Dramatic shift

  • 30/05/1998

Dramatic shift Given this background, the results of the latest survey on firewood consumption pattern in India's rural areas published by Natarajan in 1995 are quite stunning. This survey generated data for the year 1992-93 whereas the last comprehensive energy consumption survey conducted by the ncaer had presented data for 1978-79. No other agency conducted a nationwide survey in the interim period. There were six interesting findings of the survey:

The estimated firewood consumption in the early 1990s was comparable to some of the optimistic estimates made earlier . After the second oil crisis hit the world in the late 1970s, the Planning Commission had set up a Working Group on Energy Policy which had projected firewood consumption figures in its report submitted in 1979. The report had argued that nationwide firewood consumption would rise to 140 mt in 1983 but would slowly thereafter fall to 138 mt in 1991, 131 mt in 1993 and 97 mt in 2000 because of government programmes aimed at substituting fuelwood. Later, however, the Advisory Board on Energy, a think tank set up by the government of India, in its report submitted in 1985 had projected firewood consumption of the order of 300-330 mt.

The ncaer survey found that the total household energy consumption in rural areas in 1992-93 was 153.8 mtcr. The average annual growth rate between 1978-79 and 1992-93 was around 4 per cent whereas the number of rural households increased by 2.5 per cent, as a result of which the average household energy consumption had increased from 1047 kilogram of coal replacement (kgcr) to 1329 kgcr. Firewood consumption in the meanwhile had increased from 78.85 mt to 131.37 mt at an average annual growth rate of 4.76 per cent. This level of firewood consumption is quite close to the projections made by the wgep in 1979 though the reasons, to be discussed later, appear to be quite different.

The NCAER found that the predominance of bio-fuels in rural household energy consumption remained the same with the share of bio-fuels staying at 92 per cent . In other words, unlike the urban areas, there was no switch from bio-fuels to petroleum-based fuels in rural areas.

The NCAER survey confirmed fears expressed by energy experts that the share of bio-fuels like crop residues and cowdung would not keep pace with the growing rural household energy demand . As the cattle population has remained steady for some time in India and there is an acute fodder shortage for India's livestock, it is unlikely that dung production will increase in the near future. At the same time, with the installation of biogas plants, there will be lesser availability of dry dung for burning. Even the availability of crop residues for fuel purposes has not increased dramatically over the last decade or so though there has been a big increase in agricultural production. This increase has mainly been in foodgrains like wheat and rice but wheat and rice residues are mainly used as cattle feed because of the nationwide shortage of fodder. Natarajan points out that the production of crops like cotton and pulses whose stalks are widely used as fuel has grown only at 1.8 per cent per year which is much less than the rate of population growth in rural areas. Therefore, the share of cowdung and crop residues in rural household energy consumption should have fallen over the years. Not surprisingly, the ncaer 1992-93 survey shows that though cowdung consumption increased from 66.76 mt in 1978-79 to 86.73 mt in 1992-93, its share fell from 22.51 per cent to 17 per cent. Crop residue consumption also increased slightly from 29.53 mt to 34. 96 mt but its share fell from 17.41 per cent to 13.35 per cent.

The most surprising finding was that even as the share of fuelwood went up in rural household energy consumption, people were using more superior biomass fuel in 1992-93 as compared to 1978-79. When firewood availability becomes difficult, studies from various parts of the world show that rural people tend to switch from using logs to little twigs and branches and when even twigs and branches are not available they will move towards crop residues, cowdung and even dry leaves. In Midnapore and Purulia districts, for instance, where firewood availability was extremely scarce, rural women were collecting leaves of Acacia auriculiformis to use as fuel in the mid-1980s. In 1992-93 as compared to 1978-79, the ncaer survey found that not only the share of cowdung and crop residues had gone down, the share of firewood in the form of twigs had also gone down - from 35.62 per cent to 29.11 per cent - whereas the share of firewood in the form of logs had gone up dramatically from 18.95 per cent to 32.49 per cent. The percentage of households using firewood logs also went up dramatically from 35 per cent to 55.8 per cent. In other words, what was often described as a 'rural energy crisis' in the 1970s and 1980s had begun to ease by the early 1990s. The data shows that people are moving up the rural energy ladder by using higher quality fuels like logs which is quite unexpected. For a large part of the country this finding can be explained by farmers planting more trees on their own lands and by the invasion of fuelwood giving exotic species like prosopis juliflora. But it is still not clear what is the reason in many other parts of the country.

This was another surprising finding. The NCAER survey found that a smaller percentage of households was now purchasing firewood logs. In 1978-79, a third of the households were purchasing firewood logs. But in 1992-93, just about one-sixth were doing so.

The survey showed that the percentage of households collecting firewood from forests had halved between 1978-79 and 1992-93 whereas the percentage of households collecting firewood from their own farms had gone up from about one-third to one-half. In other words, the fear that people will encroach upon forests and public lands to meet their growing firewood hunger and destroy the country's tree cover has not proved to be true even as a larger percentage is using more superior quality biomass fuels.

Numerous rural energy consumption studies had been conducted in the 1970s. They had revealed three important issues.

Rural firewood consumption was unlikely to be a major cause of deforestation because it was largely in the form of twigs and branches rather than logs. Therefore, rural people were indulging more in lopping branches rather than logging trees to meet their fuel needs. On the other hand, urban firewood consumption was largely made up of logs rather than twigs and was, therefore, a source of pressure on forests and treelands. In a paper published in September 1985, B Bowonder, S S R Prasad and N V M Unni published data on the state of the forest cover within an area of three million hectares surrounding 30 major urban centres of India. The study using satellite imagery found that between the two periods of 1972-75 and 1980-82, there was decline of 1.73 million hectares - about 15 per cent - in the forest cover in the case of 27 urban centres. Only in the case of Sambalpur in Orissa, Monghyr in Bihar and Darjeeling in West Bengal did the surrounding forest cover go up. This study reinforced the argument that urban firewood consumption leads to forest depletion.

Studies had shown that the role of forests in meeting people's wood needs had been greatly overestimated. A detailed study conducted by the Kerala Forest Research Institute revealed that even in relatively well-forested state like Kerala, forests provided only five per cent of people's wood needs, including unrecorded removals. By comparison, homestead trees provided 80 per cent of the wood needs. (see Mistaken Perception Forests yield little Kerala )

The studies revealed that the dependence of rural households on firewood varied from one ecological region to another. In the plains, where agricultural production was better, the share of firewood in household energy consumption was about one-third, the remaining being about equally shared by cowdung and crop residues. With agriculture being good, rural households either had stalks to burn or they had considerable amounts of crop residues which they could feed animals which in turn increased cowdung availability. Thus, people were not so dependent on firewood in agriculturally prosperous areas. But in deserts and in the hills and mountains, where agriculture was not so prosperous, people were far more dependent on firewood, its share being about two-thirds of the total household energy consumption. Ironically, it was in the deserts and in hill and mountain regions that it was most important to protect the tree and forest cover. And it was precisely in these regions that the firewood demand was the highest and thus a serious threat to the tree cover.

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