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Over two-thirds of Indians still burn wood and dung-based fuel for cooking, leading to a million deaths a year from indoor pollution

A woman drying cattle dung for household fuel in West Bengal, India (Image by ILRI/Stevie Mann)

A woman drying cattle dung for household fuel in West Bengal, India (Image by ILRI/Stevie Mann)

“The walls of my house are covered in black soot and my eyes sting when I cook,” says Pratibha Devi, 36, a resident of Mamura village in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh that has a small population of 302 people.

Like Pratibha, over two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people continue to rely on carbon-emitting biomass and dung-based fuel for cooking, according to a United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) report titled ‘Sustainable Energy For All’ – released this month.

“More than half of the global population lacking clean cooking facilities lives in India, China and Bangladesh,” says the UN report. “Here, India sits at the top as the country with the largest population lacking access to clean fuel for cooking.”

The prolific use of this cheap fuel in the absence of clean sources of energy causes staggering damage to human health, especially to the women and children of the house, say medical experts.

“Burning solid fuels produces extremely high levels of indoor air pollution,” explains Delhi-based pulmonologist Prateek Kamaraj. “As cooking takes place every day, most people using solid fuels are exposed to smoke particles at a level much higher than the accepted annual limits for outdoor air pollution. Epidemiological studies have shown a clear connection between air pollution and heart disease and stroke.”

What’s even more disconcerting is that the air pollution is often in the victim’s own home. Kirk Smith, erstwhile professor of Global Environmental Health at the University of California at Berkeley, who studied the effects of indoor cooking using solid fuels like wood, coal, and cow-dung through the 1970s, had equated an open fire in one’s kitchen with burning 400 cigarettes an hour.

The World Health Organization Household Air Pollution and Health report released in March this year states that over 50% of premature deaths among children under five are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution. Over 3.8 million premature deaths annually from non-communicable diseases including stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer are attributed to exposure to household air pollution, adds the report.

India faces a significant challenge in providing access to adequate and affordable energy. Roughly 85% of rural Indian households are dependent on traditional biomass fuels for their cooking energy requirements and about 45% do not have access to electricity, according to the UNIDO report.

A traditional ‘chulha’ or cooking stove that releases toxic soot and fumes due to burning of biomass (Image by Shazoor Mirza)

This continued use of carbon-emitting biomass across swathes of India is a real cause for concern, say environmentalists. “When resources are harvested unsustainably and energy conversion technologies are inefficient, there are serious adverse consequences for health, the environment, as well as a nation’s economic development,” explains Sharit Bhowmick, National Fellow at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, who has worked extensively in Indian villages on the subject.

Women in rural areas, adds Bhowmick, end up investing valuable time and effort in collecting fuel instead of focusing on their children’s education or income generation possibilities.

According to Aruna Kumaran Kandath of Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, who is conducting research on indoor pollution in the villages of Maharashtra, entrenched beliefs are making it that much harder to solve the problem.

“Most villagers think that since cow dung is easily available and is for free, why should they spend money on buying LPG (cooking gas) connections or gas stoves,” elaborates Kandath. “Moreover, since cooking and organizing fuel is a woman’s job, the men are far from keen to invest any money in it.”

Experts say whittling down dependence on natural resources through the augmented involvement of local government bodies as well as NGOs can go a long way in tackling the menace.

Initiatives like the one by the International Fund for Agricultural Development in the eastern state of Odisha have set good examples. Since 2004, the Fund has been supporting the Odisha Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme to improve local women’s health and diminish their dependence on natural resources by enabling the use of smokeless stoves. The programme is part of a larger initiative to improve food security and livelihoods for tribal populations in seven districts across the state.

Similarly, in the north-eastern state of Tripura, another NGO – the Adivasi Mahila Samiti – is promoting the use of smokeless stoves which, says a program officer, “is cheaper than denuding forests”.

According to ecologist Meena Kapahi, in her report, “Indoor air pollution: Sources, Health effects and Mitigation Strategies”, indoor air pollution is responsible for a high degree of morbidity and mortality, warranting immediate steps for intervention by the general public and policy makers. Cataracts and adverse pregnancy outcomes  such as low birth weight and still births are conditions shown to be associated with the use of biomass fuels, states Kapahi.

People who may be exposed to indoor air pollutants for the longest periods of time, adds Kandath, are often those most susceptible to the effects of indoor air pollution. Such groups include young children, the elderly and the chronically ill, especially those suffering from respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.

According to Bhowmik, the most important step in the prevention of illness caused by indoor air pollution is to educate the public and the policymakers to eradicate the problem from the grass root level. Systematic data about actual exposure levels to indoor air pollutants experienced by people should be collected and public awareness campaigns undertaken to diminish indoor pollutants.

Experts add that tackling indoor air pollution will also help achieve multiple Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations. These goals form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions to a better, more prosperous and equitable world.

Addressing the menace of indoor pollution will address MDG 4 (reduce child mortality) and MDG 5 (improve maternal health) while also bolstering gender equity (MDG 3). Having sustainable forms of energy for cooking will also free up women’s time for income generation that will help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger (MDG 1). Finally, clean household energy can also help ensure environmental sustainability (MDG 7).

“It’s a win-win,” sums up Bhowmik.

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