Fuel wood Based Energy Scenario and its Impact on Natural Forests in India

Dr. Ram Prasad, Director, Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal

Firewood is the main-stay of India’s rural population for cooking food with, and for other household and non-agricultural work such as rural crafts. The annual consumption of firewood has been variously estimated, but on the conservative side it could be taken to about 250 million cu m. Of this about 20 million cu.m. is recorded to be officially produced in India’s forests, leaving a staggering gap of more than 90 per cent of the consumption (Chakravarti, 1985, MOEF, 1990). Part of the gap is absorbed by production from farm forests and tree lands outside the forests, and a source which has all but dried up, but much of it is obviously accounted for by pilferage and the excessive exercise of concessions from the forests. These have set in a vicious cycle of serious losses to the growing stock, soil erosion and other ecological imbalances. However, some other studies (FAG, 1997; Saxena, 1997) do not subscribe to these hypotheses. The present paper attempts to analyze the contribution of wood fuel to rural energy scenario and its impact on the health and vitality of natural forest ecosystem.

(I) Demand for Fuel wood

Varying estimates on the consumption of fuel wood have been reported by FSI (1996), FAO (1997), Prasad et al. (1999) and many others. One of the earliest attempts for estimating the energy requirement of the country was by the Energy Survey Committee (1965). The other estimates were made by the Fuel Policy Committee (1974), the Working Group on Energy Policy (1979) and the Energy Demand Screening Group Report (1986). At National level, the Planning Commission had set up a study group on Fuel wood and Fodder which projected the demand at about 306, 343 and 384 million tonnes, respectively in 1990, 1996 and 2001. The Report of the Advisory Board on Energy (MOEF, 1990) estimated fuel wood consumption in the year 2004-2005 for four regions of the country. This report assessed the fuel wood consumption for Northern Region at 81 million tonnes per year, East and North-East at 60 million tonnes, Southern at 106.5 million tonnes and for Western Region at 68 million tonnes. Additional requirements of 60 million tonnes was estimated to substitute the use of dung cake, taking the two requirements together at 375 million tonnes.

FSI (1996) estimated the fuel wood requirements for :

    (a) rural areas of forested districts of the country - 78 million tonnes for a population of 184 million;

    (b) 74 million tonnes of fuel wood for rest of the rural population of 513 million which lives outside the forested rural areas;

    (c) 10 million tonnes of fuel wood for urban population of the country;

    (d) 39 million tonnes for cottage industries (25 m t), rituals (4 m t), hotels, etc. (10 m t).

These, together make the total wood fuel requirements for the country as 201 million tonnes or about 303 million cu m as in 1996, assuming a total population of 697 million which uses fuel wood as a main source of domestic energy as well as for cottage industries, rituals, hotels, etc. Taking into consideration the population increase, the fuel wood requirements might have proportionately gone up to 325 million cu m (217 million tonnes).

Comparing the FSI (1996) estimates (201 million tonnes) with those of the study group appointed by Planning Commission of India (342 million tonnes), it is observed that the former under-estimates the demand by 41.23 per cent. Ravindranath and Hall (1995) reported varying estimates of the fuel wood consumption from 227-298 million tonnes.

Needless to say, the demand for fuel wood has been variously estimated by different studies. It appears that these estimates have been influenced by several factors (place and method of sampling, socio-economic condition of the sampled population, household fuel preferences, regional cooking styles, etc). However, it is undisputed that despite the availability of commercial fuels and its access by well-off farmers, the demand for fuel wood is ever expanding. This really requires analysis as to the impact of the escalating demands of fuel wood on the health of natural forests.

Households use either traditional fuel or combination of both traditional and commercial fuel. There are many factors which influence the selection and utilization of these fuels, such as proximity of forest, ownership, accessibility of fuel producing resources, socio-economic development, technology know-how, influence of intra-family, inter-family and neighbourhood exchange, etc. Natrajan (1996) reported that in 1992-93, 61.60% of the total rural energy requirement was met by wood fuel, 30.35% by other bio-fuel and only 8.05% by commercial fuel. This study further reported that nearly half of the households collected fuel wood from their own farms in 1992-93. The share originating from forests shrank to half of that in 1978-79. In a more recent study Prasad et al (1999), based on information gathered from 743 households spread over 8 states of India, reported that bulk of the rural energy requirements was met by wood fuel (75.77%). Some of these studies are summarized in Table 1:

From Table - 1, it is clear that the share of firewood in fuel consumption has registered significant increase. This should cause concern, for more fuel wood consumption means more extraction, leading to an acceleration in diminution of tree cover.

