Firewood ignites political cauldron in Manipur


  • Almost all houses in the Khochijang village of Manipur have Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) connections but the LPG cylinders are hardly used because of delay in delivery of refills, poor connectivity to the centre and other barriers.
  • Many of the households have reverted to using firewood from the forest for their daily cooking needs. However, the deforestation has raised the risk of ecological imbalance in the landlocked state and the burning of wood causes health problems.
  • Manipur is reported to have a total of 537,000 LPG users that include 125,000 beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna (PMUY) scheme, the Union government’s flagship programme launched in 2016.

Hatjalhing Lhanghal resides in Khochijang village of Manipur, around 60 kilometers from the state capital Imphal. Khochijang is a remote village in Tuibuong block of Churchandrapur district, surrounded by mountains and lush green fields. The chirping of the birds and embracing greenery offer complete seclusion from the hustle and bustle of city life.

But Lhanghal has no time to relish the beauty of nature. She has just returned from the forest after gathering firewood. The 57-year-old keeps her back-basket aside and sits on a wooden bench in her house to take a moment of rest. She often covers a distance of at least 35-40 kilometres on foot before she can get the desired wood. She also braves venomous snakes and wild animals on the way.

“It is becoming tough to collect wood with each passing day because of my advancing age,” Lhanghal said. “The massive deforestation has been forcing us to walk further for several kilometres nowadays. Sometimes, we have to spend a day or two in the forest to cut the wood before returning to our houses. But we have no alternative as there is hardly any other source of energy available in this remote village,” she rued through paan-and-tobacco stained teeth.

But Lhanghal is not alone. Almost all the women residing in the 80 households of the village have to take a similar arduous route to collect wood and bamboo for domestic use. They say that prevalent age-old customs allow only women to collect firewood while the men have to take care of livelihood.

Almost all houses in the village have Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) connections, many under the union government’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna (PMUY) scheme to provide LPG connections in villages. But the cylinders are hardly used. “We have LPG connections but we use them to cook tea or whenever guests are in the house that requires urgent cooking. But normally food is cooked using firewood. It leads to smoke in the house and often causes breathlessness but nothing can be done,” said 35-year-old Nengkhovah Lhanghal pointing to the wooden walls and utensils in the house that have turned black due to smoke.

Nengkhovah Lhanghal cooking on firewood. The smoke generated leads to respiratory issues and covers the houses in soot. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

Bad roads hinder delivery of LPG cylinders

Villagers say the remote location of their village coupled with the pathetic condition of the roads and the delay in delivery of the refill cylinders leaves them with no alternative but to depend on the forest.

“We survive in an almost inaccessible area of the state with poor transport connectivity. We have to go to the dealer’s office, situated around 18 kilometres away, to book the LPG gas connection. The overcrowded village bus is the only way to reach there,” said Yachanglokpi, a homemaker in Khochijang village.

But that is not all. “It takes almost a day to do the booking. Even after facing so many hassles, the refill cylinders have to be collected from the dealer’s office after two to three months and that again requires the same treacherous journey as home deliveries are not available in all the areas because of poor connectivity.

We prefer wood because it is available for without any cost,” emphasised Yachanglokpi.

Almost all the remote and distant villages in Manipur have the same story to tell as people increasingly depend on the forest for wood despite having LPG connections.

Data from a study in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (r.i.c.e) shows that despite a “substantial expansion in LPG ownership brought about by Ujjwala, most households still regularly cook with solid fuels.”

Household economic status, relative costs of cooking fuels, gender inequality, and beliefs regarding the ease, food taste, and health impacts of cooking with solid fuels versus LPG are important contributors to high solid fuel use despite LPG ownership, the survey said. In rural north India, a large fraction of the work of cooking with solid fuels is performed by women, the survey notes.

People have to travel long distances in overcrowded vehicles to go to the LPG dealer’s office. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

The significant deforestation has been raising the risk of ecological imbalance in the landlocked state and the burning of wood causes health woes due to the harmful emission of carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide.

According to Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), Manipur has total 537,000 (5.37 lakh) LPG users that include 125,000 (1.25 lakh) beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna (PMUY) scheme, the Union government’s flagship programme launched in 2016. Under the scheme, LPG connections are provided to poor households with financial support of Rs. 1600 per connection. The government claims to have distributed over 70 million (seven crore) LPG connections across the country since its inception. It aims to address air pollution and reduce deforestation with the scheme.

According to census 2011, there are 5,07,152 households in Manipur and government had identified 573 villages in the state for LPG connections under the PMUY scheme. 75 percent of the households in Manipur have LPG connections.

Despite the staggering numbers of households having LPG connections, the beneficiaries are not satisfied. They opt for firewood due to the delay in the delivery of cylinders and their high price.

