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Some socio-economic aspects in the utilization of bio-gas among rural farmers in Sri Lanka

by M. Edward Perera

A few decades back the idea of producing big-gas from bio mass was almost nothing more than a fantasy for many people. In the context of Sri Lanka, fit is an entirely new concept which has come into being since a few enthusiastic scientists engaged in the search for alternative means of energy production in order to minimize the pressure associated with the growing prices of traditional energy sources.

At present, several groups have extended their activities among rural peasents in Sri Lanka with the intention of introducing the technology of producing big-gas by using number of different substances which are freely available locally.

The pioneers of big-gas plants in Sri Lanka have obtained their expertise abroad. Some of these Research Scientists have gained some relevant experience in Western Academies, a few others in China and in India. The attempts to develop an appropriate method have been very successful in that the ordinary farmers can afford such simple methods of producing energy in a very economical and practical way; Nearly 55 percent of the existing big-gas units in Sri Lanka are constructed basically on Chinese principales. The dissemination of big-gas units is still confined to a few localities where sufficient know-how is available and geographical conditions are favourable.

It is quite interesting to notice that the personality factor too has some significant impact in disseminating the concept of big-gas consumption among rural farmers in Sri Lanka.

An agriculturist who has gained a considerable knowledge about the technology of big-gas production in China and India, is totally devoted to promoting this simple method of energy production among rural peasants in Sri Lanka.

While rendering his services as the Principal of two leading Agricultural Schools simultaneously, one at Gannoruwa, Kandy District and the other one at Angunakolapalessa in Hambantota District, in the south-east of Sri Lanka, he has proved his ability to convince unsophisticated rural farmers to develop some confidence in this technology.

He has succeeded in many ways in bringing this very idea of adopting appropriate technology as an alternative source of energy production, to the rural people as well as to the urban folk.

In this particular study, we could identify one of his effective strategies in his methods of instructing uneducated rural farmers, i.e. the exploitation of sentiments of tradition-bound people in Sri Lanka for a progressive purpose. Teachers are always regarded as the pioneers and the builders of the nation. As an efficient teacher in the formal education sector and with a high regard for his profession, he has been more successful than his many counterparts in this field especially in the introduction of this system to the broad masses.

At the Agricultural School of Angunakolapalessa, farmers from the suburbs are given practical training together with students who are undergoing formal education in agriculture. This method of educating adults to improve their living conditions has become very effective due to a number of reasons, namely:
1. the disparity between academics and peasants would be reduced to a certain extent by providing a common basis in the learning,
2. the degree of confidence among peasants will be increased in the process of acknowledging new methods,
3. the convenience of consulting staff members or students at the school in the case of maintenance problems,
4. regular control and further instruction from the school staff,
5. opportunity for students to understand the nature of attitudes and expectations of the peasants in respective areas.

Unless the relevant surveys are conducted among these peasants to study their response to this new method of energy production, it is quite difficult to point out the most significant factors involved in the motivation. But the unbearable price of fuel, namely kerosine, has become one of the determining factors in adopting alternative means of energy production.

Although Sri Lanka is immensely blessed with natural energy resources of solar, wind and hydraulic nature and also with wood, the people in remote areas hardly benefit from the utilization of these energy sources on a rational and economic basis. The supply of electricity has not yet been extended to many rural areas in Sri Lanka. As the Minister of Land Development once unhappily quoted: the high-tension electric cables carry the power over the villages in his constituency, which are still in darkness. Long-term projects for the supply of electricity to each and every village are planned ahead.

Under the liberal economic policy of the present government, the unlimited influx of sophisticated electrical and electronic goods from industrialized countries has made a great impact on the general consumption pattern of Sri Lankans. Not merely because of convenience but also as status symbols, many electric appliances are being used by urban folk. This consumption pattern has spread to peripheral areas as well as to remote rural areas, even though the substantial power supply has not extended to these areas. This new development is mainly due to the "New Rich" those who work in Middle-east countries as guest workers. The demand for high consumption of energy has enormously increased as the potential of purchasing these sophisticated appliances by these Sri Lankan guest workers abroad has also grown.

Nor are Sri Lankan villages free of this kind of modernization. Almost every villager is informed about the new trends in modern consumer behaviour. But only a handful can afford a TV set or similar appliance. The concept "Some possess much but many possess nothing" is still applicable to Sri Lanka as a typical feature in this country too.

There are quite a number of external factors which have an impact on the process of motivating with a view to raising living conditions. The people who are unable to co-opt with the new trend of modernization are now facing a critical point of changing their life pattern. If not by sophisticated means, at least with some sort of appropriate measures, the necessary action should be implemented to improve the living conditions of the rural masses. While the prerequisites for a sophisticated modern life remain unfulfilled, people from many categories tend to adopt appropriate methods which they can afford.

Among the big-gas consumers in Sri Lanka, one can identify three major categories:
1. The Agricultural Schools where the big-gas units are installed on an experimental basis for teaching purposes and also to meet the demand of energy consumption on the school premises.
2. Non-governmental organizations such as Rural Community Development Centres and Religious Educational Centres where large numbers of young people reside in the attached hostels.
3. Unsophisticated rural farmers in remote areas where the people hardly benefit from the supply of electricity or other kinds of energy sources.

The government authorities in the respective areas have given some aid to farmers as an incentive to adopt this simple technology of producing energy. The farmers are provided with the necessary materials such as bricks, cement etc., if they are really interested in building a biogas unit. Technical know-how is extended through experts in the subject on a voluntary basis. But some organizations also extend their expertise on a commercial basis especially in the suburbs of cities.

Generally, cowdung is used in many big-gas units as it is frequently available in many parts of Sri Lanka. Straw together with Uria is being used in some places but it is commonly accepted that, qualitatively as well as quantitatively, this method is not effective when compared to the system with cowdung. In some cases, water plants like "Salviniya" are also used as substances for biogas. Human fecal substance is used in urban areas where cowdung is not sufficiently available, but still only as an exception.

Unlike the traditional Indian use of dried cowdung as a fuel, many Sri Lankan villagers once depended on fire wood to satisfy their energy needs especially for cooking. Even now a large number of Sri Lankans depend on fire wood for cooking. Within the last ten years, the price of kerosine has increased enormously. An average family can not afford buying kerosine for continuous consumption.

Under these circumstances, the concept of big-gas has growing popularity especially in rural areas where the price of kerosine plays a determining role in fuel consumption. Many school-children are unable to do their homework in the evening as their parents can not afford to buy kerosine for lighting. The great advantage of adopting the big-gas method is that it is not only useful in cooking but also as an effective means of lighting. There are some attempts in some places to generate electricity by using big-gas as fuel for a power generator and also for water pumps which normally run on diesel oil.

There are no proper statistics on big-gas units in Sri Lanka. But according to the survey findings of the Ceylon Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research there were about 300 such units all over the island in 1981. C