Table 1 : Share of Fuel wood in Total Energy in Rural Households

Reference year




Fuel wood




Other Bio-fuel




Commercial fuel








Source : Natrajan (1995); Prasad et a1, (1999)

(II) Forest and Non-Forest Sources of Fuel wood

Like varying estimates on fuel wood consumption, there also exists considerable difference of opinion about how much fuel wood comes from forests and how much from non-forest sources. However, there appears to be unanimity in one respect that the fuel wood consumption is far more than the recorded production from country’s forests. FSI (1987) had reported the consumption with production from 1953-54 to 1975-76. During this period the production from forests accounted for only 10.66 per cent of the total consumption of fuel wood. La1 (1988) reported that during 35 years (1953-1987), a total quantity of 3245 million cu m of wood was removed in excess of permissible limit.

FSI (1996) assessed the fuel wood production at 17 million tonnes. Chakravarti (1985) also estimated the production of fuel wood at 20 million tonnes, leaving a staggering gap of more than 90 per cent of the consumption.

FAO (1997) assumed that two-thirds of all wood fuels do not come from forests but from agriculture and other land.

This report further concluded by recording "mounting evidence shows that wood fuel is not a general cause of deforestation; it is not even a main cause, rather deforestation is caused by land conversion and commercial logging in most places".

FSI (1995) reported that nearly 86 million tonnes of fuel wood is being removed from the forests and plantations of India every year in excess of what they are capable of producing on sustained basis. It also concluded that while 51 percent of the total fuel wood comes from forests, 49 per cent came from non-forestry sources.

The study based on 743 households from 99 villages across the 5 states of the country (Prasad et al, 1999) revealed that over two-third of all fuel wood removed comes from forests and only one-third from non-forest sources (Table 2). Excepting Kerala where bulk of the wood fuel requirement comes from home-gardens, in Forested States like Madhya Pradesh (87.20%), Assam (71.709/0), Maharashtra (79.100/0), and West Bengal (80.70%) only about 15-20% comes from non-forest sources.

Table 2 : Sources of Fuel Wood in Study Area.



% Fuel wood supply

Forest /



Madhya Pradesh








West Bengal















According to an FAO/RWEDP study carried out by IIFM, the percentage households collecting fuel wood from forests in 3 districts and 5 forest divisions of West Bengal are :

(A) Cooch Bihar District :

1. Cooch Bihar Social Forestry Dn. 20%

(B) Darjeeling District :

2. Darjeeling Forest Dn. 88%

(C) Jalpaiguri District :

3. Cooch Bihar Wildlife Dn. 84%

4. Baikunthapur Dn. 93%

5. Jalpaiguri Dn. 82%

Cooch Bihar social forestry division has plantations raised under social forestry schemes along road-sides and other community lands. Natural forests are generally not available around habitations. As a result, every household maintains home-gardens which supplies fuel wood for cooking and other domestic needs. In other areas, people have unrestricted access to natural forests for collection, use and sale of surplus fuel wood. Even the protected areas (Cooch Bihar Wildlife Division) are burdened with unrestricted fuel wood removal. In the above Five Forest Divisions 84% of total fuel wood is removed from forests, 11% from home-gardens, 1% from community wastelands and 4% from other sources (Bhatta-charya and Joshi, 1999). Another study carried out in Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh (Chakravarti, 1985) also indicated that larger the per capita forest area, the lower is the consumption of dung-cake and agriculture waste (Table 3).

Table 3 : Domestic Energy Consumption in Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh.

Per Capita Forest Area (ha) in percentage


Less than 0.1

0.1 to 0.2

0.2 to 0.4 (i)

0.2 to 0.4 (ii)

More than 0.4

0.4 (ii)

Fuel wood







Dung cake





















Source : Chakravarti, 1985

FAO (1997) published a comprehensive study on wood energy in Asia. This report highlighted the following facts :

(1) The fuel wood gap theory rejected: The general impression of 1970s and 1980s that non-sustainable yields were taken from forests to meet wood energy demands and that it was a root cause of deforestation was rejected. According to this report, ample evidence existed to prove that the wood fuel use is not a main cause of deforestation. Further, the report concludes that the deforestation is being caused not due to the pressure of fuel wood removal but due to conversion of forests into agriculture use.

