Nandal village in Maharasthra's Satara district, with its 500 households, is completely smoke-free. Thanks to the Bharatlaxmi stove, invented by Dr Priyadarshini Karve, the village has managed to reduce smoke by 80 per cent and fuel consumption by 30 per cent. In a career spanning 20 years, Karve has invented several cooking stoves that help reduce smoke and cut dependence on firewood.
Karve is a scientist on a mission: to improve the lives of rural women. Working with Pune-based Appropriate Rural Technologies Institute she has, in a three-year project, helped replace 75,000 stoves with less polluting models.
The daughter of award-winning botanist Anand Karve and grand-daughter of famous sociologist Irawati Karve, she spent her childhood in a rural town in western Maharashtra. “With a family background of social reformers, academics, and scientists, it was natural that I developed an interest in a research-oriented career,” she says.
Karve’s experiments with the cooking stove began when she had to do a project for her BSc. “My father’s NGO was engaged in rural technologies. In the few months I was there, I suffered from smoke and soot. It made me aware of the suffering of rural women,” she recalls.
The Bharatlaxmi stove, Karve’s baby, is a single-pot smokeless stove sold as a kit that can be assembled to create a stove fixed in mud or cement. “The design is not new,” she says, “but the idea to make it modular is.” Promoters of improved stoves face a big challenge – the need to get them to millions of rural families rapidly. “If we build stoves on location, the task will never be completed. As for factory production, people aren’t keen to use stoves that don't look like their traditional ones. I believe my innovation finds the middle ground. The components are factory produced so large numbers are achieved, but the final product is close in looks and operation to a traditional stove,” she says.
In 2005, she set up Samuchit Enviro Tech, a social enterprise that sells biomass energy, renewable energy, and energy-efficient household devices. She has also invented an easy-to-use carbon footprint calculator for urban Indians. Karve also co-edits Shaikshanik Sandarbh, a Marathi bi-monthly on science and education.
Winner of the famous Ashden Award for Renewable Energy 2002, the World Technology Award 2005 and Sahyadri Hirkani Award 2011, Karve blames childhood conditioning for many women not choosing pure science as a career. “Parents raise boys and girls differently, often at a subconscious level. People who honestly believe they are fair-minded also discriminate,” she says.
“That said, women not choosing science or men not choosing social sciences is not a 'problem'. The problem is that people tend to follow gender stereotypes rather than their own inclinations,” says Karve. “My advice to the younger generation? Don't listen to your parents and teachers, follow your own heart!”
Karve strongly feels that the world doesn’t need male or female scientists. “We need ‘human’ scientists, people willing to rise above prejudices, and use their knowledge for the betterment of the society,” she says.