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Fuel options for household energy in Northwest Bengal, India
Authors: Bharati Joshi Prodyut Bhattacharya, Bikash Chandra Saha Roy
Issue 43: Fuel options for household energy


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.

Figure1: Debarking and illicit felling of trees in natural forests is common (Joshi)

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'!

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.

Table 1: Monthly fuel requirements of a typical urban household in Northwest Bengal
+in combination with other fuels (Source: Field Surveys)
Fuel typeMonthly requirement (+)
Fuelwood90 kg
LPG14 kg
Kerosene20 litres
Coal30 kg
Cow dung10 baskets

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

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

Table 2: Choice of household energy supplies among households belonging to different income groups (Source: Field Surveys)
Income group (rupees/month)Occupation/Nature of jobHousehold energy source (in order of importance)
<1000DestituteLabourersOnly fuelwood or a combination of fuelwood, straw, leaves, twigs and other biomass
1000-1500LabourersRickshaw pullersSmall shop ownersCombination of fuelwood, coal and dung cakes
1500-3000DriversArtisans and small businessmenTradersFuelwood and kerosene
3000-4000Salaried classTechnicians and managers of medium-sized businessesKerosene and fuelwood
>4000People working in the service industry Managers of larger town-based businessesLPG and kerosene

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.

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
Source: Indian Oil Limited Records
DistrictPopulation DensityPer Capita Consumption - LPG (kg/yr)Per Capita Consumption - Kerosene (litres/yr)
Cooch Bihar6380.8610.53

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.


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.

Table 4: Monthly household expenditure on cooking energy in case of complete dependence on a single type of fuel (Source: Field Surveys)
Cooking fuelMonthly requirementUnit price (@ rupees/unit)Total monthly expenditure
Fuelwood180 kgRs 1.90/kgRs 342.00
LPG14.2 kgRs 170.00/14.2 kgRs 170.00
Kerosene20.0 litresRs 9.00/litreRs 180.00
Coal80.0 kgRs 2.50/kgRs 300.00
Biogas30 basketsRs 2.50/basketRs 75.00

Potential energy trees for Northwest BengalTemperate/Hill forestsTuna ciliata, Albizzia lebbek, Artocarpus fraxinifolius, Salix albaTropical/Plain forestsSyzigium cumini, Albizzia procera, Gmelina arborea, Parkia roxburghii

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.

Table 5: Advantages and drawbacks associated with different types of fuels - the users' perspective (Source: Field Surveys)
Type of fuelAdvantagesDrawbacks
FirewoodProvides more/heavy heatGood for cooking in bulkTastier cooking of meat, fish and vegetablesFree and ready availability/supply at the doorstepNo price fluctuation for regular customersNot aestheticProduces smoke, dust and soot; blackens utensilsNeeds a spacious and well aerated kitchenSeasonal fluctuations in price and availabilityNeeds proper storage in rainy seasonProblematic to use if wetIt takes more effort to extinguish the fire
CoalNo price fluctuationsEasily available where depots existEasier to carry (in sacks)Takes less storage spaceBetter if the fire is to be kept simmering for longIt is black and it pollutesSoft coal is not easily available
LPGVery sophisticated and trendyGood for a fixed amount of cookingEasy to extinguish the flame and to light upLimited availabilityMore investment required to establish an LPG connectionPersistent fear of blasts and leakage
KeroseneEasy to extinguish a kerosene fuelled fireLittle initial investmentHeat and flame are controllableGood/economical for preparation of sweets and teaBlackens utensils and produces some smokePrice fluctuations are highAvailability is rationed and limited; have to depend on black market supplies

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.

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


  • 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

Figure 3: Improved cooking stoves and tripods, Cooch Bihar (Joshi)


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.

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.

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Last edited by Thalia Konaris .
Page last modified on Tuesday 28 of September, 2010 11:56:13 GMT. @HEDON: CXUB

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