Woodfuel in the Western Ghats
The woodfuel-and-dungcakes energy mix for rural India is alive and well in the hills of Maharashtra’s Deccan. The indications are that a combination of factors is at work. There’s less income for smallholder farming households, those farming families which have earnings have seen their monthly household budgets squeezed by rising food prices, and energy costs at least the same or more. That’s why I’ve seen in November and December – when early mornings and nights are cool to chilly, and heating at home is needed – more evidence of woodfuel use.
If you ask the energy planners and econometricians, they’ll say that fuelwood markets are important and have a great influence on shaping demand. As a rule this is likely to be true, but what we’re seeing here has resulted from a variety of volatile conditions. Let’s look at some of the alternatives that rural households in the hills use. A cylinder of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) costs about Rs 325 in a town in western Maharashtra (the 14.2 kg domestic cylinder). A sack of coal costs about Rs 300 to Rs 350 (20-25 kg) which will usually include the cost of transport (it’ll be carted along with other goods on the roof of an old jeep, in a tempo or lorry – state transport bus conductors are not partial to letting these sacks on board any more).
From the planners’ point of view, market conditions for wood are highly distorted due to government policies on fuel, energy and forests. That’s why discussing both demand and supply in the context of prices and market conditions is important, because in isolation the terms ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ for rural energy mean next to nothing.
It’s important too to a rural household that wood is a multi-use material. For instance, for eucalyptus, the thickest portion of the trunk can be used as timber, if the girth of the trunk, with bark, is more than 70 cm. Poles are used for scaffolding support and as roofing material. The dimensions of logs for use as poles are 3 to 6 metres in length, and 30 to 70 cm in girth (cut pieces of similar girth but shorter are used as pulpwood in paper mills). All smaller pieces, twigs, bark, and roots, which cannot be used elsewhere, are used as fuelwood. Thus there is no single wood market in a town or peri-urban settlement. I’ve found it safe to say that the set-up and behaviour of each market differs from others depending upon the range of species available, and the purposes for which each wood species can be put to use.
All that said, the main point here is that the price of fuelwood has risen in the hills of Maharashtra’s Deccan. A buyer will now pay Rs 60 for a ‘maund‘ of ‘jungli‘ wood and Rs 80 for a ‘maund‘ of babul wood. Now a ‘maund‘ is around 37 kg, so that makes a metric ton of ‘jungli‘ wood worth about Rs 1,620 (without complicating the matter with discounts for weight) and a metric ton of babul wood is worth around Rs 2,160. That’s a pretty steep annual growth rate because at the start of the 2000s – according to those who know about these things in Kolhapur, Satara and Pune – the price of a ton of ordinary wood was around Rs 1,300 and they also said that the price then was twice what it had been (around 700/ton) a decade earlier.
This is both worrying and curious. Worrying because it means that sources of energy among some sections of the rural population are defaulting to the woodfuel-dungcakes mix. Worrying also because it means that natural and protected forests, orchard and scrub are being scoured for woodfuel. Curious because we are in 2010 going to be less informed about the relative importance of the three major biofuels to rural households: has the animal population grown in the last decade? have the growing number of bio-gas plants installed during the last 15 years taken away from the dungcake source? have commercial crops reduced the available quantities of husk and straw (and what’s the effect on these as animal feed? We know a lot less than we think, but we do know what a ‘maund‘ of babul costs so that it can heat a hill household in winter.