The poor and the environment: lessons from energy crisis

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.