To counter the Covid-19 pandemic, bring more poor into the LPG net
One of the most important components of the government’s coronavirus disease (Covid-19) relief package is free LPG for three months for nearly 500 million people. As the national system of LPG distribution is reasonably well-functioning, it is an efficient way to provide economic support to the poor. With uncertainty all around us, ensuring free LPG takes at least one important burden off people’s plates.
There are, however, some concerns. The programme is focused on its recent customer base – about 83 million – created by the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. It may be an efficient way to reach the poor, but it, unfortunately, leaves out a number of equally deserving groups of the poor. To reach the left-out sections, India needs additional measures.
A secure and continuous supply of LPG is another concern. It is the only fuel in the country with stable demand. The consumption of other major fuels – gasoline, diesel, CNG, or coal – is drastically down due to the lockdown. Other energy-intensive activities involving the use of cars, buses, trains, and planes are at much lower levels. Due to the complete lockdown, more people are cooking at home, further pushing up the LPG demand.
LPG is an odd fuel in that, unlike oil, it’s not searched for directly. There are no LPG wells anywhere. It is, in fact, a secondary product of the oil and gas production, which, owing to low demand, threaten the availability of LPG. To ensure its supplies, the government has reached out to natural gas producers in the Persian Gulf. But with global gas and oil production suppressed, it may require more effort.
What perhaps is not so well-understood and appreciated is that ensuring the use of LPG among the poor is actually a direct health benefit measure. Air pollution exposure from biomass cooking fires increases the risk and severity of infection, a harmful situation particularly during the Covid-19 spread.
It is well-established that air pollution exposure increases the risk of respiratory diseases, including infectious ones like flu or pneumonia. This is not because pollution contains pathogens – the virus in this case – but because it decreases the effectiveness of the human immune system.
Recent research shows that those exposed to air pollution are more susceptible to Covid-19. It’s also true for smokers whose immune system is further weakened by smoke.
Outdoor air pollution in India, among the worst in the world, and the use of fossil fuels such as coal, has dropped drastically during the lockdown. This is good for health, a partial counterbalance to the terrible disruption of life brought about by the economic disruption. Sending people to their villages and towns during the lockdown, however, may expose them to smoke from cooking fires if they are still using biomass fuel.
It will cause extra pollution exposures and enhance the risk of Covid-19 by counteracting the benefit from lower ambient pollution exposure. Since the household use of biomass is responsible for a substantial portion of ambient pollution nationally, some of the health benefits accrued due to low consumption of fossil fuel will also be lost.
It’s praiseworthy that India has convinced most people to stay in their homes that have cleaner air owing to the use of LPG. But it may also want to find ways to ensure gas supply for those who are left out to help keep homes clean and safe for everyone.
Kirk R Smith is director, Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre, New Delhi, and professor, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley
The views expressed are personal