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A burning solution

Uttarakhand’s free LPG scheme is making poor housewives’ lives easier and curbing global warming. Sanchita Sharma reports.

india Updated: May 09, 2009 23:32 IST
Sanchita Sharma

After cooking on wood fires all her life like her mother and grandmother before her, Lakshmi Devi, 50, was thrilled when she got a new gas stove and LPG cylinder free from the Uttarakhand government in November last year. The state government scheme even allows her a free refill every three months, a prospect that continues to delight the Below Poverty Line card-holder, a resident of Chamoli district.

“The gas stove saves me the trouble of going in search of firewood. Till last year, we would go to the forest in the nearby hillside to collect firewood thrice a week; now I go once a week,” says the wiry woman. “With the government ban on cutting trees, looking for dead wood was taking longer each month. Five years ago it took us six to eight hours, how we have to leave at 4 am to make it home by 4 pm.”

What Devi doesn’t realise is that apart from making her life and that of several other poor women like her easier, the state government’s free LPG scheme is striking a blow against global warming, which is melting glaciers and changing the microclimate in Uttarakhand at an alarming rate.

With 16 glaciers and 64.8 per cent of its 53,483 square kilometre land under forest cover, Uttarakhand is bearing the brunt of global warming. Scant rainfall over the past year has changed the hillside from green to amber, led to a spate of forest fires and dried several mountain streams, affecting not just the lives of the 10 million people who live in the state but also the 500 million who depend on the 15 rivers, including the Ganga and Yamuna, that rise from its glaciers.

Villagers living under the shadow of the mountains don’t need experts to tell them that the glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate of about 10-15 metre (33-49 feet) each year. The Gangotri glacier, 30.2 km long and between 0.5 and 2.5 km wide, has retreated more than 850 m in the past 30 years — 76 m from 1996 to 1999 alone.

Like the rest of Uttarakhand, the ski slopes of Auli in Chamoli district got no snow last year. “There was no snow and not much rain last year. All the small mountain streams around the village have dried up and now we walk to a spring 3 km away to get water. It’s ironical that the Ganga flows down this mountain,” says Nivali Devi, 30, the Pradhan (head) of Mahila Mangal Samiti, a women’s self-help group in Paini, a village in Chamoli located 6,000 feet above sea level.

The LPG cylinders may help buck the change in the microclimate by reducing the air pollution generated by wood and coal cooking, a major source of soot (elemental carbon) in India. According to Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathan, distinguished professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, “Black carbon travels and gets deposited on snow and glaciers, making the ice dirty and reducing reflectivity. This makes glaciers absorb more heat and melt faster.” The soot combines with outdoor air pollution to form atmospheric brown clouds over most of south Asia and the Indian Ocean, which causes atmospheric heating.

The exposure to smoke with black carbon particulates was directly responsible for about 5 lakh premature deaths from lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “Women and children are at greatest risk as they stay indoors more and inhale the maximum soot from smoke released from cooking stoves,” says Dr J.N. Pande, former professor of medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

An average household in Uttarakhand uses 3-4 kilogram of firewood a day, and consumption doubles in the winter when fire is also used for warmth. “If you say LPG saves our rivers, it is good. All I know is that the stoves have made the life of villagers much easier. The demand has been so high that they have to wait five months for the free refill, instead of three,” says Mohan Singh Rama, supply inspector, Joshimath.