While urban cities around the world readied themselves for the Earth Hour pledge to save energy, several rural families in the Terai Arc Landscape(TAL) wondered where the energy to cook their next meal would come from. Fuel wood from forests is the primary source of energy for such families where annual cash incomes may be as little as Rs.12,000 (USD 200). Wood from forests may seem free and easily available but it comes at a hefty price. A number of villagers have lost their lives in chance encounters with wild animals while they’re out collecting fuel wood for their families. These deaths are, in turn, avenged by retaliatory killings of the suspected animals.
Recognizing this as an important reason for human-wildlife conflict in TAL, WWF India has initiated the installation of alternative energy sources across the landscape as a mitigation tactic. In the first phase, 12 villages were selected for the project. And of these 12, two villages in Rajaji National Park (Western Terai), received 20 biogas plants in mid-March.
Together, the two villages— Ganga Bhogpur Talla and Ganga Bhogpur Malla—form a community of approximately 300 families (according to the 2011 census). In 2014, two women from these villages died from elephant encounters while they were out collecting fuel wood in the forest. This can be explained by the location of these villages that are situated in one of two critical corridors, connecting the eastern part of Rajaji to the western.
Rural folk may not have cash incomes that allow them to purchase cooking fuel, but most of them are equipped with at least a couple heads of cattle and a small patch of land for subsistence farming. The math is simple: two healthy cows can provide enough dung daily to power a two-cubic meter biogas plant, equal in energy to 7 kg of fuel wood. Research has shown that that is sufficient to power the stove of a family of six.
An average family, with 4-6 members, requires about 7 kg of fuel wood daily or around 2550 kg annually. When applied to an entire village, that number multiplies to reach daunting figures. Although 20 biogas plants seem like a modest start, it will relieve logging pressure by about 50,000 kg or 50 metric tonnes of wood each year. Efforts are in place to scale up—in this coming year, WWF-International has allotted funds for the installation of 3000 biogas plants in villages around Corbett National Park and Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary that lie a little to the east of Rajaji.
Biogas is an affordable and efficient alternative to fuel wood. But, more importantly, it’s a clean fuel. Over two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people continue to rely on carbon-emitting biomass for cooking, according to a 2014 United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) report titled ‘Sustainable Energy For All’. This results in almost a million deaths per year, most of whom are women and children.
Special thanks to Rupinder Bakhshi, Senior Project Officer (Communities), Terai Arc Landscape, for providing facts and pictures for the story.