By Athar Parvaiz
The improper burning of fuels such as firewood indoors releases dangerous air pollutants, while collecting firewood and cooking in traditional kitchens is time consuming, especially for women.
The World Health Organization estimates that 4.3 million people die worldwide each year from diseases attributable to indoor air pollution. Women, girls and boys are believed to be at greater risk of such pollution as they spend more hours at home.
Census data from 2011 reveals that 142 million rural households in India rely exclusively on fuels such as firewood and cow dung for cooking.
Despite heavy subsidies from successive governments since 1985 to make cleaner fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) available to the poor, millions of households continue to struggle to afford cleaner energy, which that forces them to opt for traditional and more harmful substances.
This prompted organizations such as the Bangalore-based Ashoka Foundation for Ecology and Environment Research (ATREE) to help mountain communities to minimize health and environmental risks arising from the use of firewood for cooking indoors.
IPS spoke with ATREE's regional director for Northeast India, Sarala Khaling, who oversees the improved cookstoves (CM) project managed by the organization in Darjeeling, Himalaya.
IPS: What prompted you to start the CM program in the Darjeeling area?
Sarala Khaling: In many remote areas of the Darjeeling forest we conducted a survey and found that people depend on firewood as it is the only cheap source compared to LPG, kerosene and electricity… around Singhalila National Park and Sanctuary of Vida Silvestre Senchal, it was found that the average consumption of firewood was 23.56 kilograms per household and per day.
Therefore, we thought about providing technological support to those people to minimize forest degradation and indoor pollution, which is dangerous for human health and also contributes to global warming. This is how we started to replace traditional stoves with improved cook stoves, which consume much less wood, as well as reduce pollution.
IPS: How many CMs have been installed?
SK: So far ATREE has installed 668 CM units in different locations in Darjeeling. After installation ... we conducted another survey and the results showed a reduction in firewood consumption of 40 to 50 percent and also a saving of 10 to 15 minutes in cooking time, in addition to keeping the kitchens smoke and pollution free .
We have trained more than 200 community members and selected CM Promoters to be able to set up a micro-business. There are eight CM models for different target groups, such as kitchens for families, livestock, and business models serving hostels, hotels, and schools.
IPS: When did the project start?
SK: We have been working with efficient energy since 2012. The technology was adapted from the contiguous area of Nepal, the Ilam district. All the models we have adopted come from the Nepalese organization Namsaling Community Development Center. This is due to the cultural and climatic similarities of the region. Unless the models are appropriate for the local culture, communities will not accept the technologies.
IPS: Who are the beneficiaries?
SK: The beneficiaries are the local communities of 30 villages in which we work, since these people are totally dependent on firewood and live in the vicinity of the forests.
IPS: What are the health benefits of using MC, especially for women and children?
SK: Women spend more time in the kitchen, which means that young children who depend on their mothers also spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Definitely the smoke-free environment in the kitchen must have a positive effect on health, especially respiratory conditions. Also the kitchen is cleaner, as well as the utensils. And then the lower consumption of firewood means that women spend less time collecting it, thus saving themselves from fatigue.
IPS: What do the beneficiaries say?
SK: The response from the people who adopted this technology has been positive. They say that CMs consume less firewood and give them a lot of convenience to cook in a smoke-free environment. The women told us that their kitchens look cleaner, as well as the utensils.
IPS: How much does it cost to have a clean kitchen? And can a home do it on its own?
SK: It costs about $ 37 to make one. ATREE only contributes the labor costs… Of course we support training, mobilization, monitoring and outreach and extension. And yes, there are many houses off our project sites that have embraced this technology as well. The material used for clean cooking is made locally, such as bricks, cow dung, salt, molasses, and pieces of iron.
IPS: Do you have a goal regarding the number of households you want to cover in a certain period of time?
SK: We intend to provide 1,200 units to the same number of households. But, depending on the uptake, we are going to expand (that amount). Our main goal is to make this sustainable and not something that is distributed for free. Our model is the selection and training of community members.
We want these trained community members to become resource people and organize themselves into a micro-enterprise of CM promoters.
Translated by Álvaro Queiruga
Photo: Women and children are the main victims of indoor air pollution in poor rural areas of India. Credit: Athar Parvaiz / IPS