Could the lack of cow dung be a problem in urban India?

We look at how bio fuel could be an alternative source of clean energy in India

Our maid, Kalpana lives in a shanty near our house. She is also very talkative. Last week she informed us that she is going back to her village because she was fed up of using wood for cooking. “I would have imagined that living in the city would be better,” she said, letting off a sigh.  

“We have cooking gas in our village while here, in the city, I have to use wood and scrap,” she grimaced.  Obviously, this made no sense to me. How can a village provide amenities which a big city can’t? Since Kalpana had no answers, I decided to do a bit of research on this subject.   

The dichotomy was partially resolved when I read a report which indicated that biomass, including firewood, meets over 50% of India’s energy demands. Bio fuel is rarely featured in any 'official' statistics of energy use, given perhaps its scattered nature, and its low status as fuel.  The same report goes on to say that bio fuel or biogas can have a huge impact on  rural women’s lives, eliminating drudgery – fuel wood gathering can, in areas of scarcity, be the single most time consuming task of a woman's day  – taking more than three hours in some areas.

The government, it seems, is doing its bit to promote bio energy, though the scheme is low key, maybe because cow dung is not exactly an exciting product to showcase. National Biogas and Manure Management Program is a Central Sector Scheme, which provides for the setting up of family biogas plants mainly for rural and semi-urban/households. Under this program about 4.75 million biogas plants had already been installed in the country by 2014. During the year 2014-15, a target of setting up 110,000 biogas plants has been set. The biogas plant is the best option for households. 

From this I gathered that Kalpana had a biogas plant in her village and therefore had access to cooking gas. But the original question of why Kalpana can’t have bio gas in the city still remained unanswered.

Meanwhile I chanced upon an article in a local newspaper about a program on using urban bio waste for generating biogas and electricity. In an interesting experiment, rag (waste) pickers in Mumbai are used to run biogas plants as a decentralized solution. The case study by Virali Gokaldas, published in Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, highlights the achievements of a locally run program.

The report estimates a total cost of $375 million for solid waste expenditure for the year 2013. Obviously there is plenty of scope to make money out of waste. A non-governmental organization, Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS) which has been training and organizing women waste pickers since 1975, has been the brains behind the scheme to convert waste to biogas. SMS has successfully demonstrated the viability of decentralized waste management in one of the world’s largest and most crowded cities. Why we can’t have such facilities in Pune, I wondered. 

To find out more, I spoke to Dhananjay Kalaskar, Associate VP of Rochem Green Energy. Rochem, as part of a Pune municipal corporation scheme, is setting up a plant here to convert Municipal solid waste (MSW) to electricity using gasification process. Pune city, generates 1500 to 1600 tons of solid waste per day. In a ‘wealth from waste’ program, the Pune municipal corporation has introduced a novel scheme of producing electricity from solid urban waste. Kalaskar has a wealth of information on the subject of bio gas and MSW.

“The process used in rural bio gas plants or Gobar gas is different from what Rochem is attempting. Here we use gasification to convert MSW into electricity,” he said.  Kalaskar went on to explain that in cities the waste is not homogenous. It requires segregation and sorting before using it as a fuel. On the other hand, biogas plants in villages mainly use manure or cow dung which is available in plenty in rural areas. “Maybe that’s the reason why your maid doesn’t have access to cooking gas here in Pune,” he added.   No cow dung – no cooking gas. Simple.

There are no clear answers to the larger question as to why programs like SMS and ‘Wealth from waste’ doesn’t see active and visible government participation.  One of the reasons for the insipid involvement is probably the lack of interest shown by big corporate players. They don’t smell big money in these projects.  

Let’s face it. Bio gas and bio fuel are not romantic subjects – it’s about garbage and animal refuse. The scope for hype and hoopla is limited. Moreover, other renewable sources like solar and wind require huge investments. This means that politicians and bureaucrats involved with these projects can smell sweet money. It’s a pity that enough research has not been conducted on Bio fuels.

The potential for employment, is great. And if implemented more seriously, bio energy can really benefit people like our maid, Kalpana.