaucratic procedures to apply for connection, irregular delivery of refills, precarious arrangements with shop owners, and existing socioeconomic inequalities within the rural areas as well as between rural and urban areas. Removing barriers of access for the poorest of the poor is a much negotiated and gradual social process. It requires intentional planning and sustained support to bring the marginalized out of their structural predicament on the part of both government and private development actors.
I am indebted to Mamta Chandar and Uma Thakur of Jagriti for their generous accommo-dation and field support, to Vishal Thakur and Naresh Kumar for their field and interpretation assistance, to the women in Lag Valley who graciously opened their doors to me, and to my adviser Professor Robert Bailis. Many thanks to the Tropical Resources Institute, F&ES Summer Internships and Research Fund, and South Asian Studies Program Travel Grant for Graduate Students for making the research possible.
Census of India. 2011. Tables on houses, household amenities and assets. Retrieved 11-28-2013, from http://www.devinfolive.info/censusinfodash-board/website/index.php/pages/kitchen_fuelused/total/Households/IND
Pachauri, S., A. Brew-Hammond, D. Barnes, D. Bouille, S. Gitonga, V. Modi, G. Prasad, A. Rath, and H. Zerriffi. 2012. Energy access for development. In The Global Energy Asessment: Toward a More Sustainable Future, eds. T. Johansson, A. Patwardhan, N. Nakicenovic, and L. Gomez-Echeverri, 1401–1458. Laxenburg, Austria: IIASA (International Institute for Applied Sys-tems Analysis) and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ranjan, A. Most families use 7-plus gas cylinders. The Indian Express. 23 October 2012. http://www.indianexpress.com/news/most-families-use-7plus-gas-cylinders/1020781/ Accessed online 28 Nov. 2013.
Wang, Y. 2014. Negotiating Access: The Social Processes of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) Cookstove Dissemination Intervention in Himachal Pradesh, India. Tropical Resources Bulletin 32-33, 37-42.
Yiting Wang is a 2014 Yale F&ES graduate. She focuses on human dimensions of energy transitions and has conducted ethnographic field research in Kenya and India, assessing rural energy programs and the appropriateness of carbon finance. Yiting has worked to mobilize youth for global climate actions, promote renewable energies, and advocate for global environmental governance reforms with organizations in China, India, Kenya, Demark and the US.↩
Gas manager of Kullu town, personal communication, 23 July 2013.↩
The majority of the interviewees in Lag Valley were married female. In a few cases, the couple participated in the interview together. The household survey was part of a larger study to measure gender and livelihoods impact of clean cookstoves, commissioned by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.↩
The rest bought the LPG via official means, did not possess one, or were non-WCSG members.↩
Managers of gas agencies in the towns of Kullu and Bhundar, personal communication, 23 July 2013 and 26 July 2013, respectively↩
There are ways to get a second connection under the household if any member is liv-ing somewhere else (e.g., husband or children); students studying in town can get a second connection of a 5 kg cylinder.↩
Jagriti had hired several GOs from scheduled caste but they did not stay long.↩
Resident of Lag Valley, personal communication, 27 July 2013.↩
Being in “ration status” means you live below a certain poverty line. People were concerned that if they showed the government they could afford a LPG, they would not receive subsidized rations.↩
On average, the surveyed households had 6 members in one family unit, as deter-mined by who eat in the same kitchen.↩