The chulha politics

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Chulhas—cookstoves of poor women who collect sticks, twigs and leaves to cook meals—are today at the centre of failing international action. Women are breathing toxic emissions from stoves and these emissions are also adding to the climate change burden. The 2010 Global Burden of Disease established that indoor air pollution from stoves is a primary cause of disease and death in South Asia. As many as 1.04 million pre-mature deaths and 31.4 million disability adjusted life years (DALYs)—measure of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death—are related to exposure to biomass burning in poorly ventilated homes.

imageBut what has spurred action is the science that there is a connection between local air and global air pollution. The particles formed during incomplete combustion—in diesel cars and cookstoves—are seen as powerful “climate forcers” because they absorb light and convert it into heat. It is also found that these particles or aerosols interact with clouds and affect rain pattern. They also fall on snow or ice surfaces and make them melt faster.

Moreover, particulate matter or black carbon is short-lived. Its life span in the atmosphere is three to eight days, unlike carbon dioxide, which has a life span of 80 to 100 years. So, combating emissions brings quick results to an over-heated Planet, even though their impacts are more regional and local. The current negotiations on climate change are focused on these short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs) as a way ahead.

This is not to say that science agrees on how serious the contribution of particulate matter or black carbon is to global climate change. This is because there are good aerosols, which cool the Planet by reflecting light—and bad aerosols, which warm the Planet.

What is emerging is that the good or bad could well depend on the source of pollution. While open burning or biomass burnt in cookstoves produces particles with a higher proportion of organic carbon that scatters sunlight, emissions from fossil fuel have a higher proportion of black carbon, which absorbs light and forces heating. Seen this way, use of low-sulfur diesel has the highest net positive radiative forcing—it warms, not cools.

Politics of particles, therefore, differentiates between survival emissions of the cookstoves of the poor and the luxury emissions of SUVs of the rich. This is where action on cookstoves is failing so badly. Currently, the world cares about cookstove because it sees them as low-hanging fruit in its fight against climate change. New cookstove models mostly involve efficient cooking contraptions, which use briquettes and other processed, hence monetised, biomass. This is not bad per se because such contraptions will also reduce exposure to toxic particles. The problem is since the push for action comes from the global climate change agenda, and not health concerns, solutions offered are half-baked and even counter-productive.

The fact is however much countries like India (and many parts of China and Africa) may have modernised, the bulk of cooking in villages is still done using firewood and twigs. In India, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) collects data on energy sources of Indian households for cooking and lighting. The findings of its data collection during 2009-2010 are shocking. In 1993-94, as many as 78 per cent households in rural India used biomass as cooking fuel and in 2009-10, 76 per cent used this fuel. Therefore, in this period, when urban India moved to LPG (from 30 per cent to 64 per cent), rural India remained where it was, cooking on highly inefficient and dirty stoves.

There is a definite correlation between wealth, availability and methods of cooking. The same NSSO data shows that only in the highest (9th and 10th) class of monthly per capita expenditure does the household make the transition to LPG in rural India. In urban India, in contrast, even households in the lower class of monthly per capita expenditure use LPG. This is because LPG is highly subsidised and available in these areas.

Therefore, it is poverty that is at the root of the chulha conundrum. This is where the climate change knots get entangled. The fact is that LPG is a fossil fuel widely available as a clean cooking medium. Advocating use of this fuel to meet the needs of poor women in vast parts of the world will only add to greenhouse gas emissions.

The other problem is that any programme to reach the poor will necessarily require subsidy. The world frowns on subsidy for fossil fuel—which is partly why our governments are scrambling to remove it from kerosene and even LPG. So, what is the way ahead?

Clearly, the option would be to first recognise that transition away from dirty cooking fuel has huge health benefits and must be supported with subsidy. If LPG is subsidised and made available to urban populations, then the same should be done for rural populations. If we want benefits for both health and climate, then the option would be to increase subsidy for cleaner electricity, from biomass gasification to solar energy. These are not cheap options. That is the inconvenient truth.

