The India Energy Hour


Nearly 2.8 billion people around the world depend on solid fuels such as firewood and biomass for their cooking needs. Majority of such people reside in African and Asian countries including in India.

India has made significant progress in enhancing access to modern fuels through policies that support greater use of LPG cylinders. However, several issues still remain.

To understand the Indian clean cooking challenge and the required interventions, we interviewed Abhishek Kar, Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Abhishek have led numerous studies on energy access in India and in other countries, and is a known expert in this area.

Listen to the episode with full transcript here in English

Guest: Abhishek Kar, Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW)
Hosts: Sandeep Pai
Producer: 101Reporters, a pan India network of grassroots reporters that produces original stories from rural India

[Podcast intro]

Welcome to the season four of the India Energy Hour podcast. This podcast explores the most pressing hurdles and promising opportunities of India’s energy transition through an in depth discussion on policies, financial markets, social movements and science. Your host for this episode is Doctor Sandeep I, Washington based energy transition researcher, and author. The show is produced by 101 reporters, a pan India network of grassroots reporters that produces original stories from rural India. India has made significant progress in enhancing access to modern fuels through policies that support greater use of LPg cylinders. However, several issues still remain. Nearly 2.8 billion people around the world depend on solid fuels such as firewood and biomass for their cooking needs. Majority of such people reside in African and Asian countries including in India. India has made significant progress in enhancing access to modern fuels through policies that support greater use of LPG cylinders. However, several issues still remain. To understand the Indian clean cooking challenge and the required interventions, we interviewed Abhishek Kar, Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Abhishek have led numerous studies on energy access in India and in other countries, and is a known expert in this area.


[Podcast interview]

Sandeep Pai: Hi, Abhishek. Welcome to the India Energy Hour podcast. it’s really like, nostalgic for me because, you know, we studied in the same university, in the same department with the same supervisor in the same lab. So it’s really nostalgic and it almost feels like this would be a very friendly conversation. but I have seen your work throughout the year, so I’m really excited to learn about, you know, clean cooking and related, energy transition issues in India and globally. So welcome to the podcast.

Abhishek: Thank you so much for having me here. Finally, a podcast which I have been listening to pretty carefully over the many years, you know, it’s great to be here, finally.

Sandeep Pai: So, just, Abhishek, before we talk about this really interesting topic of, energy access, especially with respect to clean cooking, why don’t we start with your story? Like, you know, where are you from? What did you study? I think I know some of this, but I’m also curious. You always learn something new when you ask even your oldest friend, like, you know, what is your life story and how did you get into this space?

Abhishek: Right? So, yeah, so what happened was that after, when I was in my masters, doing my masters in physics, in Calcutta, you know, from presidency college that time. Now it’s university. We, you know, like, I was associated with an NGO, and at that point of time, I kind of. I was a very normal, urban, middle class boy growing up, you know. And that time I kind of had an exposure to stuff which was kind of odd for me. Like, I remember in one of the visits, I went to one of the islands in Sundarban, and there we saw that people had a solar cookstone, but they never used that. And they used part of the mirror, you know, part of the glass, as a mirror. And that was something that. That, for me, was something, okay, you know, like, there’s a nice technology. People have been given a technology. Why are they not using it, you know? And. And that kind of, you know, really interested me and my curiosity in this space that what happens? And why do people not behave as they should be? For me, that was, like, the normative thing, you know, that if people are given a technology which is a useful technology, use it. And what has happened is that when I kind of, asked around, a couple of professors told me that this is not a science problem, it is, a management problem. And, that really made me very curious about the management side of it. And, in a rural energy, access is a very niche field, and it was far more niche in 2004 five when I kind of first encountered this incident. And there were, like, literally two institutes in the entire country where I heard that they are, like, good institutes and they do work on rural areas. So if you end up there, you will learn something. But the people I spoke about, they really didn’t know much in terms of, you know, whether energy access is kind of an important subject. One was Irma in Anand, and one was indian forest management. I applied to both the places. In one, I didn’t even get shortlisted. In the other, I got through. And, while being there, I think I had lot of field trips. We had a lot of field trips in. At IFM. And when I kind of found, okay, it’s not just a problem with that solar stove. There are a bunch of technologies where you have same problems, and there are some cases where there are perhaps obvious solutions, but either they are not being implemented or even unemployment, they are not being used. And that really kind of has been my wonderland kind, that how do you get people to use technologies which are good? And again, now I. Before I do, which is good for them, now I do not use the word good for them, but which I say, which I think will be good for them. So I kind of put in that modifier after 1617 years of, running around in the field and understanding that what I think is good may not be the good which they think from different.

Sandeep Pai: You kind of started off from your time at masters and all, but, like, let’s go back even further.

Abhishek: Right?