“The government has given us free connections under PMUY scheme but we have to bear the re-filling charges which usually cost around Rs. 900-Rs. 1000.  Sometimes, we have to cough up more when the demand is high and cylinders take a longer time to arrive,” said a beneficiary of the scheme at Moirang in Bishnupur district, requesting anonymity.

The poor condition of roads makes LPG non-accessible in several districts of Manipur. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

Even the officials of Indian Oil Corporation, one of the distributors of LPG connections under the scheme, agree to the problem. “We face a huge gap in demand and supply and often it takes time to clear the backlog. But in the state capital, the cylinders are supplied within five to ten days after the booking while in villages it might take a couple of months when there is a scarcity. The government has been trying to resolve the issue,” said Tohkhopao Haokip, senior manager, LPG sales in Imphal.

But the over-dependence on forest has been taking a toll on the forest cover. Manipur has a forest cover of around 17,346 square km which is 77.69 percent of the total 22,327 sq km area of the state, according to the India State of Forests Report (ISFR), 2017 released by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), Dehradun.

The report mentions an increase of 263 sq km forest cover in the state from its last report of 2015 when the recorded forest cover was around 17,083 sq km.

Forest officials concede that there has been an increase in the net area as some Open Forest (OF) area has also been added. “It is true that there has been an overall increase in the forest cover but we cannot deny deforestation. Around 422 sq km area has been degraded from Very Dense Forest (VDF) to Moderate Dense Forest (MDF) and Open Forest. We are seizing the trucks smuggling the wood and arresting the culprits to curb illegal activities in the forest,” said N. Ganesh, Deputy Conservator of Forest (DCF), Planning and Co-ordination, Manipur.

The Open Forest area that stood at 10,342 sq kilometers in 2015 came down to 9928 sq kilometers in 2017 which signifies that more area has been added to the forest.

Over-dependence on forest could turn into a political issue  

As the general elections draw closer, politicians are ready to latch on to the issue and focus on the problems faced by the people due to the erratic availability of LPG and loss to the environment caused by deforestation.

“The BJP has failed to solve the most important issue of the people who still have to depend on the forest for their daily needs. We have already told our party workers to raise the issue in Imphal and rural areas. We will also try to create awareness about environmental degradation that is being caused by continuous cutting of trees,” said Hareshwar Goshwami, a senior Congress leader.

The BJP, currently in power in the state, did concede that it would take time to reach every nook and corner of the state.

“We live in a hilly state where accessibility is an issue but we have still done well under the PMUY scheme of the Centre. Soon, the teething problems relating to the delay and other issues would be sorted out,” assured R.K. Ranjan Singh, chairman, vision document, state BJP.

Even voters say that they would be cautious this time while exercising their franchise.

“The excessive dependence on forest has been taking a toll on our lives as it is increasing health hazards. The timely delivery of LPG cylinders would go a long way in solving the issue. We would ask assurance from the candidate that he would look into these problems before casting our vote,” said Themvur Lupheng, a female voter in the outskirts of Imphal.

The polling for the two Lok Sabha seats in Manipur will be held in two phases on April 11 and April 18 respectively.

Albert Zamkholal Milheim recommends biomass as a cheap and an easy alternative for firewood. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

Biomass energy as a solution

Albert Zamkholal Milheim, who runs Zougam Institute for Community Resources and Development (ZICORD), a non-profit in Imphal, under the guidance of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), stresses on biomass energy as a solution to decrease the dependency on the forest.

He has been manufacturing fuel cakes or briquette with the help of waste products from forest, agro, weed and municipal waste for the past few years. “The briquettes are non-pollutant and are cheaper as the ingredients are naturally available. Each fuel cake saves around 10 kg of carbon dioxide. It also helps in generating employment opportunities for women by creating Self Help Groups (SHG) where the women manufacture each fuel cake at Rs. 1.50 and sell them for Rs. 5. The fuel cakes are also cheaper as a family of up to 12 persons spends Rs. 30 using six cakes per day. It is also used as insect repellents and room heaters,” said Milheim.

“The bio stoves run by fuel cakes are completely smokeless and eco-friendly. The technology can be adopted in those areas where LPG connections are not accessible due to bad roads and poor transport system,” he added.

Nemchin Doungel, a housewife who lives on the outskirts of Imphal has reduced her dependency on firewood for cooking, by using stoves run on fuel cakes. She also has an LPG connection but rarely uses it. She claims using fuel cakes for the past four years. “Earlier, we used to depend on firewood for cooking which was dangerous due to venomous snakes we would encounter on the way to the forest. The use of fuel cake has reduced the dependency on forest and it is also non-pollutant and cheaper.”

Banner image: Following prevalent local customs, women collect firewood while the men take care of livelihood. Women have to trek several kilometers inside the forest to collect firewood. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

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