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Fuel options for household energy in Northwest Bengal, India

by Bharati Joshi, Prodyut Bhattacharya, Bikash Chandra Saha Roy, Md. Shahab Uddin, Indian Institute of Forest Management, Nehru Nagar, P.O. Box 357, Bhopal-462003, Madhya Pradesh, India

Options pour l'rgie domestique dans le Nord Ouest du Bengale

Trois drtements de l'Inde roximites frontis du Bangladesh, Nl et Boutan sont consids dans cet article. La premi partie est consacraux diffnts types de combustibles utilises: bois de feu, biogas, rdus etc.. Les co'utilisation de chaque combustible sont quantifies et les choix, selon les niveaux de revenu, sont mis en relief. En conclusion, l'article indique les moyens possibles afin de promouvoir et populariser les GPL, le ks ainsi que le charbon afin de rire les probls associa l'utilisation de la biomasse.

Where there is a will there is a way!

Agam Hingman (43) of Rambi Bazaar, in Darjeeling has no cattle, Yet, he has been maintaining and using a biogas plant for the past three years to meet his household cooking energy requirements. He collects cowdung from the town's roads and also buys dung from the cattle-owning households in the nearby villages at Rs.2 per basket. His monthly requirement is for 30 baskets, a maximum of Rs.60, which compares with the Rs.250 he would have to spend if he used fuelwood.

It is often said that a lack of cattle ownership dissuades local people from using biogas as a cooking fuel. But Agam's case proves that 'Where there is a will there is a way; the one who uses biogas, has the least to pay'!


This article is the offshoot of an RWEDP/FAO sponsored case study entitled 'Forest and displaced people: fuelwood collection and trade as a first step survival strategy' undertaken by the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, India, in 1998-99. This study location, comprising three districts, is prone to the influx of a large number of people, who migrate under trauma and distress conditions, driven by the onslaught of natural and man-made catastrophes.

Northwest Bengal is blessed with pristine, high forests covering around 24% of the geographical area. Fuelwood collection and its trade from the State forests act as a safely net in the first step survival strategy of these displaced people.

Household fuel scenario in Northwest Bengal

The rural population in Northwest Bengal is almost totally dependent on fuelwood, while in the urban areas and a few rural households, fuelwood is supplemented with other sources of energy, namely: agricultural residues; kerosene; Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG); coal; and electricity. The monthly fuel usage of a typical urban household that uses a variety of energy options is shown in Table 1.

Household fuel options


Fuelwood is the most important fuel in Northwest Bengal, and more than 70% of it is derived from the state forests. More than 0.7 million people in the area collect fuelwood for their own use and/or for sale. Of these, more than 30% are migrants for whom fuelwood collection and trade is also a major source of household income.

A five-member household in the study area was found to use 11-13 kg of fuelwood per day. If this was supplemented with other fuels, it was reduced to 7-11 kg per day. Two major factors are responsible for wood being the favoured fuel in this area:

· Easy and free access to the forests
· Lack of a cost-effective and readily available alternative

Figure 1: Debarking and illicit felling of trees in natural forests is common

Table 1: Monthly fuel requirements of a typical urban household in Northwest Bengal

Fuel type

Monthly requirement*


90 kg


14 kg


20 litres


30 kg

Cow dung

10 baskets

* in combination with other fuels
(Source; Field Surveys)

Table 2: Choice of household energy supplies among households belonging to different income groups

Income group

Occupation/Nature of job

Household energy source
(in order of importance)



Only fuelwood or a combination of fuelwood, straw, leaves, twigs and other biomass


Rickshaw pullers
Small shop owners

Combination of fuelwood, coal and dung cakes


Artisans and small businessmen

Fuelwood and kerosene


Salaried class
Technicians and managers of medium -sized businesses

Kerosene and fuelwood


People working in the service industry
Managers of larger town-based businesses

LPG and kerosene

Source: Field Surveys

A study of the energy use patterns among various households revealed linkages between income and fuel choice (Table 2).

Agricultural residues

Paddy husk and straw, jute sticks, crop stumps and other agricultural residues are used extensively as alternative fuels in the area. Less than 30% of the total agricultural residues produced in the study area are used as cooking fuel; the rest is used as cattle feed and mulch.

Animal dung

The cattle population of the district is around 1.76 million (Livestock Census 1984). And the annual yield of dung in North West Bengal can be estimated as approximately 5.3 million tonnes. However, acute fodder shortage in many parts of the study area is forcing the rural people to sell off their cattle, with resultant loss of production.


