There has to be a national mission to ensure that rural homes have access to clean cooking fuel and stoves instead of the killer chulhas that are claiming the lives of large numbers of women

A large section of our country’s population, nearly 75 per cent of rural and 22 per cent of urban households, still uses biomass for daily cooking. An estimated 80 per cent of the residential energy in India comes from biomass, and much of it is burnt in traditional cookstoves or chulhas. Cooking in rural households and in congested urban slum-dwellings takes place in extremely constricted and badly ventilated living spaces. The toxic smoke and particulates that are emitted from biomass burning, have significant and adverse health and socio-economic consequences. The worst affected are the already most vulnerable sections of our population, especially women and children.

Health impact

It is estimated that household biomass fuel-generated indoor air pollution (IAP) is responsible for nearly a half-a-million premature deaths annually, predominantly among women and young children. This figure, however, could be as high as 2.5 million, as was found in an extensive study carried out by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in the mid-1990s, based on exposure of thousands of users carrying personal monitors around the clock and analysis by epidemiologists of data thus generated. This health impact is ranked third in India after malnutrition and poor quality of water and a lack of sanitation.

The Global Burden of Disease study 2010 ranked IAP as the leading cause of death and disability-adjusted life years in South Asia. The burden of biomass fuel collection and processing for cooking also falls largely upon women and children, mainly girls, who spend considerable time gathering agriculture residue, waste wood or faggots every day. Providing an affordable, simple-to-use, clean cooking energy option for such households will yield enormous gains in terms of meeting India’s energy poverty challenge and promoting health and socio-economic welfare of the weakest and most vulnerable sections of society. It would also ensure a healthier and more productive population in the next generation.

Some initiatives

There will be co-benefits in terms of combating environmental pollution and climate change because cleaner combustion of biomass in fuel efficient, clean cookstoves will greatly reduce the toxic products of incomplete combustion which also emit greenhouse gases.

There have been several initiatives undertaken in the past to develop, produce and distribute improved cookstoves or “chulhas” throughout rural India. There was a National Programme on Improved Chulhas (NPIC) earlier which was followed by the launch of a national mission for clean cookstoves by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy in 2008. However, these initiatives have so far been unable to deliver on their original promise. We believe that a successful and sustainable national scale initiative will need to address the following key issues:

Focus on the user

One, the starting point of the exercise to develop an efficient and affordable cookstove must be the user, that is, the lady of the house, the mother and wife, who actually does the cooking for the family in a typical Indian household. It must make sense to her in terms of the limited family budget — both the initial purchase as well as the subsequent lifetime costs in terms of maintenance and reduced fuel consumption. The fuel, whether unprocessed, semi-processed or fully processed, must be affordable for her family. Users of biomass and traditional chulhas are becoming conscious of the benefits from switching to improved cookstoves, but current policy lacks effective financing of improved designs and adequate capacity for implementation at grass-roots level.

Two, staying with the user, the improved cookstove should be easy-to-use and maintain and easily adapted to local cooking habits across the country. While cookstove technology in India and abroad has improved considerably over the past few years, further advances are still possible and necessary. What is required is cutting-edge advanced technology, rather than low-technology solutions.

The aim should be to achieve efficiency of combustion in cookstoves, comparable to that, at a minimum, from LPG-based household cooking. What is required is easy and accessible financing, an extensive distribution network, after sales service and convenient access to fuel sources.

We believe that the government should formulate and implement a truly national scale mission, bringing together public and private sectors as well as non-governmental organisations, for developing the next-generation of household cookstoves, biomass processing technologies and, most importantly, deployment models. The aim should be to evolve a commercially viable and sustainable mission, which does not rely on philanthropy or subsidies. And achieving success is critical to enabling the country to deal with its pervasive energy poverty, the debilitating health consequences for India’s women and children from IAP, and the collateral environmental pollution resulting from the inefficient burning of raw biomass.

(Dr. R.K. Pachauri is director, TERI, Dr. K. Srinath Reddy is president, Public Health Foundation of India, and Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and currently chairman, National Security Advisory Board.)

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