Sandeep Pai: when. Where were you? Like, where did you grow up. I’m not sure even I know this. Like, where did you grow up?

Abhishek: What did you do?

Sandeep Pai: Like, how did you even get to the stage of masters? And then, yeah, okay, so, you know.

Abhishek: So I grew up in Kolkata, and I stay here in a. In St. Paul’s boarding and day school. Now it’s a girls school because they got so, you know, upset with the, boys doing whatever boys do that. They said, okay, let’s move it to Gregory girl school now. And my daughter still taunts me over that. So, and then I kind of did my. So I was never really interested to be a doctor or engineer. And thankfully, my parents never were. You know, like, though it’s in a typical middle m class Bengali family, it will be like, you know, like, why you don’t want to be a doctor? My parents were like, okay, what do you want to do? I said, I want to study physics. They said, okay, go ahead and study physics. You know. So I always was very lucky that my parents always found that I was a pretty average or below average student. That’s why they never had really, an expectation from. And I’m very, you know, I’m being very truthful and candid. I was throughout a pretty kind of, you know, the bottom 25% of the class almost entirely until class. So. And so my parents, if this guy, you know, like, passes and does not, you know, clears everything, you are flunking. I think that’s good enough standard for me. So I really never had that push that you have to sit for engineering, HRJ, or as you call that joint entrance exam. So, you know, so, so I was, like, very happy go lucky in terms of, you know, like, doing whatever I could do. And. And even in physics, it kind of really interested me because there is one topic where you don’t have to memorize much, and that’s the reason why I hated chemistry and biology, because there was so much to do. So I was always kind of, you know, like, least possible study what subject can be cracked. So that. And one thing I found was, once you are conceptually good in physics, you can derive most of the stuff. So that’s why I joined. I chose physics as a subject. And then, of course, once you complete your graduation, then what should I do? Again, I never. This fascination for the typical government jobs or bank jobs, which, again, bunch of my friends were, like, really kind of focused upon. I was like, okay, let me do something, and, okay, let me go to presidency and study some physics, and then we’ll figure out what happens next.

And what happens next was management moving. So moving to management was something that is very, that is not expected at all from, you know, to its like even, even in, in my last year of college I would not have probably thought that, ok, in two years I’ll be studying in a management institute.

Sandeep Pai: Okay, great. And so from, basically from physics to management and then you, you had all these field trips and then from that field trip you were inspired and then you were like, this is a great topic. Let me get into it. And then I think after that, you know.

Abhishek: Yes, yes. So I did my internship at West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency. and there was this doctor sp Gonchodhary was there that time, you know, and heading WB radar. And he was a phenomenal personality and, and the thing that really stuck me was how patient he was because I blurted out stuff to him which, you know, if someone tells me today, I like, are you insane? But he was like so patient and said, great idea. So I always remember, you know, like when I went to field trips there and I really went to the deep interior villages in Sundarban which I saw one of the first ever solar power plants that was put in which is in our doctor EP Chatul Kalam, you know, and those places, the challenges that I found in terms of, okay, you put in a technology, there’s inauguration, everyone goes back to my team. Next day onwards, if there is a problem, if the, where it malfunctions, what happens, who comes in, who saves you, who repairs the stuff, you know. So I think that internship with WB radar while of course I got a report and everything out of that, but I think more importantly what it gave me is really opened my eyes in terms of what challenges are when you’re doing something on the field by a government agency, you know. So, and this is something that I found resonance throughout my career. We always have found great motivated officials trying to do something and then there is a bunch of system, you know, in place which either, you know, deletes in like which either delays the work or we just intentionally or intensely creates a stumbling block. And so things that we intend to, when we start a project or start something on the field, it almost rarely does it fully. Veterans.

Sandeep Pai: Right.

So I just want to quickly turn to one last thing and I know that after that you went and worked with Terry, and then you did a PhD on this topic. So if you want to quickly just finish the circle and now you’re at CEw, then we can just move on to the topic. But you know, just to see your career trajectory would be an interesting one, right?