Biogas is a cheap and environment-friendly source of energy that has a tremendous scope of promotion in the area as only 8% of people use it at present. Much superstition is attached to it as it is derived from animal waste.

In two districts, the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC) is extending biogas technology by providing loans and subsidies. The beneficiary is required to invest Rs.2500 - 3000 and to sign an agreement with the KVIC for ensuring loan repayment at a very high rate of interest (21 % per annum), which is one of the major reasons why even those willing to try out biogas are dissuaded.

Figure 2: Agricultural residues are important for people in Cooch Bihar


It is believed in the study area that food cooked in biogas not only smells foul, but also tasted bad as it inherits these characteristics from the animal dung used in biogas synthesis!

The high rejection rate in its target areas are due to two main maintenance-related problems:

· damage to the pipes
· insufficient cow dung supply.

Both these problems require some initiative to be taken by both the extension agency and the beneficiaries.


Besides its use as a cooking fuel in individual households, coal is also used in the tea estates and in brick fields in the study area for tealeaf processing and brick burning. A few bakeries having improvised ovens use coal as a fuel. Frequent price fluctuations and poor distribution are responsible for the non-popularity of coal as a cooking fuel in the study area. There are very few retail coal outlets and coal depots and these are also not in operation throughout the year. It is not possible to load, unload or stack coal in any township area because of public resistance to the pollution created and dust generated during these operations.

Petroleum products

Kerosene and LPG are the two subsidized petroleum products used as a source of household energy in the study area. The consumption pattern of these products in the study area is shown in Table 3. The higher LPG and kerosene consumption in Darjeeling is because there is less fuel-wood available. The densely populated district of Cooch Bihar has many families which cannot afford to use LPG and diesel. Also, poor distribution and low levels of awareness about these alternative fuels result in abysmally low levels of consumption.

Table 3: Consumption pattern of petroleum products in the study area


Population Density

Per Capita Consumption

LPG (kg/yr)

Kerosene (litres/yr)









Cooch Bihar




Source: Indian Oil Limited Records

Table 4: Monthly household expenditure on cooking energy in case of complete dependence on a single type of fuel

Cooking fuel

Monthly requirement

Unit price
(@ rupees/unit)

Total monthly expenditure


180 kg

Rs 1,90/kg

Rs 342.00


14.2 kg

Rs 170.00/14.2 kg

Rs 170.00


20.0 litres

Rs 9.00/litre

Rs 180.00


80.0 kg

Rs 2.50/kg

Rs 300.00


30 baskets

Rs 2.50/basket

Rs 75.00

Source: Field Surveys

Potential energy trees for Northwest Bengal

Temperate/Hill forests
Tuna ciliata, Albizzia lebbek, Artocarpus fraxinifolius, Salix alba
Tropical/Plain forests
Syzigium cumini, Albizzia procera, Gmelina arborea, Parkia roxburghii

LPG: LPG is predominantly an urban fuel and its supply is limited to a few towns with populations over 50000. LPG, like coal and kerosene, commands a state subsidy for domestic use which amounts to Rs. 80/cylinder. On average, a 5-member household in the urban area pays Rs.170 for one small cylinder of LPG for cooking, which will last about 25 days. Hence, LPG emerges as a very cost-effective fuel.

Kerosene: Kerosene is a popular commercial fuel with diverse applications. Its most common use in rural houses is for lighting, while it is used extensively as a cooking fuel in small commercial establishments like teashops and restaurants. In the electrified rural and urban areas, kerosene is the immediate alternative to LPG as a cooking fuel.

Kerosene is distributed through Public Distribution Shops (PDS), where each domestic ration card holder is entitled to receive 200 ml of kerosene / week, at subsidized rates. This is not sufficient for meeting the household cooking fuel needs of a 5-member family.

Apart from the rationed supply of kerosene, a parallel black market operates.

