Op-Ed: Women Gain Energy Access, But Still Lack Power After India Expands Cooking Fuel Program

Lydia Powell is Senior Fellow and head of the Centre for Resources Management Research at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. She has been with ORF for over 14 years, focusing on energy, water and environmental policy in India. She’s currently researching energy access, clean coal and regional cooperation and environmental security. Powell has also worked for Norsk Hydro and for Orkla, two of Norway’s largest conglomerates whose interests include energy.

Powell is also an OnFrontiers expert and the follows domestic energy policies in India. Using data from ORF, she offers her views on the interplay of politics, gender and energy following recent state elections in the country.  


Attracting the voting power of women was credited as one of the main ways the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to gain control of Uttar Pradesh legislature during assembly elections in the first half of 2017. Commentators argue many women voted for the party after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government launched the Ujjwala Yojana program a year earlier in the state, which gave subsidized liquid petroleum gas (LPG) to households. Over that time, while some women gained access to subsidized cooking energy, many were still unable able to realize greater opportunities or fully realize their political power.

About 4.3 million households listed below the poverty line received connections to the cooking gas, according to a recent report. And while the subsidized LPG connections have helped families, the benefit doesn’t directly translate to greater economic freedom or agency for women, who are often tasked with cooking in poor households. Rather, many are still confined to cooking by burning wood or using dried animal dung.

The Ujjwala Yojana program (which roughly translates as ‘brightness’) doesn’t appear to have fulfilled the promise of giving these women the ‘due respect and dignity’ the campaign advertised during the scheme’s rollout in the first few months of 2017.   

Historically, the growth of LPG usage has been far slower than the growth of electricity in Indian households. In 2014, household surveys revealed that roughly 80 percent of households had access to electricity and less than 40 percent of the households had access to LPG.

In urban India, roughly 75 percent of households have access to LPG, compared with less than 20 percent in rural India. In 2017, 70 percent of households were said to be using LPG based on the number of registrations recorded by LPG dealers. This may not be as accurate as household surveys but it would not be incorrect to claim that LPG consumption by households in India is now growing at a faster pace.


Investment in rural electrification preceded investment in LPG access by more than three decades and was driven by strategic concerns over food security. Rural electrification in the 1960s and ‘70s meant groundwater pumping for agriculture had the side benefit of lighting up rural households. 

In the last few decades the rural living room in India modernized, though at a much slower pace than its urban counterpart, with electricity powering fans, television sets and mobile phone chargers but the kitchen stayed where it was. This was despite the fact that LPG cylinders are decentralized packed forms of energy that can be adopted even in rural areas without significant investment.

Unlike grid-based electricity, LPG does not require elaborate infrastructure and centralized control. And yet LPG did not replace firewood in most rural Indian households because poor women lack agency. They could not choose the fuel they wanted even if it was affordable. Energy access for women in India depends on strategic calculations of the government as well as economic and social calculations of the household.

The role of women in influencing electoral outcomes (as in the case of Uttar Pradesh) has transformed them into a strategic target for gendered energy policies of the government. For the household, the “opportunity cost” of women who use rural kitchens is low because they are not given access to education and consequently have few prospects of alternative employment. It is far cheaper for the poor rural household to let women gather firewood or process animal dung to use as cooking fuel rather than invest in other forms of energy. Put crudely, a woman remains the cheapest form of energy for a poor kitchen.

A survey-based study concluded that even in an urban Indian household, the probability of opting for LPG was higher when the first child is male. The increase in the status of a woman who bears a male child (even if temporary) and the interest in the health of the male child are cited as reasons for adoption of LPG.

The Ujjwala Yojana programme is not necessarily new. Programs that are very similar in design to the Ujjwala Yojana program have been implemented by state (regional or provincial) governments in the past. These schemes have displaced kerosene as a fuel for cooking (and presumably also reduced pollution within the kitchen), but there is little or no empirical evidence that access to LPG alone has had an instrumental role in enhancing the dignity and respect of women. Under the current Ujjwala Yojana scheme, 50 million LPG connections are to be provided to households below the poverty line (defined by the government as an income threshold) with a support of Rs. 1,600 (about $24) per connection in the next three years. Rs. 800 billion has been allocated by the government to implement the scheme. The scheme will supposedly empower women as the contract will be issued in the name of the woman in the household.

Like Aadhaar, (the scheme for issuing biometric identity numbers for Indian residents) the Ujjwala Yojana program presents technology as a mediator for complex social problems. While Aadhaar is promoted as the answer to distributional conflicts in India (targeted distribution of social security goods such as food, fuel etc. to the poor), Ujjwala Yojana is projected as a means to alter inter-and intra-household gender relations. Neither is likely to succeed to the extent projected. Technology has rarely been a sufficient condition for social transformation even if it is a necessary one.

On the other hand, there is indisputable evidence that economic and social independence arising from access to education and employment have been instrumental in empowering women in India. Though access to education and employment have depended on access to family income or wealth, state-funded initiatives that increased access to education and employment to poor women have had a dramatic impact on empowering them. Education substantially increases the opportunity cost of rural women as they become too expensive to be deployed merely as firewood collectors or animal dung processors. When this happens, modern energy sources such as LPG become the natural choice of rural households.

Oversimplifying the complex social problem of gender inequality (or broader social and economic inequality) into sanitized technological problem of distributing LPG cylinders (or issuing identity cards) is the newest of political propaganda tools used in India. Rather than making politics work for women, it merely makes women work for politics.


* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of OnFrontiers *