Abhishek: So after IFM, like, you know, my first intelligence in WB, as I saw my second internship, we had two internship those days was at Terry. And Terry was like kind of a really great space for me there because we had a bunch of people, very multidisciplinary and a very kind of, what I’ll say is very experienced lot of people, at least in the department where I had worked at that point of time, under doctor Hafizu Rehman, in a way, people did a lot of fields. So I had been working with people with ten years, 15 years, 20 years of field expertise, you know, and, and the insights which I always got from them amazed me because those insights were not really ever captured in the textbooks or in the research papers, which we did, you know. So that is why even, now I tell my colleagues that you need to really spend time in the field to develop an understanding of what works and what doesn’t work before you kind of progress in your career and starts formulating and advising on what works and what doesn’t work. So after Keri of seven and a half years in Kerry, I moved to UBC under Hisham in his life, I remember Hisham coming to and even in IFM I was like a pretty average student. So I remember I met Hisham for the first time in Delhi and I was like prepared with some of the questions, some of the, for a pre PhD kind of an interview chat, I was like thinking, okay, what kind of stats question he’s going to ask me and all. And his, and his first statement was, it’s not even the question was like, vancouver is a great place to raise kids. I’m like, wow, you know, like that is an empathy, you know, like, which you don’t see because he knew I had, I had one child at that point of time. So I was like, okay, you know, like very rarely you will find that. But I actually just applied to one university and that was UBC and nowhere else in the world. So by the grace of God I got in there and then I met you.

Sandeep Pai: Okay, great. And then you did some really cool studies during your PhD.

So let’s just, in the interest of time, let’s just go into the topic. so let’s just start by understanding, what do we mean by clean cooking, right? Like we have, like is, are we talking about LPG? Are we talking about solar? cooking? Like, what does the clean cooking even mean? Let’s just start with that and then I want to understand what global scenario of clean cooking and where does globe, you know, world and countries stand in terms of clean cooking?

Abhishek: Right. So what is clean cooking is actually a kind of a contested, question, interestingly, in this space, and this space is full of, you know, engineers, public health professionals, NGO’s. So one definition which I am most aligned with is one that is used by the World Health Organization, which is bleeds, bleens, blocks, which is like, b stands for biogas, l stands for LPG or liquefied petroleum gas. E stands for electricity. The second b stands for ethanol, the n stands for natural gas, and s stands for solar. So bleeds are, group of technologies out of the many other technologies. That is, there is a subset of the so called clean cooking solutions which. Whose impact on human health is significantly lower than that of fire road burning. You know, like, because the, clean cooking problem is that people, you know, buy, you know, portable, burn fire road, crop residue or cattle dump in polluting ancient design stores. So these six technologies are understood to have significantly lower emissions compared to those the base, the baseline of polluting stones. And while there is significant studies which can say, okay, you know, like LPG steel has harmful emissions. But if you look at the comparison between the, fire route versus LPG, still seems. Is significantly better, of course, if you have to think of zero emission solutions, which is like solar or, electric stove. So anyway, there is, there is no, fire route where there is no emission per se, or your pollutants. And when you think about the clean cookings, you know, the. What is the scale of the problem? Now, one challenge has been that how do you define the problem? Because there can be a household which has one of these bleeds technology and they also have a mud stove. And an example of that can be India, where given the phenomenal world, by the government in terms of promoting LPG under the Pradhanik Ujola Yojana, which we have almost near saturation of LPG in any rural household. So they will have an LPG, but they will also have a merch store where they’ve gone fibro. So how do you define whether a household is using clean cooking or not? And, one typical way of people do it in surveys is that they ask, what is your main cooking flow? Or what is your primary cooking flow? Sorry. And the word primary is kind of a tricky one here because people may take it in, you know, in many ways interpret. But given, assuming that, you know, that you are getting a reasonable estimate of what people mean by the primary clean cook. We’ll see that about 2.4 billion to 2.6 billion people still are primarily dependent on fire, road and solid fireflies. And that is the challenge of household pollution. And it’s not just a household pollution problem. In India, about 33% of the ambient air pollution’s emission contribution for PM two five comes from household air pollution. So if you can make all households in India transition completely to a clean cooking film, your overall emissions, PM 2.5 emissions from India is going to reduce by one third. So it has a significant, you know, impact not only for the households that are forced to use, continue using the solid first, but also people who are kind of, you can see in some ways detached from the problem because they are sitting in urban areas and they can afford the clean cooking solutions. But even they are getting, they are suffering because the emissions from those kitchens are coming and they’re mixing well in the atmosphere and we are contributing to ambient health.

Sandeep Pai: So I’m just like, you know, when you think about like 2.5 billion out of like eight odd billion, like, that’s like almost one third of humanity, that is using, you know, so called non clean cooking, fuel. I mean, that the scale of problem seems huge globally. Where is this problem? Is this in countries like India? Is it in Africa? Like can you, like, can you paint a picture of.

