Tackling the Switch from Traditional Cooking Fuels in Indian Slums

Though modern fuels like kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are the major sources of cooking energy in urban India, a large proportion of households still use biomass such as firewood, dung, crop residue and coal/charcoal.

This is particularly the case among slum communities, which constitute 17.4 percent of urban Indian households. In India, slums include areas in a town or city that are either formally designated or recognized as ‘slum’ by public agencies, or consist of a population of at least 300 (about 60–70 households) living in a compact area in poorly built tenements, with inadequate infrastructure and lacking proper sanitation facilities and clean drinking water.

Because traditional fuels are thermally inefficient, a substantial amount of fuel carbon is lost to incomplete combustion, meaning the global warming contribution per meal is high. The use of these traditional fuels causes deterioration of air quality, negatively impacting the local environment and human health, particularly among women and children due to their exposure and close contact with burning fuels. Furthermore, women and children are the ones who usually collect these fuels. By doing so their daily life allows less time for other useful activities such as education. These missed opportunities further limit their livelihood prospects.

Despite all this, few policy options are available to address the issue. The drive to switch to modern fuels is still a long-term option due to many remaining barriers, such as expensive infrastructure, which is unaffordable for most households.

On the other hand, strategies that use improved cooking stoves and ventilated cooking spaces are short-term options that can quickly improve quality of life via better health and more free time. These strategies can further help to achieve an important target under the Millennium Development Goals: Target 11 is to “have achieved by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers”. Though a very modest target, “slum upgrading” offers the possibility of a rapid scale-up of effective action at a lower cost. A key ingredient to slum upgrading is improving basic household services such as the energy used for cooking and living spaces.

To clarify the potential policy options, we undertook a study in urban India that estimated factors of fuel switching in slum households and evaluated short-term strategies that effectively minimize the ill effects of traditional fuels.

Based on data from the Indian Human Development Survey 2005, consisting of 725 slum households, this study employed statistical and econometric analyses to establish the link between short-term morbidity (fever, cough and diarrhea) and types of cooking spaces, fuels and stoves. We then quantified household drivers for switching to modern fuels, including household income, price of the fuels and other socio-economic factors.

Weighing strategies

In terms of cooking space, our study results reveal that households cooking either outdoors, or in living spaces without ventilation have a higher incidence of short-term morbidity in comparison to households using separate kitchens. Surprisingly, results show that households using improved stoves do not show significant improvement in health in comparison to those cooking on traditional stoves without chimneys (e.g., open-fire). In fact, open-fire stove users are less likely to suffer short-term health problems. We also did not find a statistically significant association between morbidity and fuel types. Therefore, we concluded that the use of a ventilated indoor cooking space is one of the most viable options for reducing short-term morbidity in slum communities.

When it comes to fuel type, the observed patterns in slums are consistent with the stylized “energy ladder” theory that holds that the use of modern fuels increases with income improvement. Households of large size and those among socially disadvantaged communities, like scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, are less likely to use modern fuels.

Moreover, in addition to income, our results showed that educational attainment, socio-demographic factors and access to electricity and water supplies are also important determinants of fuel choice. This is particularly evident in comparison to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) price reduction. Reduction in LPG prices increases the probability of modern fuel use only in high-income households.

Notably, subsidies, including for fuels, account for over two percent of India’s GDP, which could be used instead to improve social and physical capital. In fiscal year 2010–11, the government of India spent US$9.6 billion subsidizing retail prices of diesel, kerosene, LPG and, to a lesser extent, gasoline have revealed the inefficiency and inequitability of fuel subsidies in India. In this context, reforms are being considered that would recognize the merits of replacing these subsidies with better targeted safety net measures, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 and the National Food Security Act 2013, which boost livelihood and food security prospects of all citizens in need.

Capital over subsidy

In the near future, complete fuel switching is unrealistic. Therefore short-term strategies must be adopted to reduce the ill effect of traditional fuels. In this regard, promotion of ventilated cooking spaces through housing progammes/policies will be the most effective option.

Moreover, despite modest efforts to improve stoves, the impact on reducing morbidity is negligible and the financial sustainability of this option remains far from assured. Therefore, adequate research and development should be done to launch better quality stoves while also considering the financial sustainability and socio-cultural conditions of slum dwellers.

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Tackling the Switch from Traditional Cooking Fuels in Indian Slums by Sohail Ahmad is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Sohail Ahmad is an Assistant Professor at the School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada (India). Prior to joining the school, he was a JSPS-UNU Postdoctoral Fellow at the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies, with joint affiliation to the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He has widely published in peer-reviewed journals, such as Energy Policy, Urban Studies, Cities, and Habitat International, and is currently interested in socially inclusive and low-carbon spatial development. Ahmad received a Ph.D. in City Planning from Seoul National University and a Master’s Degree in Planning (with specialization in Urban Planning) from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. He was one of 25 scientists selected to receive the 2013 Green Talent Award from German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.