(2) There is wood substitution: Biomass residues from agriculture which is available as fuel on an environmentally sustainable basis, according to this report, substitutes for wood fuel. It appears that most studies have ignored the fact that unrestricted access of people to forests for fuel wood collection is impacting forests in their vicinity. For example, a village in central India, eastern India or Himalayas would depend cent per cent on fuel wood for cooking and not use cow dung, agriculture residues or non-forest biomass. As against this, the villagers in forest-less tracts of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Indo-Gangatic plains, rich agrarian locations in South and Western India, depend upon non-forest sources. An impact on forest areas in such cases is not a matter in any dispute. Many reports, including those of FAO (1997), Saxena (1997) and Agrawal (1998) appear to have captured photographs with few twigs in a typical rural kitchen and given catchy captions like "How much deforestation results from her wood fuel use?" (Saxena, 1997, FAG, Page 5). These presumptions have often ignored the fact that a rural housewife in forested tract has no such compulsion to use inferior firewood like these.

There are variations in fuel wood consumption per households in areas surrounded by dense forest and those in forest-less tracts. In Raipur in eastern Madhya Pradesh which is surrounded by dense forests, the annual consumption was estimated to be one tonne per household whereas in Hyderabad a metropolitan town, it was less than 0.5 tonne per household (Dunkerley et al. 1990). Bhattacharya and Joshi (1999) calculated the monthly requirements of different types of fuel by an average urban household. On an annual basis the average requirement of fuel wood was slightly over 1 t. (1.08 t) per household. In another study carried out by IIFM and covering 743 sample households in 5 states, the mean per capita consumption of fuel wood was 1.64 kg or about 1.17 t per household per annum.

The gap between actual production from recorded forest sources and the estimated consumption was again discussed by NCA in its final report (NCA, 1976), that stated that :

    (i) Large quantity of fuel wood is collected from the forests as a matter of right and does not find any record anywhere.

    (ii) Pilferage from the nearby forests meet a large part of fuel wood requirements of neighbouring areas.

Today, almost the entire forest in our country is owned by the Government and is under the management of the Forest Department. Less than 5 per cent is privately owned. Thus, there are no more private forests from which firewood could be brought, as assumed by many researchers. Village wastelands, which cover a quarter of the area of the country, are in a sadder plight. Bulk of them carry no tree growth at all, and in the remaining, tree growth is vestigial.

For the above reasons, it may be difficult to accept the argument that production from private forests, from tree lands, and wastelands outside Government forests and from farm forests can contribute wholly, or even substantially, to bridge the gap between consumption and recorded production. Private forests, tree-bearing wastelands and farm forests are very small in extent. More importantly, owing to the lack of management or in fact mismanagement in the past, their productivity is so low that even together, they can not supply 90 per cent of the estimated consumption. Pilferage possibly occurs on a much wider scale than generally estimated. Socio-political forces in many parts of the country have encouraged the free and unrestricted removal of firewood by head loads for bonafide household use or for sale; the quantities so removed aggregate to very large quantities. Fuel wood extraction for sale in the nearby urban markets has also been the result of rural unemployment. What is worse is that such concessions abet the deliberate destruction of immature living trees.

The cumulative effect is that silvicultural management is largely nullified, as more trees are cut than grown and the demand for wood has outstripped the growth of new trees. This has resulted in increased economic hardships and ecological disaster; the disaster has already manifested itself in accelerated soil-erosion, floods, the cutting of productive river banks and the silting up of irrigation reservoirs.

From the above discussion, it is amply clear that:

1. In forested areas the consumption of fuel wood is substantially higher than in non-forested areas. Over 80% of wood fuel come from forest areas.

2. In forested areas fuel wood collection and sale provides a dependable source of employment to landless and rural poor.

3. Increasing amount of fuel wood extraction from forests is becoming unsustainable. In particular, the young regeneration, poles, saplings and shrubs are first victims. These activities are causing great stress to the forest ecosystem and therefore, contributing to forest degradation.


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