Table 5: Advantages and drawbacks associated with different types of fuels - the users' perspective

Type of fuel




· Provides more/heavy heat
· Good for cooking in bulk
· Tastier cooking of meat, fish and vegetables
· Free and ready availability/supply at the doorstep
· No price fluctuation for regular customers

· Not aesthetic
· Produces smoke, dust and soot; blackens utensils
· Needs a spacious and well aerated kitchen
· Seasonal fluctuations in price and availability
· Needs proper storage in rainy season
· Problematic to use if wet
· It takes more effort to extinguish the fire


· No price fluctuations
· Easily available where depots exist
· Easier to carry (in sacks)
· Takes less storage space
· Better if the fire is to be kept simmering for long

· It is black and it pollutes
· Soft coal is not easily available


· Very sophisticated and trendy
· Good for a fixed amount of cooking
· Easy to extinguish the flame and to light up

· Limited availability
· More investment required to establish an LPG connection
· Persistent fear of blasts and leakage


· Easy to extinguish a kerosene fuelled fire
· Little initial investment
· Heat and flame are controllable
· Good/economical for preparation of sweets and tea

· Blackens utensils and produces some smoke
· Price fluctuations are high
· Availability is rationed and limited; have to depend on black market supplies

Source: Field Surveys


When the monthly energy expenditure of a five-member household showing complete dependence on a single type of fuel was worked out, fuelwood turned out to be the costliest option (Table 4), but this is when the fuelwood supply is not free.

Enforcement of laws related to the fuelwood trade, in conjunction with a facilitated supply and access to alternative energy, are the only ways to persuade the local population to switch to ecologically, economically and environmentally friendlier energy options.

Responses from households using a combination of fuels as well as those showing a strong preference for certain fuel types have been presented in Table 5.

Strategies for promoting alternative fuels


· Carry out market studies to assess current LPG demand.
· Increase the domestic and commercial LPG cylinder supply
· Facilitate quick application processing and inspection process
· Keep the applicants informed about the progress of their application.
· Constant monitoring of the LPG outlets is necessary
· Maintain buffer stocks to meet the sudden spurts in demand during the rainy season.


· Increase the number of Public Distribution Outlets supplying kerosene to domestic users

· Increase the spread of kerosene supply network to cover rural areas along the forest fringes, too. A village cluster could be used as a unit for establishing a PDS shop.

· Increase the (PDS) allowable quota of kerosene from the present 200 ml/head/week to at least 400 ml/head/week.

· Make reporting of current kerosene stock available at the PDS shop on a notice board mandatory

· Periodic inspection and monitoring of PDS outlets is necessary to stop the illegal siphoning of stocks to the black market

· Commercial supply rates and quantities can be fixed for registered business establishments using kerosene

· Adequate buffer supplies can be kept to meet increased demands during the monsoons,


· Government coal depots should be established at District and Block levels, preferably in the proximity of prominent trade centres

· Increase/promote production of soft coal by subsidizing its production and providing other incentives

· Subsidize coal supplies to facilitate a shift from fuelwood to coal as the favoured fuel of domestic consumption

· Explore the possibility of supplying coal at the PDS outlets; a separate coal card could be issued to households for this purpose

· Ensure sufficient stocks and regular supplies of coal at the supply depots.

The following set of recommendations can be provided to the problems associated with illegal fuelwood trade, and at the same time, to augment the fuelwood sources in the area


· Effective enforcement of a ban on illegal and destructive harvest of forest products, especially fuelwood

· Regeneration and rehabilitation of degraded forest areas with the active participation of both native and migrant population

· Plantation of energy crops on non-farm areas, ie, on farm bunds (earth banks), community lands (after their recovery from the encroachers), canal & river banks and on other sites suitable for social forestry schemes.

· Promotion, assessment and replication of the on-going social and farm forestry activities in the area

· Introduction of innovative controlled/rationed fuelwood supply schemes for which the Forest Department can coordinate with the Revenue Department

· Radical changes in the markets for forest products; provision of appropriate infrastructure (including storage and transportation facilities) for their marketing to match any increase in legalized wood production caused by the above changes


This micro-level study has validated some concerns about a looming energy crisis in Northwest Bengal. Availability of alternative fuels is an important factor; however, free and unrestrained supply of fuelwood directly from the forests is too strong an attraction for the local people. Illegal and extended fuelwood and tree removals are expected to lead to widespread soil erosion, with the ever-looming threat of landslides, loss of precious wildlife habitats, species extinction and an overall stress on the forest ecosystem. Added to this will be erosion of the aesthetic value of pristine North Bengal forests, including those on the hills of Darjeeling District where three T's - timber, tea and tourism are the major sources of revenue for the State exchequer.

Figure 3: Improved cooking stoves and tripods, Cooch Bihar


The efforts of the government in promoting fuel-efficient technology and alternative fuels have, to date, been grossly inadequate, although improved cooking stoves and tripods are being promoted by the Forest Department in Cooch Bihar. Finally, it is highly desirable that both forestry and energy sectors synergize their efforts for energy supply enhancement, so that more and greener fuel options become available to the people of North -West Bengal.