India has the second highest number of premature deaths due to indoor air pollution. Some 500,000 people die each year from toxic smoke emitted by traditional stoves. Modern stoves can reduce emissions and health risks.
Not many rural Indians are opting for modern stoves
Ammukutty Gopalakrishnan lights a traditional 'chulha' in her soot-covered kitchen in Keerhukara, a village in the state of Kerala in southern India. The stove has three stone blocks to place pots on while firewood is inserted in the space underneath.
Ammukutty uses a thin blow pipe to fan the flames. Despite the presence of a chimney above the stove, a thick cloud of smoke starts to gather which makes her coughs. Heavy black soot covers the kitchen's walls and pots and pans.
It's not just Ammukutty who is exposed to the fumes – her six children also breathe in the toxins. Fifty-six percent of all indoor air pollution deaths occur among children under the age of 5.
A huge health risk
Some 1.5 million people worldwide die each year from breathing in air filled with pollutants. And the death toll from indoor air pollution in India is second only to that in China.
In rural India, over 90 percent of people wood or cow dung on traditional stoves called 'chulas' to cook their food, generating black carbon. When the traditional stove is lit, a toxic blend of smoke and gases is released into homes.
Health experts say exposure to the smoke can cause respiratory infection, pulmonary disease, asthma, lung cancer, pneumonia, heart disease and even blindness.
However, pollution from traditional cooking stoves is not just a problem in India: half the world's population burns biomass fuels like wood, dung and crop waste when cooking. The fumes are not only lethal but also contribute to climate change.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), indoor air pollution is the third greatest health risk to Indians after malnutrition and lack of safe sanitation and drinking water.
Women in rural India spend many hours carrying drinking water and collecting firewood
Until recently, Ammukkutty had been cooking in discomfort for up to three hours every day.
"It was a messy affair with smoke everywhere and uncomfortable to be here and cook the daily requirements of my family but now it is very comfortable and I am quite happy."
A few months ago, the family purchased a pollution-free stove for 24 euros. It was a large sum for Gopalakrishnan who runs a barber's shop. The only other appliances that the family owns are a small television and refrigerator.
Less polluting cookers introduced
Developed by engineers at Colorado State University – thousands of kilometres away from the humble village in Kerala – the cooker's main feature is a combustion chamber, which prevents hot air from escaping and reduces smoke.
The cooker's manufacturers claim that it can reduce emissions by 80 percent, uses 60 percent less fuel and speeds up cooking time by 50 percent.
When Ammukkutty lights the new stove, the difference is quite obvious: a thin layer of smoke still rises but visibility is much higher.
"It does not give off much smoke and the emission is very negligible. The wood required is also very much less compared to the ‘chulhas',” she said. “The food is pretty tasty because there is no smoke getting into the food."
The family is now saving almost four euros each month on firewood – a significant portion of their income.
And, Envirofit, a US-based not-for-profit organization that's marketing the so-called pollution-free stoves, is keen to stress the accompanying health benefits.
G.D. Adappa, General Manager of the company's India operations, travels around five states trying to convince people to buy the stove.
"You have seen the wall is completely dark and it is black. Now if you imagine a situation where the housewife cooks in that kind of atmosphere day in and day out, it means that she is exposing herself to the smoke and inhaling it,” he said.
"This is the equivalent to smoking two and a half packs of cigarettes in a day," he claimed.
But convincing people hasn't been easy. Envirofit India is yet to make a profit and has relied on €7.4 million of funding from the Shell Foundation, a charity established by the oil multinational Shell.
For many people in poor communities, a new stove is not a priority
Modern stoves not a priority
One problem is that many familes don't see a new stove as a priority. They already have a 'chulha' and do not realize that it poses a health risk. Many families say they would rather spend the money on a new TV. And often, it's the men who make the decision about how money is spent, who are usually less often involved in cooking the family meals on smoky stoves.
Most houses in this part of Kerala are modest, one-bedroom dwellings, with mud floors and no running water. The yards are often filled with piles of tree branches, which have been cut down for fire wood.
In another village nearby, Vijayamma tries to cope with a chulha, and only occasionally using the gas stove. The high price of cooking gas means she rarely uses it.
Vijayamma admits using the chula can be unpleasant but she doesn't believe it has affected her health.
"My family members, mainly my son says, 'Why don't you buy that stove?' but I say, 'Don't worry, let's not spend that kind of money on a stove right now because I can manage with what there is. We have no problems." She said that the decision to buy a pollution-free stove has got postponed.
But while Vijayamma has delayed the purchase to save money, she continues to spend hours each day collecting firewood, like millions of women in rural India.
Using stoves that burns less wood and emits less smoke would not only be more environmentally friendly. If they could spend less time fetching firewood, poor women might help increase the family income by engaging in income-generating activies instead.
Pollution from traditional cooking stoves are a problem across much of the developing world
Illiteracy and high prices are hurdles
Other alternative stoves like solar cookers and biomass gas stoves do exist across India. However, a number of problems have been associated with them, including the need to cook outdoors, regular sunlight, poor design and maintenance and the expense or shortage of fuels.
Despite efforts by the Indian government and the private sector to push for the replacement of traditional stoves, they continue to we widely used.
Analysts Vijay Laxmi Pandey, an associate professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, believe that changing this reality won't be easy.
"I feel that in Kerala and such states it should work," she said, referring to pollution-free stoves. "But Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan are less developed states, where the literacy rate is very low for females. My study shows that health problems are very highly linked with education rates and literacy rates."
Pandey, who is an expert on indoor air pollution, also pointed out that the prices for the modern stoves are fairly high for poor farmers.
"However, people would be willing to buy new stoves if they see real benefits, if they really control the smoke and the level of fuel efficiency is high." she said.
Author: Michael Atkin (rb)
Editor: Anke Rasper