Abhishek: Right, you know, in a swipe while they use this kind of a nice term called the global south, that most of this problem is in the global south. But there is still a difference where the word global south sometimes masks the variation within, say, for example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of the percentage of households who depend on clean cooking is about 56%, which is like a very decent amount. So more than half the population are using clean cooking as their primary or as an exclusive, cooking firm. If you think of sub saharan Africa, that 56% goes down to 10% India and, you know, and the neighbouring countries in south, you know, in South Asia, we are about at, 27%, where 27% of the households in South Asia are dependent on, clean cooking fuels primarily. And again, as I said, it’s a very tricky thing on, on what are clean cooking solutions and how you’re defining the dependence on clean cooking supplies. Let me ask you. So it’s a, it’s a complex problem with a different baseline you’re working with. In Latin America, the market is much more advanced, the economy is in a better position, in Asia it is. South Asia is like somewhere in the middle and in sub saharan Africa, things are, seriously concerning. And unfortunately, last 2030 years, the, absolute number of people who are dependent on polluting fuels has increased in sub saharan Africa. And that’s the reason.

Sandeep Pai: Let me ask you a provocative question. I mean, you mentioned a range of technologies that included natural gas, LPG and others as well. I mean, in a climate constrained world, why are we promoting non renewable sources? Yes, they may have less impact, but why are we promoting these sources, when the goal should be, you know, fully electric, based on renewables? At least that’s what many people in the world would argue. So what do you have to say about that?

Abhishek: Right? So I think there are three parts, answers to it. The first one is the moral answer, which is like, given that every year, because of thousand pollution, we have an estimated death of 3.2 million people every year. That is the latest who estimate which they date for 2020, including about 200. More than 200,000 children under the age of five, is attributed to house electricity. So, given that the focus should be on any technology which helps reduce this immediately, and LPG has widely been considered as one of the most scalable solutions, given the existing electricity scenario and given, you know, and given, how convenient it is for people to often to transition to a mature technology, a mature technology like literature. Thus, a second answer is a more technical answer. And here’s the interesting one. Though LPG is a fossil fuel, studies have shown and published peer reviewed studies, including, one of the studies which I have recently quartered, which another research organization based out of India, CSIR Needy, based out of Nagpur, where you show that given that the fire route that is used for cooking is often unsustainably harvested, transition from fire route to LPG is actually a net gap for the climate. So imagine this, that while biomass is technically a renewable resource, it is renewable only if it is sustainably harvested and used for cooking, but it is often unsustainably harvested. The numbers, globally is about 30%, for India is about 23%. The 23% of all firewood used for cooking in India is unsustainably harvested. And if you think of, and there are a bunch of calculations, I will not bore you with that, but you know, like, the audience can look up and see that studies after studies have shown that given in many countries in South Asia, in sub saharan Africa, transition from solid polluting fuels to even a fossil fuel like LPG is an innate climate benefit. And I think this is one takeaway message which I really want your audience to go back after hearing this podcast.

Sandeep Pai: Wow, that’s really fascinating. But let me kind of double click on one point. You. You talked about mature technology and LPG, you know, seems like a mature technology in this case. But talk to me about the price points here. Right. If I were a villager in India, and again, it may depend on geography. who wants to use solar, solar based or renewable based, you know, cook stove versus. I want if. I mean, you remove all the subsidies. Let’s just remove all the subsidies. But like, on a, you know, on a. On the basis of comparison between, like, a solar cooking and a, LPG cooking, which is more expensive, like, if solar is more expensive or solar is less expensive, like, can you talk about why the other has not diffused as well?

Abhishek: Right. So I think there are two parts of it. One is that technological acceptability and, the ability of a technology to adapt to the local cooking base. Because what happens is in a solar, said the traditional solar, there are some new, newer purchases coming in, but the traditional solar cookers have been used for decades now. You know, that is the one we have first made many years back. So what happens there is the. Because it did not have a battery, that particular system, even when the sun was at its peak, say, around 12:00, 01:00 02:00 p.m. That is the time when the cooker used to be ready for cooking food. And the target audience for this cook stove are poor people in rural India who often are not at home at that time, because in the early morning, they leave for the fields and they come back in the evening. So there was this disconnect between what people want in terms of a convenience technology in the morning and evening, versus what was provided. LPG in that way is a very versatile. It can very quickly get fired and ignition happens. And often you say, guests come in, you need to quickly make tea. It’s a much. It’s really a good technology person. That’s why, you know, like, many years back, one of the gurus in this film, Cox, he was in the field, and he said that while we were talking about so many different technologies, we never found that people not disliking LPG. The challenge becomes when you have to pay for LPG, because, as you have rightly pointed out, it’s an expensive thing. And it’s expensive not just for the households, it’s also expensive for the government. You have to understand that in 2023, about 65% of LPG that has been used for domestic LPG has been imported. And given the global lpg price volatility, given the foreign exchange currency volatility, it is very difficult for to expect a developing economy like India. And especially if you think of the substrate of Africa, that is where, you know, I think attention of the entire industry should be. Now, you will find this persistent problem of, the government is not really in a position to subsidize it much beyond something so many countries in Africa, they do not provide any subsidy because they say that then once we start using subsidy, it is like, you know, a path we don’t want to trade upon because there will be more and more demands for subsidy. And then our economy, which is already kind of scraping by in terms of fiscal deficit, will just not be able to manage it. So it now boils down to the household. And for the household, it is not the issue of price. I think this is something, you know, which, I kind of keep talking about. It is. While price, of course matters, you know, if you think of the bottom of the pyramid model, you know, of course there is bottom 10%, 20%, 30% population for whom the price of LPG, the subsidized LPG is now about rs. 700 INR. In India, it is. It is going to be challenge. But for many other households which are still not using LPG completely, it is an issue of value for them. Do they find value in the product? Is there an opportunity cost for rs700? And of course, while this on one side, you can talk, yes, there are services and products where you have to pay. And there is no free alternative here. There is actually a non monetized alternative. And that alternative is, free by firewood. You just walk little bit to the nearest forest or the farmland. You can get the wood and you can burn it. Many people have crops. And after, the post harvest season, there are stacks and stacks of arar ketal in you. What will they do? Will they throw it in a scarce, in a scarcity mindset? In our country, it is very difficult for a household to throw something where there is a utility of that. So this always, this question is there? Yes, maybe I can, if I try hard, I can shell out this rs700. But can I use this money for better things? And sometimes the better things are really good things, like health and education. Sometimes it is also wise, good car, tobacco. And studies have shown that the expenses on those are, kind of, you know, maybe the half the monthly cost of LPG cylinder, if someone is using LPG. So, you know, so there is a tricky thing of, not the cost, but the value for money of the LPG. And I think that is where there is a significant challenge to be met. Studies after studies have shown if you give LPG free of cost, there’s almost no problem in adoption. People happily adopt it. And like study by, Ajay Pillasarty has shown in Pune with pregnant women, they were provided, LPG stores for free. And there’s no issues of culture, taste. Everyone happily use LPG. I’ll say is kind of the gold standard for many people enrolling here. But in a patriarchal society where often the main member is the, decision maker regarding budget, there is always this tension around. Is LPG fascinating?

Sandeep Pai: Abhishek?

I have so many questions that were popping, but just one last question on this kind of solar versus LPg, comparison is the capital cost, the initial cost of a solar, the best system that is available in the market right now, like, you know, with battery or whatever, how does that compare?

Abhishek: Right. So the government in that the prime minister last year, in 2023, February, had announced that, the Indian Oil Corporation, they have launched a new solar bookstore called Surya Lutheran. And it’s a very nice store, you know, with gadgets and everything. But the cost of that is about 50,000, rs60,700 per system. And the thing, the challenge here is that there are many. It has its application, I will say, because the government does want to scale up solar stores significantly. But the challenge is that that upfront capital cost has to be covered by someone. And this upfront capital cost has been a challenge not just for solar, but also for fantastic technology like biogas. Again, there are sectoral applications. In a village where most people are cattle owners, biogas can be a great solution in very remote areas where government already spending significant amount of money, the oil marketing companies, by just transporting the LPG from the plains, up in the mountains, say in Ladakh, or to the islands, say Lakshoddi, or in the northeast, in those places, the cost of, delivering the LPG cylinder is not really recovered from the consumers. The government is paying out of it. And maybe if you do that estimation of the cost, maybe in three, four years, that money that you are saving up on, the delivery cost, maybe it makes, there is this huge capital cost as something that is in a very. Pays off in itself. But the only trick here is you have to prove that this technology can function smoothly for five to ten years. And that is what I think more pilots and more data is necessary to convince that this is a mature technology. That’s why I kind of use the word mature technology. LPG has a three decade track record of being a safe technology. When most of the dishes which people want to cook, they cook. And the proof of that is in studies where people had given LPG free of cost, they happily migrated to it. And except maybe one or two things where they still kind of went back to the traditional stuff they used. The NPG happened so. So LPG in that way is a stable, mature technology with a good post sales service infrastructure, which of course has been a subsidized initiative. The government over years has invested crores and crores of money, to kind of develop a robust network of 25,000 distributors, LPG distributors, which is the last mine agents. Compared to that scalable technology, we still do not. We can have some niche products like biogas for places where you know, we have lot of cattle owners. We can have PNG in concentrated urban sectors. And the government has actually got a very ambitious program. They’re almost at, I think, 1.2 crores of PNG connection, five natural gas. And the governor’s aim is by 2032 to move to almost twelve crore households. Sort of in 2032, I think the India’s households will be about 33 crores. Out of that one third they plan to do via PNG and the rest via LPG. So, so LPG will be kind of a mainstay. But is there is a need for us to focus on other technologies. One technology which you did not mention is electric induction source. Because induction is kind of an important thing. And in, and at least in urban and very urban areas, companies are reporting significant increase in interest on electric induction. But the question will always remain that for the rural areas, the target area are, the rural poor in some ways, who are not using solid fuels and they have an LPG at their home. If all households start using LPG and often the cooking period is the same time because people come back from the. From a village, a group of 20 women are coming back from the field and they are all going to go back to their home and start cooking. The peak load which will come from electric induction, can the grid survive that? Especially the distribution infrastructure that is, that has been developed not for induction, not for 1000 watt induction stove, but for 20 watt fan and five watt, ten watt led lights. And while there are. Again, While they are While there are mixed m views about it, I think there is a need to actually do this kind of pilots, where we give a cluster of villages, everyone in action, we say, use it in the evening as you cook, and then see what the impact is on the trip. But doing this at a national scale out of nowhere can be, well, fascinating.

Sandeep Pai: thank you. So, I mean, I’m just from this segment, if I can conclude, and please correct me if I’m wrong, like, LPG is on the driver’s seat, but we do need all the above here, in terms of, like, kind of moving the clean cooking access.

So, let’s just double down on one topic, which I think you worked a lot on, and has been India’s very flagship, program since the NDA government came to power in 2014. Let’s talk about Ojwala and, like, tell us about what is Ujwala, what does it do? Like, what is Ujwala one versus Ujwala two and all the. All the different pieces?

Abhishek: Right. So when Ujwala came in 2016, you know, like the. I said, the audience has always been. The government has been very, laser focused. It should be poor women. And the definition of war initially was, there was this census that happened, socio economic census in 2011, is that everyone who has been categorized what they are based on certain, indicators that whether people had certain thing or they did not have, they kind of created this list of poor people. But to the government’s credit, I’ll say, as the program progressed and, initially, you know, initially they thought, it will, okay, we’ll go to maybe one crore household or two crore household, but as they moved on and, you know, now they are at ten crore households and. And most of that, almost 89 crore they did in just four or five years, which was a phenomenal achievement, given the scale which you’re talking about. But the government was like, okay, let’s make it as inclusive as possible. And at this point of time, I say, given the flexibility in the. In the, in the process of application and selection, almost anyone who is poor now and needs the LPG connection, they can just go with their Aadhaar card and get an LPG connection. Woman can go in and get. So, so it is. So while initially the, selection criteria is more restrictive, your name has to be there as part of that particular list. And, that didn’t work out because, again, what you plan sitting in Delhi or one of the state capitals, and when you actually go to the field, you see difference. The person whose name was there in 2011 list may have died. The new Bahu has come in who just got married, and she’s not listed in that. And if she has to be the person who has to go and get it, how do they put her in there? So in a very practical challenge, I think. But the government always, I think the remarkable thing about Ujiwala’s success, I’ll say, has been that the government always had his ear to the ground. And as soon as they saw the challenges coming in, after interacting with the, field officials and the distributors immediately made amendments in the process. So as and when the program grew and it become bigger and bigger, I think they were able to add up to the lessons learned from the ground and they made it more, what should I forgetting the right word. They made it more. Help me with this something. They made it do more user friendly, if I may use the word. Yeah, right. So, again, they made it more responsive. They made so, you know, so they made it more responsive to the ground remedies.

Sandeep Pai: Okay, great. So let me just before we kind of talk about how jeweller has operated, which you did a bit, I just want to understand what is jwallah like, what does it do? So, you know, is it a scheme that government subsidizes? Like, you know, explain it to somebody who doesn’t know anything about Ujwala. You’re on mute. You’re on mute.

Abhishek: Okay. So what the, PMEUI program does is that, the capital cost before the program came in, anyone who has to go for say, you know, buy cylinder, they have to keep a secure deposit and they have to purchase, you, know, a cylinder, they have to purchase a stove, accessories and the cost of that after you accumulate for security position, everything used to go to above more than one rupees, about rs3000, let’s say, take a ballpark number. What the government did was they waved up the security deposit. They worked closely with the manufacturers to reduce the cost of the stores and they made the entire application process a very seamless process as long as you have an Aadhar card and a bank account, because the digital infrastructure by that time was ready. So PMAI program can’t just be transported anywhere because the back end of the digital infrastructure in terms of the government knowing who is the beneficiary with the other card, if they have to subsidize it, link it to the bank account and the mobile phone number. So that system was ready and the government kind of leveraged that system to roll out this program where they made. It’s easy that the secure deposit was waived off the price of the stove and the cylinder reduced and the stove and the cylinder first time was given to them on a loan basis. So they said, okay, you know, if the cost of the cylinder that time was, say, 500, 600, the cost of the stove, was about rs1000. This is a 1500 worth of stuff which you take, you use. And then we’ll be withholding your subsidy every month as you, whenever you purchase LPG cylinder, some money used to go back to your. So you have to upfront pay the full cost. And then in your linked bank account, your subsidy money will be deposited. And they said that they will not give you the subsidy deposit till the cost of the stove and the first cylinder is recovered. Which made a lot of sense because then you are a household literally showing other card is getting a shiny new stove. The first cylinder, they’re using it happily. And then the hope is that they’re going to go back to the distributor and purchase the refill. When they purchase the refill, the subsidy cost. The subsidy that it was supposed to come back to that account will not come in till that the cost of the capital cost, the loan that is there, that is waved on, that, you know, that is repaired, completely. So that was the system by which utuala came in. But I think beyond just supporting the, the households and it’s a scheme, it really became a big thing. One of the flagship programs of the government in many ways, where there’s extensive awareness generation and door to their campaigns, telling people, okay, we have come to our village, there’s a village camp, just get your Aadhaar card and documents and take a new stove, take a new cylinder. And I think that really helped in the transition process, because if you are, because there will be many, many households, I can imagine, even if something is free, of course, the fact that you have to go to a far off place and then you have to wait, you may or may not get a lot of uncertainties. So people would have maybe avoided. But given the extensive branding avenue generation and these door to door campaigns that happened, it really helped. The government also did something called Ujwala panchayat, where the woman in the village, they shared their experiences, some positives, some negative, some challenges on how to convince their husband, on how. On buying the fields. So there was kind of a mass movement, I say, in this space where everyone knew about LPG, everyone everywhere, from. From a petrol pump to a school, you saw the word which was written in the local language and the distributors really kind of, made the service excellent. Of course, in a country like India, you will always find few incidents here and there where things are not ideal or optimal. But again, if you think of it on the whole, given what, you know, given the scale of the program, I think it has, by all accounts, been a marvelous, governance achievement.

Sandeep Pai: Okay, that. That’s really great.

Can you talk to me about what is the difference between Ujwala one and Ujwala two? Like, what is, what tweak, what tweaks happen?

Abhishek: So Ujwala two only made it much easier for people who are left out in Ujiwala one to be part of it. So. So the program has remained exactly the same since 2016. Nothing has changed except the government made the eligibility easier and easier, so that anyone who is left out now can just go in and get a new connection. The other thing that has happened is the subsidy for Ujiwala. It was, until recently, rs 200. Recently they made it to rupees 300, the, subsidy. So Ujihola customers have always got slightly more subsidy than the,

Sandeep Pai: Very interesting. Thank you for explaining the global picture. The India story, then Ujwala, which is the flagship scheme.

Let’s talk about the future. Where do we go from here? Right. Like, that, to me, is a really interesting question. We have reached. India has made large strides in terms of energy access. But from your own work that I have interacted with and with others, what I. What to me, seems like a bigger question of people. Will people go back and refill or will they slide back to what they were doing previously? Talk to me about this challenge. If you were given the advisory role in the government and you could directly advise to design something so people don’t slide back or, you know, we really double down on this. What are the few things that need to happen in the next five, seven years?

Abhishek: Right. This is a great question and a kind of a difficult question to answer. So let me try it in this way. What I would go for is a clean stack with something as the main cooking. For example, in urban areas, in many places, even in Delhi, there will be slums where use of LPG is very limited and people still depend on purchasing fire route and burning it. So there, for urban areas, I would go for a PNG plus approach, which is you try to provide people pipe natural gas. There will be sometimes challenges in terms of people not paying up, and the supply getting stuck. So you also provide them with a clean cook. So people already have LPG. So, you know, so maybe LPG as a backup for urban areas and PNG as a. As a mainstream. And this is for, you know, like countries with a mature market, like India. For rural India, it can be an LPG plus approach where people have LPG as the primary cooking, but there will be times when, they don’t have someone to go and provide a refund. There may not be home delivery of the refund, they may not have money to buy the refund. And there, if you provide an, say, improved biomass bookstore, which is really not part of blaze, but I always say something is better than nothing, you’re like, perfect should not be the enemy of the good. So if someone has, has an MPG stove, but has no money, so their only option is to go back to a, polluting stove design and mud stove and put in the fire, put in the wood and burn the wood. Can we give them a technology where they’re burning the wood, which is free of cost, but it will at least provide some incremental improvement in both combustion efficiency and thermal efficiency, which will reduce the smoke and reduce the quantum of food that is being used for countries, many places in sub saharan Africa where there is almost no clean cooking infrastructure, and there are countries, you know, where 70, 80% of the households do not have access to clean cooking there. I think it will, it will be a, trickier question for urban areas. If there is a reasonable supply, I always say go for LPG or PNG. In places where there is a great grid infrastructure, electric grid induction stock, absolutely a great option. But again, there will be a few clusters where the service is reliable enough and the distribution infrastructure is good enough to sustain the load that will come from an electric induction. Again, in places with good electricity availability, electric induction plus approach. So one mainstay, clean fuel from the bleans plus something as a backup. And if it is two bleens product, one primary, one secondary grid, but I can live with one primary blease and one secondary non blends, but it relatively better than the traditional, food.

