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Choking over foul air -- in rural India

The year 2016 started in Delhi with the launch of the Odd-Even traffic policy with the aim of reducing air pollution. The issue has rightly received enormous attention from all stakeholders - environmentalists, judiciary, leaders of political parties, media and the aam aadmi - as it involves health of the 18 million people of the city.

While the critical levels of air pollution in Delhi have awakened us all, the-Centre and different State governments are not doing enough to mitigate the more serious problem of particulate emission from the 150 million biomass cookstoves used in villages, affecting about 840 million people.

The gravity of the situation can be ascertained from the following fact: While 24-hour average concentration of PM2.5 (Fine particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller) in Delhi was between 180 and 289 µg/m3 as observed from SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research) data during the first eight days of this year, research studies undertaken by TERI and others indicate that average particulate emission from inefficient biomass cookstoves is more than 500 µg/m3, which is 20 times more than the WHO safe limit.

Fuelling a crisis

They also emit many other harmful pollutants including carbon monoxide and black carbon.

The toxic smoke impacts not only the health of the women who cook food, but also children. About half a million women and children die each year from indoor air pollution in India.

The decrease in the solid fuels consumption between Census 2001 and Census 2011 has been negligible.

Five States — Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal — account for nearly 50 per cent of all the households using solid fuels in the country.

Poor ventilation in most rural kitchens further results in accumulation of pollutant smoke. While the need for action is clear, socio-technical barriers and institutional challenges compound the problem.

The sector also seems to be not finding adequate attention from policy-makers and the judiciary, which through its pro-active approach has resolved many of the environmental issues in the country.

The government has launched the GiveItUp programme for urban people to surrender their subsidised LPG connections and is also withdrawing LPG subsidy for a section of taxpayers so that poor people in rural areas can be provided with LPG connections without the extra burden of subsidy.

However, various studies indicate that in large parts of India fuel stacking is very common.

Households continue to use inefficient biomass stoves to cook their main meals and LPG is used only sparingly for quick cooking such as making tea.

LPG is not the solution

While the Centre may launch a large scale LPG programme, the socio-economic, cultural and behavioural issues in the transition to LPG should be resolved.

Biomass is obtained at a zero cash cost in many parts and ours being a price sensitive society, transition to a priced fuel is challenging.

Biomass stoves are thus going to be used in the days to come and there is the need to find solutions on how stove can be better designed and increase the adoption of efficient and cleaner biomass stoves.

In the long term, all rural households could eventually be provided with LPG connections.

However, the improved biomass cookstoves programmes in India have been focusing more on improving technical efficiency, mass-scale production and providing capital subsidies.

Not enough focus provided on socio-cultural acceptability issues during stove design. Barriers may also be geography specific.

Surveys indicate that the pothole and mouth of the improved mud cookstoves are always adjusted by users to accommodate vessels of different sizes and to ensure that fast and slow cooking can be done. Without proper flame regulators in natural draft biomass cookstoves, controlling the flame is not possible.

In the case of forced draft cookstoves, while air supply can be regulated to provide remarkably clean burning, they require smaller wood chips. Users at large find the fuel processing tedious and in the absence of a market for processed fuel in rural areas, it restricts their adoption.

Further, most of the biomass cookstoves are designed to use one type of fuel, mostly firewood, for optimum efficiency, while rural households use multiple fuels such as twigs, leafs, straws and cow-dung cakes. Improper burning of these fuels can increase the particulate emission to as high as 1000 µg/m3.

Let the air out

Very often, proper design of the kitchen is neglected. It will be useful to adopt an integrated approach - an effective kitchen design with proper ventilation - along with introduction of high efficiency clean stoves so as to improve indoor air quality. The design also has to take into account compatibility with a wider variety of utensils, given diversity of foods in India, and different types of flames for easier adoption.

Novel financing mechanisms, including the joint liability group route, may also be explored to enable smaller payments for purchasing efficient stoves. Innovative marketing models for reaching out to the rural population, coupled with Stand Up India, will be required to service the improved cookstoves.

The forthcoming Budget should give due priority to the sector and include swachh kitchen under the swachh Bharat campaign.

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