Why clean air and potable water has impact on education

Children in households without piped water or LPG have lower learning outcomes. This negative impact is greater when women bear a greater share of the burden of unpaid work compared to men.

Inadequate access to safe drinking water and clean cooking fuel leads to serious health concerns. The importance of safe water in preventing water-borne diseases, and its role in handwashing and maintaining sanitation and hygiene hardly needs to be reiterated. Exposure to smoke associated with solid fuel burning has also been linked to the prevalence of acute respiratory infections (ARI), disproportionately affecting more women and children. Further, as per the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to wood smoke can also leave individuals more susceptible to Covid-19 infections.

All this assumes greater importance in the context of the ongoing pandemic. Unlike the first wave, which had left rural areas relatively unscathed, the second wave has been less merciful. The poor quality of rural health infrastructure has added to the havoc inflicted by the pandemic. However, the effect of lack of clean fuel or piped water is not limited to health consequences, but also has a bearing on children’s educational outcomes, as per findings from a recent study discussed below.

Coverage for LPG connections has improved vastly in recent years with the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY). At the all-India level, 94.3 per cent of households had an LPG connection in 2019. But this has not translated into sustained use of LPG. The 2019 NSSO Time Use survey shows that 42.8 per cent of households in rural areas continued to use firewood as their primary source of cooking fuel. This is consistent with a CAG report (2019) that notes that the average refill consumption is not at par with the increase in LPG coverage for PMUY households, with the high cost of LPG refill being the primary deterrent.

The economic relief provided in 2020 under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) extended three free LPG refills till September 2020. This may have temporarily increased LPG uptake. But this is unlikely to induce sustained usage, as LPG price started spiralling upwards soon after. Provisional wholesale inflation estimates suggest that the rate of inflation for LPG went up by 20.34 per cent in April 2021. However, the budgetary allocation for LPG subsidy was reduced to Rs 14,073 crore, this year, from Rs 37,256 crore in 2020-21.

While coverage for LPG has improved, access to piped indoor water remains elusive in most rural areas. As of May 31, only 38.76 per cent of rural households have indoor piped water connections. Fifteen states have less than 10 per cent of villages reporting 100 per cent functional household tap connection in every rural home. The “Har Ghar Jal” initiative under the National Jal Jeevan Mission (NJJM) aims to provide piped water for all rural households by 2024.

In the absence of such infrastructure access, women traditionally play the role of water bearers and firewood collectors. Data from the 2011-12 Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) suggest, on an average, women spend nearly 45-50 minutes per day in collecting water or fuel, with huge variation across states. This gets magnified for households that suffer from insufficient access to both. Additionally, time spent in fetching water often goes up in arid and drought-hit regions and in areas of extreme groundwater depletion.

Women’s time spent in collecting goods leaves her with less discretionary time, with conflicting demands from other household chores, time available for income-generating activities, or child care. Further, evidence suggests that children often join parents in undertaking household chores, particularly in resource-poor households, reducing the time available for studies.

Our research (Lack of access to clean fuel and piped water and children’s educational outcomes in rural India, Pallavi Choudhuri and Sonalde Desai) finds evidence of negative linkages between lack of infrastructure access and children’s educational attainment, mediated by an increase in the time spent by a mother on unpaid chores. Controlling for a range of socio-economic and demographic factors, we find that children in households without piped water or LPG have lower learning outcome, along with lower educational investments. Such a negative impact is greater when women bear a greater share of the burden of the unpaid work compared to men.

As schools remain closed during the pandemic, learning outcomes have suffered. The ASER September 2020 survey indicates that only 30 per cent of rural children received learning materials. This is in line with the findings from the NCAER – Delhi Coronavirus Telephone Survey (DCVTS-4), conducted in December 2020, where 71 per cent households reporting reduced engagement of children in their studies.

With the pandemic continuing to rage across towns and villages, children have remained largely confined to their homes. This amplifies the role played by parental input, particularly maternal input in supervising children’s educational outcomes. The demands on parental time in supervising children’s learning activities have continually risen as children get tasked on a daily basis with at-home assignments.

While spending time away from home on paid activities supplements household income, and can improve children’s educational attainment as more resources become available, our research finds that such a positive transmission does not exist with the mother’s involvement in low-productive unpaid chores.

Providing both physical and financial access to time-saving infrastructure — such as LPG and piped water — that frees up mother’s time to supervise children’s learning outcome, is likely to aid children in bridging some of the learning loss that they may have endured during the pandemic.

Choudhuri is a Fellow at the NCAER National Data Innovation Centre. Views are personal.

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