Assessing the climate impacts of cookstove projects: issues in emissions accounting

India cookstoves and fuels market assessment

Project Surya: Reduction of air pollution and global warming by cooking with renewable sources

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  • There are renewable technical

    There are renewable technical options available today which can replace the "chulha" fuel, and provide the same efficacy and benefits as the LPG. The much maligned "GOBAR GAS" is one of the most viable options (its new designs can take care of low levels of gas production in winter months). However, for some strange reasons, this simple alternative has not become popular with our rural population.

    Biomass gassification is another option for community-based programs.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for another meaningful

    Thanks for another meaningful and important editorial! While I as a European do not know enough about Indian society and economy, your described "way ahead" seem logical and understandable. But I would like to add one remark about Diesel engines in cars and trucks: Unless the Diesel quality available in India is as bad as it is in North America, one solution to absorb the particles dangerous for the world's atmosphere is for your government to force automobile makers (and importers) to install particle filters in new cars as well as to add those filters in used cars. In Europe, the French automobile industry has, voluntarily, installed such filters into any of their cars since about 10 years, while Germany has started to do so many years later only, regrettably.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Insightful as it is, I am

    Insightful as it is, I am afraid there are other crucial aspects to The Chulla Politics.
    With 76% of rural India still cooking its meals using biomass (mainly firewood), it should be obvious that the much greater threat to global warming is from the inexorable collection of firewood leading to forest degradation, decimation and ultimate disappearance. In other words, if all of the 76% of rural India (and other developing countries) were allowed to switch to LPG the planet would actually start cooling down and be much less polluted. This would give us time to put in place alternate strategies like large scale and affordable adoption of solar and other non-conventional energy before things got too hot, as is likely to happen with the prevalent political economy of capitalism.
    The Forest departments (and many others) in this country are spending hundreds of crores of rupees every year on countless afforestation, reforestation, greening India, watershed etc. schemes. Yet the gap between firewood demand and supply is increasing, simply because they are not growing firewood and in any case most of the plantations disappear within 5 to 7 years. A big culprit is the Soviet era 20 Point Programme which is solely target driven and refuses to look at the outcomes of this massive, unquestioned government spending. If a fraction of the money spent on these mostly senseless schemes is diverted to subsidizing LPG in rural areas, particularly in the Himalayas and other mountain chains, the results could be dramatically different.
    Besides being the cleanest fuel available, LPG introduction into a household has a tremendous impact on the quality of life of women and the household. Ask any urban housewife if she would like to switch back to cooking on firewood because LPG is a fossil fuel? This point is often overlooked in debates and funding for clean cookstoves, how to lower indoor air pollution, related health impacts and so forth. For a rural woman, an LPG connection is an instrument of empowerment; how it helps free her time, reduce drudgery in her life and gives an opportunity to girls to be able to study seriously.
    An NGO working with poor women in Himachal on household energy issues for over a decade now has clearly demonstrated that the ÔÇÿpovertyÔÇÖ barrier to adoption of LPG can be effectively overcome through innovative loan and/or staggered payment options. The bigger problem is government policy and supply side bottlenecks in LPG distribution.
    So quite apart from the hackneyed climate change management discourse, if there is one thing that needs to be substantially subsidized especially for the BPL, it is LPG.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narain

    Dear Ms. Sunita Narain ,
    India should provide its rural population living in villages with affordable biogas technology like :
    kind regards
    Dr.Peter Riefenthaler

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The article is

    The article is interesting.

    Is it not possible to encourage community based "Biomass generators" wherein people put in animal dung, green stuff like leaves, wood, twigs and left over foods etc. and cook their food in community kitchens.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I recently attended a lecture

    I recently attended a lecture on a Chulha dveloped by Dr Gadgil and his team which has been tested scientifically made in India but used in Sudan??Surely u know about it.It addresses reducing local pollution but is designed for twigs and not for cow dung cakes.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The 'strange' reasons why

    The 'strange' reasons why biogas refuses to become 'popular' in the Indian plains seems to have two underlying issues that remain not understood and therefore un-addressed.

    One: Only the well off have enough dung to run a biogas plant. But the well off also have other better options like LPG, induction cookers and so forth. Community biogas for the 'poor' or actually 'poorer' requires sustained working with them, something which has HUGE transaction costs and these the Government departments (who are mostly in-charge of biogas programmes)are simply incapable of handling. Some good NGOs could pull this off, but governments do not fund good NGOs.

