Saturday, 27 November, 2021

How the Poor Keep Their Stoves Burning?

Chinmay Prasun Biswas

How to cook rice? This question must sound foolish to those who cook rice regularly or occasionally or never. But this apparently foolish question is mixed with toil, trouble and tears of millions of poor women. Traditionally, women add rice and water in a pot and put it on the stove to cook. Once the rice is cooked, they take the pot down from the stove. A curry is cooked somehow, but this familiar picture of the kitchens of the poor is now changed.

Dhaka and some other places enjoy the facility of gas supply by pipeline. But what about the vast countryside? Kerosene has been the main fuel for cooking but now it costs Tk. 80 per litre. Kerosene stove is a familiar kitchen aid in almost every household but now it will be rarer. Furthermore, electricity is the next possible option, but for slum dwellers and many poor families it is not easy to avail it legally. Though dangerous and risky, stealing is the only way to get it.

So, wood (scientifically known as solid fuel) is the last resort for the poor almost all over Bangladesh particularly in millions of kitchens of villages, towns and slums. Felling trees is devastating for nature and the environment but that is the last resort to get cooking fuel. Black soot rises from burning wood, smoke fills the houses, tears fill the eyes of women while cooking, children and grown-ups get coughs and respiratory problems – these are the essential concomitants of burning wood. Almost all the houses in slums are made of tin, bamboo, wood, plastic sheet, hardboard, hay, etc.

Although there is fear of fire, food is essential for life. And for cooking, fire is essential. Health hazard? Slum dwellers laugh to hear it. People of Bangladesh have been cooking food using wood for centuries. Fortunately, a handful of people are enjoying the benefits of pipeline gas and electricity. Others are living as in the olden days of wood and cow dung cakes. Currently, charcoal, rice bran wood has been added to the list. Elderly poor women say, “--- gas is for shahebs, wood is for us. What is the gas of the poor?” Some of them saved their hard-earned money and purchased a cylinder to save time but now a cylinder costs Tk. 1,313. So, by keeping the empty cylinders in the corner of their homes they go to pick wood.

Is it just a blow of pandemic? Poor women know that time is tough, and the cost of food is high. Some of them humorously say a rhyme – “Only boiled rice because of the high price”. The kerosene stove has been carefully kept aside. Time will turn, they think but who has the guts to tell them that the stove will never burn again? According to the government version price of kerosene per litre was reduced to Tk. 65 in 2016 from Tk. 68 in 2013. Since then, the price has remained unchanged. Energy secretary has said that the use of kerosene is only 1.6 per cent in comparison to diesel. Due to the mixture, the price has to be adjusted. He may be correct but the bolt of adjustment falls on the necks of the poor.

Critics say that government reports run faster than fact. As soon as electric poles are erected the official record says that all the houses in that village have been electrified but reality is otherwise. Millions of poor families and almost all slum dwellers live from hand to mouth but between hand and mouth an important stage is cooking. No mentionable opportunity of employment has been created during the last two years. Income of 70 per cent people has been reduced. Around 25 million people have been turned into poor afresh (The Bangladesh Pratidin, 17-11-2021) but they also have to burn the stove for living.

As the price of kerosene is beyond their reach the only alternative left for poor women to cook rice is certainly wood but how to get it? Purchasing requires cost. Collection is to some extent convenient in villages but not so easy in towns. Yet, they have to collect wood from nearby bushes or trees. Though free of cost, they have to spend around two hours a day collecting wood that eats into their time. According to the language of economics it is a time poverty because they have more work to do in less time. Sometimes male members purchase wood pieces from furniture factories at a lesser price but the main responsibility for collecting fuel wood lies on the women.

Burning wood is harmful to health. According to WHO 46,000 (most of them are children) persons in Bangladesh die of household air pollution caused by solid fuel (wood). So, use of hygienic fuel is suggested but how to get it? Who will provide it? Certainly, the government is the authority but what is the situation at the official level? Retail price of 12 kg cylinder LPG has been increased from Tk 1,259 to Tk 1,313. According to BERC, as LPG is an import-dependent commodity, its price has to be adjusted every month in keeping with fluctuating price at international market.

What is the impact on consumers? Shamsul Alam, energy adviser to the Consumers Association of Bangladesh, complained that the price fixed by the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission was never effective. Hence, it is not clear what effect it has on consumers. According to CAB, about 1.2 million tons of LPG is imported every year. Mr. Alam said that the consumers have to pay at least Tk. 100 more per cylinder. Traders say that due to increased L/C margin, ship fare and transportation cost it is not possible to implement the price of gas fixed by the government. They have to suffer from loss. Then who will solve the riddle?

Whatever be the reasons the result is price hike of cylinder gas and kerosene which is not easy for the poor to afford. Coal is not normally used as household fuel in Bangladesh. So, leaving kerosene and gas they have to go out to pick wood. Some scholars (?) think that it is not poverty but due to lack of consciousness poor girls go for picking wood. They may remain complacent that they are justified but do the poor have any other way to keep their stoves burning?


The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes