Social worker Ann Peck is trying to safeguard the health of the poor by introducing clean low-tech cooking solutions in rural homes
“That’s how their lungs will look,” says Ann Peck, pointing to the soot caked ceiling of a small hut in Puthakadu village in Kodaikanal. Inside sits Divya holding her 11-month-old baby totally ignorant about the health risks from the unventilated and cramped kitchen. For Divya the only reality is to cook for her family, all day, every day inhaling toxic smoke from burning either wood chips, dry leaves, dung cakes or coal. “As someone keen to give back something to the community, Ann has every reason to be at Divya’s house — to install a smokeless stove and give her the choice of escaping ill-health.
Perturbed by the devastating consequences of indoor air pollution, Ann Peck lent herself to the project addressing serious health issues such as asthma, eye problem and lung infection. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates more than two million deaths occur globally every year and millions more suffer burning eyes, difficulty in breathing and chronic respiratory ailments due to inefficient burning of solid fuels in homes across the world. Upper respiratory infection related to unventilated cook stoves in the home is the number one killer of children under five years, points out Ann quoting the WHO report.
“The tiny lungs cannot tolerate the pollution and it can lead to death if neglected. And, many of these families can’t afford treatment,” she says.
Since 1999 Ann has been behind the installation of clay stoves in more than 2,500 households in 15 villages of Kodaikanal. “We use twin-burner clay stoves connected to a clay chimney so that all the smoke goes out of the house,” she notes. Sponsored by the International Humanitarian Foundation, a non-profit started by the Dartmouth College graduates from Hannover, the project that works in collaboration with the Betsy Elizabeth Trust also involves a group of like-minded individuals working together for the education of impoverished children.
Gaining acceptance among the locals was quite a challenge for Ann when she came from the U.S. as Head of the Help-Kids-India, a non-profit organisation. But Kodaikanal inspired her. “I feel some connection,” she says. Between 2000 and now, Ann has helped in operating five Montessori schools. Fifty children are enrolled in each of these schools, which also have a waiting list but the available funds do not allow more admissions.
The project serves twin purpose, she says. “The children who did not have the means to attend school and were just wasting themselves by hanging around while their parents went to work are now getting education and through them and their activities we get to know their families, making the parents aware of health issues.”
The day I met Ann she was returning from the annual day celebration of one of the schools where the children performed a skit on the health benefits of smokeless chulha. “When we make the kids deliver such powerful messages,” says Ann, “it gets instant approval of the parents.” Ann’s modus operandi is simple. After gathering data on indoor air pollution in homes of different villages in and around Kodaikanal, Ann works with a local village potter to design a smokeless terra cotta stove with a chimney to replace the stoves currently being used. The new design creates an air channel which draws the smoke up the chimney and out of the house, resulting in a much cleaner and safer environment for women and children in the homes.
Two years ago, Ann involved the students of Kodai International School in stove installations. “It had a life-changing impact on them. Students have to be made a part of the development,” she says.
Ann is eager to take her project nationwide. The stove costs Rs.350 and every two-feet segment of the chimney costs Rs.100. “The problem is people who need it the most can’t afford it,” she says. Depending on the family’s financial condition, the cost of material and labour is either subsidised or paid for through donations.
“If one woman in one village decides to improve her cooking practices, everybody follows to keep smoke out,” asserts Ann.