To counter the Covid-19 pandemic, bring poorer to the LPG network – analysis
One of the most important components of the government aid package for coronavirus disease (Covid-19) is free LPG for three months for almost 500 million people. Since the national LPG distribution system works reasonably well, it is an efficient way of providing economic support to the poor. With uncertainty all around us, ensuring that free LPG removes at least a significant charge from people’s plates.
There are, however, some concerns. The program focuses on its recent customer base, some 83 million, created by Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. It may be an efficient way of reaching the poor, but unfortunately it neglects several equally deserving groups of the poor. To reach the excluded sections, India needs additional measures.
A safe and continuous supply of LPG is another concern. It is the only fuel in the country with stable demand. The consumption of other important fuels (gasoline, diesel, CNG or coal) has been drastically reduced due to the blockade. Other energy-intensive activities involving the use of cars, buses, trains, and planes are at much lower levels. Due to the total blockade, more people are cooking at home, which further increases the demand for LPG.
LPG is a strange fuel in the sense that, unlike oil, it is not directly sought. There are no LPG wells anywhere. In fact, it is a secondary product of oil and gas production that, due to low demand, threatens the availability of LPG. To guarantee its supplies, the government has contacted natural gas producers in the Persian Gulf. But with suppressed global oil and gas production, it may take more effort.
What may not be so well understood and appreciated is that ensuring LPG use among the poor is actually a direct measure of health benefits. Exposure to air pollution from biomass fires increases the risk and severity of infection, a detrimental situation, particularly during the spread of Covid-19.
It is well established that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of respiratory diseases, including infectious diseases such as influenza or pneumonia. This is not because the contamination contains pathogens, the virus in this case, but because it decreases the effectiveness of the human immune system.
Recent research shows that people exposed to air pollution are more susceptible to Covid-19. It is also true for smokers whose immune systems are further weakened by smoke.
Outside air pollution in India, one of the worst in the world, and the use of fossil fuels such as coal, have decreased dramatically during the shutdown. This is good for health, a partial counterbalance to the terrible disruption of life brought about by economic disruption. However, sending people to their villages and towns during the shutdown can expose them to smoke from kitchen fires if they are still using biomass fuel.
It will cause additional exposures to pollution and increase the risk of Covid-19 by offsetting the benefit of less exposure to environmental pollution. Since the domestic use of biomass is responsible for a substantial part of environmental pollution at the national level, some of the accumulated health benefits due to the low consumption of fossil fuels will also be lost.
It is commendable that India has convinced most people to stay cleaner in their homes because of the use of LPG. But you may also want to find ways to guarantee the gas supply to those who are left out to help keep homes clean and safe for everyone.
Kirk R. Smith is director of the New Delhi Collaborative Center for Clean Air Policy and professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.
The opinions expressed are personal.