    Two: Once a biogas plant is set up and working, its regular checking and maintenance is required. Very, very few women (who actually do the dung handling and cooking) are trained to handle such maintenance work. The biogas plant therefore becomes dependent on reluctant men (if at all they are trained) or expensive maintenance service sourced from nearby towns.

    The big reason why LPG is universally popular and hassle free is that is requires little or no maintenance.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Supply of L.P.G> at

    Supply of L.P.G> at subsidised prices is neither practical nor desirable. The quantity reqd. would be huge. Transport may not be possible. Subsidy burden will increase considerably. Furthermore l.p.g. may be a clean fuel. But it is a byproduct. The other products,fossil fuels, are responsible for co2 emission. Use of improved cook stove [i.c.s.] is a viable option . Pune based NGO ARTI [which has won Ashden Award twice] manufactures Bhagylaxmi cook stove; costs about Rs. 1000; saves fuel by 50 p.c. & cooking time by 30 p.c.Some subsidy, some microfinance & some advance by buyer will help spread . The cost of saved fuel can be diverted towards microfinance repayment. If fuel is free time is reqd. for collection. The women who collect fuel would save time would save time & can be gainfully empolyed. Employment of rural women has considerable scope in i.c.s. installation. This is not romantic dream. Grameen Shakti of Bangladesh is doing this for many years. They have so far installed 5 lakh i.c.s.,14 thousand per month. India is 7 times bigger. If we install 1 lakh every month it will improve health of poor rural women. U

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • TERI has developed a

    TERI has developed a stainless steel bio mass stove which gives cleaner heat using traditional bio mass like wood, agricultural waste and dung. It saves 50% fuel and hence is efficient. It also reduces smoke by 70%. It is being manufactured by a New Delhi. For details Mr. Abhishek Khar of TERI can be contacted at his e-mail An article on this has appeared in Stainless India, Vol. 18, No. 4 front page.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • It is the economics, silly.

    It is the economics, silly. But economics is boring.

    Environment and Health are certainly not - and scientists are never able to accurately predict. This vagueness makes it easier to spook people into fear.

    And create all sorts of programs by all sorts of foundations organizing all sorts of conferences in 5 star hotels, raising all sorts of grants for vague studies, and reams of articles.

    It comes back to the economics, silly.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • That subsidised LPG is not a

    That subsidised LPG is not a very good 'economic' idea is agreed. But then which subsidy is? The question is around the politics of subsidy rather than the cost to the economy. For example, giving free power to rich farmers all over the country is not a very bright economic idea either. Or the subsidy on diesel and so forth. And to hell with carbon emissions.

    For rural area (and particularly mountain areas)the average annual consumption of LPG comes to less than 6 cylinders (it is actually 3 cylinders per year for rural Himachal). Rahul Gandhi has recently forced the government to raise the LPG cap to 12 cylinders, something that will cost the economy another Rs 5000 crores per year in subsidy. And this is mainly to benefit urban consumers and dhaba wallas (read voter).

    If this unjustified urban subsidy on LPG is re-directed to the poor in rural areas (which is difficult like PDS), there would actually be no need for improved chulla programmes, which in any case are an intermediate step. People will ultimately want LPG, just like all urban housewives. The next step could be to switch over to electricity for cooking but that is another day.......

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent. There is neither

    Excellent. There is neither improvement in the health of rural women because of use of firewood for cooking(by going in for Improved Chulhas) nor improvement in the design of Chulha itself. Our Government agencies act in stereotyped manner. There has to be innovation to improve quality in such programs. Unfortunately in India subsidies have become breeding ground for corruption. Subsidies should be linked with performance and productivity.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • What a lively conversation!

    What a lively conversation! I've been thinking on this issue for the past few months and am wondering about the viability of earthen rocket stoves. They are fuel-efficient and burn clean and can be built inexpensively using mostly local materials. Check out this short manual on building a rocket stove in Kenya published through the Permaculture Research Institute.

    Looking forward to more insights and testing out rocket stove performance and user-friendliness for rural Indian needs someday soon.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I think the focus should now

    I think the focus should now shift to electric induction stoves which are far more convenient and efficient. With electrification gaining pace, biomass based cook-stoves will be redundant

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply