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Biomass and environmental pollution are interrelated. A large portion of the Indian population is still dependent on biomass for fuel. With more than 65% of the country belonging to the rural demographic, remote areas still have to resort to non-renewable fuel sources for daily operations.
A report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and Greenpeace says that India suffers a loss of $150 billion every year due to air pollution from non-renewable fuels. Although rural areas have partially benefited from the government-run Ujjwala scheme, it has not proven to be fully effective with regards to the relief of women. Even today, most rural families in India are forced to cook food on the clay stove.
A study by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) showed that 85% of Ujjwala beneficiaries in rural areas of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan still use solid fuel, i.e., clay stoves, for cooking due to lack of money. According to the RICE survey, while 76% of the households in these states now have LPG connections, more than 98% of these houses have earthen stoves. Gas stoves are exclusively used in only 27% of households. At the same time, 37% of people use both clay and gas stoves, while 36% of people use clay stoves only.
The situation of Ujjwala beneficiaries is much worse. The survey showed that out of those who have got the benefit of the Ujjwala scheme, 53% use only clay stoves, while 32% people use both clay and gas stoves. The report concludes that the Ujjwala beneficiaries are quite poor. If these people refill the cylinder, then a large part of their household income is spent on it. Due to this, these families are unable to fill it again as soon as the cylinder is finished.
Pollution from homes is ten times more than outdoor pollution. Out of the 200 million people using fuel, 49% use wood, 8.9% cow dung, 1.5% coal, lignite or charcoal, 2.9% kerosene, 28.6% petroleum gas, 0.4% biogas, and 0.5% other means. Gender inequality also plays a major role in all of this. Researchers have found that about 70% of households do not spend anything on solid fuel. The cost of filling the cylinder even at a subsidized rate is much higher than that of solid fuel. The environment is suffering huge losses due to excessive use of non-renewable sources of energy (such as fossil fuels, coal, petroleum or mineral oil, and natural gas).
Hilly areas are even more sensitive to this. The Khatling Glacier and the Gangi village, in the Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, are such examples. The trek to Khatling Glacier starts from Ghuttu, which is located at a distance of 62 km from Tehri. Gangi is the last village on route to Khatling, after which no such facility is available. A total of 156 families live in Gangi, and the total population is 720. Electricity has reached here through solar energy only about one and a half years ago, after 72 years of independence. It has been only a year since there have been roads leading to Gangi.
The local Village Development Officer (VDO), Ravinder Rawat, told me that almost no families have LPG connections there due to delayed access to electricity and transport. That is why the majority of the population is dependent on traditional sources of fuelwood, coal, dung cakes, and more for their daily needs. The carbon emissions from this are continuously damaging the nearby Khatling Glacier.
Dr Shresth Tayal, at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi, Area Convenor of its Centre for Himalayan Ecology had this to say: “When biomass is burnt, it releases black carbon/soot. This gets transported along with winds to high altitudes. Due to low temperature there and with rain or snowfall, it gets deposited on the ice surface. It leads to the blacking of the ice surface and reduces the albedo i.e., the reflection of solar rays from ice. This leads to higher absorption of solar energy and so increased melting.”
The glacier looks black to quite an extent. There is also a lot of dust and carbon in the air. Since the distance between Gangi village and Khatling is just 20 kilometres, the carbon emissions from biomass are having a direct impact on it. Talking about Uttarakhand, research published in the Science Advance Journal in June 2019 also stated that the melting speed of glaciers in the Himalayan region has doubled since the year 2000.
Khatling, Sahastral, and Kedarnath are among the major tourist spots and places of pilgrimage within the Himalayan region in India. Gangi is the last stop (village) before the difficult journeys of Khatling-Sahastral and Khatling-Kedarnath. Despite this, due to negligence, this area is currently plagued by continuous landslides. The surrounding rocks are not as hard and the soil is also friable and sandy. The carbon emissions from burning domestic fuel are also damaging the glacier.
To save the Khatling glaciers, which is already facing an extinction crisis, the ecosystem will have to be improved and an alternative to non-renewable domestic fuel must be provided. Gangi must be immediately facilitated to LPG so that the villagers’ dignity can be ensured, along with environmental protection.