Chulhas vs LPG: Which is the cleaner fuel?

Five experts debate the economics, science, efficiency and effects on women's health...

By Madhu Sarin
Published: Sunday 15 September 2002

It is over two decades since the 'other energy crisis' captured the imagination of development agencies. The supposedly 'inefficient' traditional cooking stoves (chulhas) used by millions of rural Indians were quickly identified as the villain due to a growing concern over rapid deforestation. The 1980s, therefore, saw a mushrooming of improved cookstove programmes. The health or comfort of the women using these chulhas was much less of a concern than saving forests. Some of those programmes continue, although they went off centrestage a long time ago.

From 1980 to 1987, some of us spent large amounts of our time working with rural women in seven states through local non-governmental organisations (ngos) -- developing locally appropriate improved chulha designs with the women, training selected women as 'chulha mistris' and providing them post-training support. We achieved many exciting successes. In some villages, having an improved chulha became a status symbol. As some women said, they couldn't get brides for their sons unless they had a 'smokeless' chulha in their kitchen. Newly-acquired chulhas were lovingly decorated with animal motifs and mirrors, and mud-washed with different natural colours.

The euphoria did not last long, though -- especially for the poor, who had no time to repair or maintain their chulhas once workload increased or the 'migration season' set in. The irony inherent in our obsession with successful dissemination of improved chulhas hit us most acutely during the four drought years in the mid-1980s. While doing a sample survey of our chulhas in the tribal Dungarpur district in Rajasthan, we found cold, abandoned chulhas inside empty houses. All able-bodied women and men had migrated in search of wage work for survival. The elders and infants left behind had little food to cook. Their improved chulhas were of little use to these people.

Women from better-off households appreciated these chulhas better. But their concerns rarely coincided with those of the project planners. They were impressed with the increased comfort due to lesser smoke in their kitchens. These chulhas protected them from the heat of the flame, caused less blackening of the vessels, and the multi-pot chulhas actually saved cooking time. A large number of women used agricultural residues for cooking, and they probably did not contribute much to deforestation. In villages that were close to forest areas, these chulhas reduced the labour required in fuelwod collection, and this was much appreciated.

But the economically better-off households had kerosene stoves for standby use. A fortunate few even had functioning biogas plants. A woman in Sukhomajri asked, "Why are you teaching us to continue battling with mud and dung. Why don't you help us get out of this difficult life?" Clearly, improved quality of life was the priority.

Today, households with higher disposable cash incomes have moved up the cooking fuel ladder by switching to liquefied petroleum gas (lpg). Given that lpg remains heavily subsidised, why should its benefits of improving the quality of life be the prerogative of urban consumers alone? In forest areas in particular, improved distribution of subsidised lpg would reduce the burden of collecting firewood and reduce pressure on adjoining forests, besides improving the quality of life in a number of ways. Making smaller sized cylinders available in the market would enable poorer households to enter the lpg market. If the use of lpg as the main cooking medium is not feasible, it could be used to supplement chulhas and women could use it for quick cooking operations.

This, of course, is no solution for the very poor, who do not have money even to buy food. The status of women within their households and communities is another major obstacle when it comes to accessing cleaner and better cooking fuels. Ever so often, we came across men (more often than not, they control the household finances) who are unwilling to spend even small amounts to increase their wives' comfort in the kitchen. One such man in Nada village, Haryana, asked, "My food is getting cooked even on the traditional chulha. Why should I pay to get a new one?"

One must not lose sight of the fact that lpg, though cleaner and more convenient, is a non-renewable source of energy. However, while the search for renewable alternatives continues, there is no justification for restricting subsidised access to lpg to urban areas.

Madhu Sarin has been actively involved with democratic development and planning issues for the past 25 years

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