This public health issue goes back to Stone Age cave dwellings. Indoor pollution caused by cooking and heating with solid fuels, including biomass such as wood, dung, farm residue and coal, continues across the globe. Inefficient burning on an open fire or traditional stove creates a mix of pollutants, primarily carbon monoxide and total suspended particulates. While the World Health Organisation in 2009 estimated the number of deaths caused by this peril annually at two million, the just published Global Burden of Disease Study puts it at four million. The worst-hit are the poor — especially stay-at-home women and children. Women are three times more likely to suffer from serious ailments including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, compared to those who use other fuels. South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have been identified as the worst affected regions. In India, 74 per cent of the people use such fuels and these account for more than 80 per cent of household energy consumption. The consequences of some two million tonnes of biomass going up in smoke every day have implications for the environment. Owing to the inherent inefficiency of the process, the products of incomplete combustion include the potent greenhouse gas methane.

Until populations move up the ‘fuel ladder,’ effective solutions should be looked at. These include the use of cleaner fuels, stoves that are more thermal efficient, and provision of better ventilation for cooking areas. The problem cannot be addressed without looking at issues of women’s empowerment. The economic argument is as strong as the humanitarian one. The cleaner options include LPG, kerosene, and biogas. In the case of biogas, the experience so far has been a mixed one, but properly implemented, the technology has much potential. LPG is still way beyond the reach of many, and the rise in its price over the years is actually driving people back to traditional fuels. In India, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy launched the National Biomass Cookstove Initiative in December 2009, seeking to enhance the availability of clean and efficient energy. An R&D project was taken up to prepare an action plan for deployment of cookstoves. Earlier, under the National Programme of Improved Chulhas, some 15 million stoves were installed by 1994. But at the end of the day, much more remains to be done. Inefficient energy practices, which are but manifestations of energy poverty, are obstacles to development and progress. There is a need for innovative policy approaches. More resources need to be earmarked to develop appropriate technology options on this front. Such investment will save millions of lives and produce additional economic gains.

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