Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

WE KNOW that the poor are worst af­fected by en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. They live in poverty; have the high­est ex­po­sure to pol­lu­tion; drink con­tam­i­nated wa­ter, which is re­spon­si­ble for the high­est mor­tal­ity among chil­dren; breathe pol­luted air; and de­pend on de­plet­ing for­est re­sources for their sur­vival. Re­search over the years has made it clear that the poor, through their in­ten­sive use of nat­u­ral re­sources, are not re­spon­si­ble for en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. It is the ex­ten­sive use of re­sources on a com­mer­cial scale, in­volv­ing highly en­ergy-in­ten­sive and ex­trac­tive in­dus­trial meth­ods, by the rich that is pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for degra­da­tion.

In the 1970s and ’80s it was widely said that the “other en­ergy cri­sis” is fire­wood for cook­ing as sup­ply was short and women had to spend hours walk­ing to col­lect this ba­sic need. It was also said that this use of en­ergy by the very poor would de­stroy forests. In 1973, af­ter the first oil shock, the In­dian govern­ment set up the Fuel Pol­icy Com­mit­tee, which noted that the wide­spread use of non-com­mer­cial sources of en­ergy had led to a large-scale de­nuda­tion and de­struc­tion of forests. But there is lit­tle ev­i­dence of that.

Anil Agar­wal, Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment’s founder, was al­ways fas­ci­nated by women’s re­quire­ments for cook­ing en­ergy. In the early 1980s he or­gan­ised the coun­try’s first con­fer­ence on this is­sue. In 1982, writ­ing in the first cit­i­zens’ re­port on the en­vi­ron­ment, he warned of an im­pend­ing fire­wood cri­sis, as de­mand would out­strip sup­ply. But he also said there was lit­tle ev­i­dence to sug­gest that the “en­ergy-gath­er­ing fam­i­lies of In­dia were re­spon­si­ble for de­for­esta­tion as then all trees should have dis­ap­peared by now”. The poor only col­lected twigs and branches. The “big­gest threat to forests is be­cause of com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of fire­wood—grow­ing use in ur­ban ar­eas.”

Agar­wal asked this ques­tion again in the late 1990s. He found that his ear­lier as­sess­ment was con­firmed by de­vel­op­ments over the two decades. By then there was no ap­par­ent fire­wood cri­sis, even though all ev­i­dence sug­gested that biomass use for cook­ing con­tin­ued across In­dia. He an­a­lysed data from the Na­tional Coun­cil of Ap­plied Eco­nomic Re­search ( ncaer), which showed that the fire­wood de­mand in ur­ban ar­eas had dipped be­cause of the switchover to com­mer­cial fu­els like lpg and kerosene. Sub­si­dies had made th­ese two fu­els cheaper than even fire­wood for ur­ban ar­eas.

The ncaer sur­vey, pub­lished in 1995—the last such coun­try­wide as­sess­ment of cook­ing fuel con­sump­tion—com­pared its data with the re­sults of the pre­vi­ous sur­vey done in 1978-79. It found that in 1992-93 the to­tal house­hold en­ergy use in ru­ral In­dia was 153.4 mil­lion tonnes of coal re­place­ment—coal re­place­ment be­ing the amount of coal that would be needed to re­place 1 tonne of fire­wood. Of this, 30 per cent en­ergy came from fire­wood twigs and an­other 32 per cent from fire­wood logs. But this bet­ter qual­ity log was not com­ing from for­est. The sur­vey found that be­tween the two decades, the per­cent­age of house­holds col­lect­ing fire­wood from forests had halved. In­stead, fire­wood was com­ing from farms and other lands.

On analysing data from other stud­ies, Agar­wal found that the other fire­wood cri­sis had been averted be­cause the peo­ple had gone in for tree plan­ta­tion on pri­vate land and were us­ing ex­otic in­va­sive weeds like Prosopis juliflora trees. Peo­ple were not de­pen­dent on forests for fire­wood and, there­fore, large-scale for­est de­struc­tion (as pre­dicted in the 1970s and 1980s) had not hap­pened. The 2011 State of For­est Re­port, pub­lished by the For­est Sur­vey of In­dia, cor­rob­o­rates this. It es­ti­mates that in 2010 the to­tal fu­el­wood used was 216 mil­lion tones. Of this, only 60 mil­lion tonnes, or 27 per cent, came from forests. The rest came from pri­vate or waste­land.

“All this ev­i­dence points out that peo­ple have averted the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis through a ra­tio­nal re­sponse of com­mu­nity and in­di­vid­ual ac­tion. But very lit­tle is stud­ied or un­der­stood of what peo­ple have done and at what cost,” Agar­wal wrote in 1999.

Since then even fewer stud­ies have been done on the fire­wood de­mand for house­hold en­ergy use. But what is emerg­ing from the scat­tered and lim­ited stud­ies is that in many parts of the coun­try peo­ple make ra­tio­nal and care­ful choices of mul­ti­ple sources of cook­ing en­ergy fuel. They use a com­bi­na­tion of biomass, ex­pen­sive and of­ten un­avail­able lpg, and kerosene to cook. The de­ci­sion de­pends on the type of food and cost in­volved.

To­day, the is­sue is very dif­fer­ent. It is whether en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment works if it does not ad­dress in­equal­ity and poverty? Let’s con­tinue to dis­cuss this in the com­ing weeks.


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