Keeping Indoor Air Pollution in Check in India, a Tricky Task Researchers Find

The Indian government launched the PMUY program in 2016 to curb indoor air pollution, has this been enough?

We hear mentions of scarily high outdoor air pollution levels around the globe, and which measures are taken in order to minimize these. But the mention of indoor air pollution remains more elusive, yet, annually, it kills millions of people according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

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India has a particularly high rate of indoor air pollution due to food being cooked indoors in open fires or traditional stoves using solid fuels such as firewood and charcoal.

When burnt, these fuels create high amounts of smoke, which ultimately kills a disproportionately higher number of women and young children by the millions, as they are typically the ones in charge of cooking indoors. 

Keeping Indoor Air Pollution in Check in India, a Tricky Task Researchers Find
LPG cylinders in Mumbai, India. Source: PisitBurana/iStock

A study led by researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, published in Nature Energy focuses on the Indian government's program curbing this issue, and whether or not the population has adopted it long-term.

India's indoor air pollution program

In 2016, the Indian government launched an impressively big project to tackle this issue: the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY)

The program aims to increased the use of Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), which is the fuel alternative for cooking. 

What the program does is incentivize the people of India to buy adequate stoves and LPG cylinder installations by offering loans and subsidies in exchange for the cost of these installations. 

Since its launch 35 months ago, 70 million women and young children, mostly based in rural India, have benefitted from the program. The main question of the study is not whether they are signing up, but if they are continually using it long-term. 

Sales of LPG gave significant clues

The research team studied the data from LPG sales, instead of relying on self-reported information, which usually carries biased reports. 

What the team discovered is that enrolments to the PMUY program were high, but continual use of LPG dithered over the 16 months of the study. Rural families use only about half of the amount of LPG that would usually be required to cook for an entire family. 

Keeping Indoor Air Pollution in Check in India, a Tricky Task Researchers Find
"Ujjwala Diwas" program in Nagaland, a Northeast state in India. Source: PMUY

A typical family would require around 10 cylinders of LPG per year, whereas the team discovered that only 4.7 cylinders were being used annually. 

Keeping Indoor Air Pollution in Check in India, a Tricky Task Researchers Find
Indian women part of the PMUY program. Source: PMUY

The team also discovered that LPG use depended on seasonal price fluctuations - summer months saw sales drop by 10 percent when agricultural activity is limited, for example. 

"Our work reaffirms that there is a distinct difference between the adoption of a new technology and its sustained use," said Abhishek Kar, lead author of the study. 

Kar continued, "The PMUY was specifically designed to promote adoption, and based on that metric, this program is an unparalleled success. However, if we focus on the ultimate goal of smokeless kitchens, PMUY must be modified to explicitly incentivize regular LPG use."

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