The fate of Indian women is very much present in global headlines these days. Delhi-based Lydia Powell highlights another form of discrimination against Indian women, one with dire consequences not just for their health but also for the global environment. She lays out the case for how unpaid female labour collecting firewood, twigs and dung for cooking fires fuels India’s economy.
Nearly 70 per cent of Indian households use traditional energy sources such as firewood, twigs and dried animal dung as their primary fuel for cooking. That fact, given India’s much-ballyhooed economic rise, may come as a surprise even to many Indians. Moreover, traditional energy sources such as these account for over 26 per cent of India’s total primary energy consumption. That is more than India’s consumption of oil, which stands at 24 per cent. In energy equivalent terms, the energy supplied by firewood, twigs and animal dung in India, at 135 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe), is more than the entire energy consumption of Australia (123 mtoe). These data conceal a tragic fact: the effort and time spent by millions of Indian women and children to collect twigs and dung to burn in their stoves is never counted, or even acknowledged, as productive economic activity.
To obtain one unit of useful heat energy to cook a meal, women have to collect and carry firewood and dung with six to seven units of energy. Why so many? Because five units are “wasted” by the inefficient open-fire mud stoves that they use. The basic form of the open-fire stove can be as rudimentary as three stones arranged in a triangle to hold up a pot. The open-fire mud stove has an average efficiency of 15 per cent, which means that 85 cents of every dollar (or rupee) spent on fuel is wasted. By comparison, a metal-wick stove that uses kerosene has an efficiency of about 35 per cent, a good natural gas stove about 75 per cent, and an induction electric stove about 80-90 per cent.
Indian women and children spend from one to five hours a day collecting twigs or drying flat cakes of cow dung in the sun. They burn firewood in smoking cook stoves to prepare a hot meal for their families even if this means ruining their lungs. Because these women are largely illiterate and have no special skills, the opportunity cost of having them do this work is almost nothing. Coming from families that are too poor to educate them, these women are effectively shut out of India’s economic boom. Meanwhile, their counterparts from relatively affluent families in India’s urban areas march off to work in the air-conditioned back offices of computer companies or go to university to study.
In energy equivalent terms, the energy supplied by firewood, twigs and animal dung in India, at 135 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe), is more than the entire energy consumption of Australia (123 mtoe). These data conceal a tragic fact: the effort and time spent by millions of Indian women and children to collect twigs and dung to burn in their stoves is never counted, or even acknowledged, as productive economic activity.
What goes unacknowledged in all this is that, in economic terms, the effective cost of the energy used in most of India’s rural households is much higher than what it is in households that use modern cooking fuels such as natural gas. If one counted their real energy cost, it would have to include the transaction cost of gathering the fuel, as well as the energy wasted by inefficient cooking stoves. For the nation as whole, the opportunity and health cost of collecting and using firewood has been estimated by the World Bank’s World Development Report 2005 to be more than $6 billion per year. That is an astonishing amount, especially considering that the average wage rate of rural workers is just $1.33 per day.
As a result, the cheapest, cleanest and the most efficient forms of cooking fuel such as natural gas and electricity are used only by the richest households. Meanwhile, the dirtiest, most inefficient and most expensive cooking fuels are used by India’s poorest households.
Energy and social evolution
The key to improving the quality of life of the poor in India (and throughout South Asia and similar regions) is the provision of affordable, clean and efficient energy. For the world to have a sustainable future, these can and must generate energy and economic surpluses. In this context, it is worth going back to 19th-century social philosophers likeHerbert Spencer. He and others saw “energy” not just as a physical variable that described the means to accomplish work. They also considered a smarter use of energy as the key to higher stages of social evolution. In fact, Wilhelm Ostwald, winner of Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1909, saw the transformation of “crude energy” into “useful energy” at the base of all societal change. All living organisms capture and use energy, but only human beings develop cumulative surpluses. These surpluses propel economic production and lead to material “progress” of societies. This collection of surplus energy was made possible by the historic transition from food gathering and primitive farming to industrial production, facilitated by the use of water, wind and animal power.
The combustion of carbons such as firewood, charcoal and coal, and later hydrocarbons such as oil and gas, accelerated the generation of surplus energy, which in turn contributed to dramatic improvements in the quality of human life. Sadly, this transition from carbohydrates to hydrocarbons continues to elude millions of Indian women. Women and children in India spend most of their human energy to obtain just a little heat energy to cook a basic meal. The human energy that they use for this purpose is derived from the food they eat, essentially the carbohydrates that they consume.When they collect and carry firewood, what they are doing is carrying carbon, a higher form of energy, using a lower form of energy, which is human energy derived from carbohydrates.
A system where “carbohydrate” is carrying “carbon” is essentially a net negative energy system that by definition cannot generate any energy “surpluses.” Without energy surpluses, economic surpluses cannot be generated. Without economic surpluses, a country’s quality of life will not improve. Most Government programmes that have tried to provide access to better cooking fuels or cooking stoves at a discount have failed. The reason why is that they could not convince households to switch their cooking fuels for one simple reason because they didn’t recognise the cost of female energy that subsidises the system. As long as there is a surplus of illiterate poor women, why would millions of poor households in India switch from using firewood and animal dung? After all, no fuel can be cheaper than unpaid female labor.