Sandeep Pai: Fantastic. That’s really good.

I have one last question, which is like, you know, you have been observing India and India’s clean cooking for a long time now. Both you’ve been in academia, you’ve been, you know, out of academia, you’ve done world work on the field, you also done this work in other parts of the world and are quite familiar with other parts. If you can tell me what are some things world can learn from India’s energy access, especially clean cooking experiment and, you know, diFfusion, and what world can learn, like, so both ways, what InDia can learn and what other countries can learn from InDia so if there are any things that. That you think peers can learn.

Abhishek: Right? So, say, for example, in India, even a mid level official in one of the oil marketing companies sentence, open a computer and say, yesterday, in this particular district, this particular village, there is LPG distributor. He sold this many sellers in many countries in sub Saudi Africa. It is like an absolute dream. They can only dream of such a digital information system, which the oil marketing companies have now developed and scaled up, and is now completely automated. The entire data system that is linked to the invoicing. So if you have to make good policy, you need to have good data that whether, say, you have the data, and you do a pilot project in a particular district or a particular state and say, okay, I have increased the subsidy from rs300 to rs600. What has been the impact on sales? You can get literally real time information. You can compare with the past years to analyze that, what the impact has been. You just can’t do that in many countries. The second thing is, I think some of the challenges that are there in african context, also there in indian context. So some of the research that has been done in those settings should be thought about. For India, for example, I recently kind, of, published a paper where we did an analysis of LPG users in Ghana. And, we kind of bucketed the people into people who do not have access LPG, to people who use LPG, but only occasionally. So, like non primary LPG, people who use LPG as a primary cooking, and people who exclusively or near exclusively use LPG. And what we found was something very striking. We looked into like 13 factors which is commonly discussed, in the literature, in the clean cooking, academic literature on cooking and transition. And we said, okay, which of these factors associated, if you think of someone moving from one stage to another stage. And what we found was that there are only two factors out of the 13 factors which are influential across all the histories. So even something like wealth, which kind of is a no brainer, if people have more money, they are going to transition to, you know, know, from, no LPG use to non primary to primary exclusive. What he found was, no, that was not the case. While LPG, while wealth was very important for people to adopt LPG and move to primary, for movements from primary to exclusive, was not really linked to wealth. Similarly, what we found was that, you know, so, so the studies that is happening. So I think there’s a need for the South South Corporation and the South south learning from each other, where efforts and initiatives that are that where we should learn from places like say Ghana? How can that be used in India? So the Ghana study, if we see that the factors associated with transition at certain is the different from other factors, there’s a need to think about segmentation of the target customer. Now we say, okay, we have a bunch of people and we want to promote LPG. So this is the message out. But the question is, and I think this is something which in this paper we try to really show, is that the messaging, the incentives, the schemes that you would like to give to someone who has no LPG and you want to move them to primary is very different from someone who is already at primary and you want them to move to exclusive. So this segmented intervention is something that has never been done in the clean cooking space at any scale. And this is something that from the Ghana experience, I really like to see if in India there is an appetite for studies and you can do that also to understand that the many of these countries have no substitute at all. So if India wants to move to a low subsidy regime, even for the poorest of the poor, how does it impact demand? Growth is something that India can learn from those countries. so I think both sides have lot to learn from each other. Especially countries in sub saharan Africa can have a wealth of understanding and knowledge from India because India already went through that grind when they wanted to scale it up ten crore PMU customers. And that time in the increase is supply chain by is bottling capacity increase is distributor, you know, the distributor network significantly increased. All these factors, they all come together. It is not just you just hand out lpg cylinders, you know, it’s, there’s a lot of back end, front end and the digital infrastructure which kind of all fit in well. So if you have to emulate the indian example in some places in sub Saharan Africa where there is at this point almost no network in the rural areas of ED, urban areas, you need to understand these nuances of the indian system before you jump in.

Sandeep Pai: Great, wonderful. I mean I could talk to you all day, but this is so great. Really appreciate your time, abhishek, thank you so much.

Abhishek: Thank you.


[Podcast outro]

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Listen to the episode with full transcript here in Hindi



Abhishek Kar


Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW)



Sandeep Pai


Sandeep Pai is an award-winning journalist and researcher and author of a book 'Total Transition: The Human Side of the Renewable Energy Revolution'.


Shreya Jai


Shreya Jai is India’s leading business journalist currently working as Deputy Energy-Infra Editor for the Business Standard newspaper

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