Feature story

Out with the smoke

A ‘clean cooking programme’ is improving the health of thousands of village households by getting them to ditch their polluting kitchen stoves


matul Nisha spends plenty of time in her kitchen and that once was a serious health hazard for the 57-year-old matriarch of a 14-strong joint family from Rawakhanipur village in the Ayodhya district of Uttar Pradesh. The source of Ms Nisha’s misery was the chulha (a stove that burns wood and biomass) she used to cook food.

For Roshani Mishra, a college student living in Anjana village, also in Ayodhya, every meal made at her home brought with it coughing bouts and watering eyes. Ms Mishra, who aspires to become a doctor, felt helpless watching her mother, who did most of the cooking for the family, suffer every day. “Our chulha spewed smoke and my family had frequent health problems,” she says.

‘Black roofs, black lungs’

In tens of thousands of village homes in India, women use chulhas to cook, and they bear the brunt of the ‘black roofs, black lungs’ blight that eats into their health. Ms Nisha and Ms Mishra are done with the ordeal and they are part of a health-affirming change in Rawakhanipur, Anjana and other villages that have made the shift from smoke-filled to safe and comfortable. “No longer does cooking mean suffering,” says Ms Nisha.

The spur has been the ‘clean cooking programme’ (CCP) of the Tata Trusts, launched in 2015 and currently operational in select districts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Implemented in collaboration with a clutch of different partners, the programme promotes safe, efficient and affordable cooking solutions. The objective is to reduce household pollution in rural communities and there is a long road to cover.

A mixed-method research approach, with monitoring technology (sensors) for quantitative analysis and field surveys for qualitative understanding, has been designed to study a group of 500 households, some using clean cooking solutions and others traditional cooking methods. The intent was to better understand and contextualise the drivers and barriers in the adoption of clean cooking solutions.

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India sees nearly a million deaths every year due to health issues arising from smoke inhalation. The number of fatalities is large because about half of the country’s population, mainly in rural regions, cooks indoors on stoves and open fires where the fuel is wood, biomass and coal. It’s a social practice with a huge impact on health (tuberculosis, heart disease and stillbirths are all linked to smoke inhalation).

Rural thrust

While promotion of clean cooking solutions is the aim, the programme incorporates other elements as well through an approach that banks on awareness, access, affordability and adoption. It encourages, cajoles and convinces rural communities to opt for smoke-free cook stoves, with implementation models varying in different regions based on the local context.

Induction cooktops are the preferred option in villages with electricity and gas-based stoves are offered in other locations. Making villagers aware of the advantages of solar energy for lights and stoves is another way that has been explored.

Creating awareness in the community has been an important part of the overall initiative. This has been quite a challenge, with village women reluctant initially to give up the traditional chulha. To counter such hesitance and to educate the rural populace about the dangers of indoor air pollution and smoke-related ailments, the Trusts and its partners, Dharma Life in Uttar Pradesh and SEWA in Gujarat, rolled out a behaviour change communication plan.

A host of campaigns, including door-to-door visits, workshops, street plays and even a state-wide cooking competition were organised to promote clean cooking. Adoption of the cleaner stoves has improved consequently, with younger members of the household leading the way. “They understand the benefits of clean cooking and are keener to try them out,” says Suryansh Nagar, a project manager with Dharma Life.

The access and affordability part of the transformation task falls to teams of local women trained by Dharma Life as village-level entrepreneurs. These Dharma Life Entrepreneurs (DLEs), as they are called, have been critical to the clean cooking initiative. Apart from safe stoves, these women also sell products such as solar lights, water purifiers, mosquito nets and sanitary products.

Cost roadblock

In the beginning stages of the programme, the Trusts found that the cost of the clean cooking stoves was a big roadblock for rural communities. As a way around this, financing solutions were brought in to make the stoves affordable for villagers. “Revolving funds and consumer credit were offered to potential beneficiaries to help them adopt these solutions,” says Mr Nagar. “This has helped boost sales.”

The cooking contest was organised to change traditional ways

Cooking up change

It can sometimes take a cooking competition to change cooking practices. Dharma Chef, a cooking contest held in the villages of Uttar Pradesh where the clean cooking programme is operational, has worked wonders in triggering the adoption of safe cooking methods among rural women.

Launched by Dharma Life and supported by the Tata Trusts, the competition has helped create awareness about the causes of indoor air pollution, its impact on human health and the need for clean cooking solutions. This multi-stage contest sees village and district-level winners competing to become the ‘Dharma Chef state winner’.

“Our people go around the villages and get people to participate,” says Suryansh Nagar, a project manager with Dharma Life. “In each such event, around 200 people turn up to watch 10 participants cooking on induction cook stoves. The cooked food is then served to the audience.”

Dharma Chef contests have encouraged a large number of villagers in Uttar Pradesh to opt for clean and safe cooking methods and buy induction cook stoves. “Previously, the adoption of these stoves was slow, but Dharma Chef has made a difference to sales,” adds Mr Nagar.

Adoption is a major challenge, though. “This programme has been designed around the understanding that unless there is sustained use and adoption of clean cooking solutions and subsequent reduction in usage of traditional stoves in the household cooking stack, improvements in health and quality of life cannot be achieved,” says Ganesh Neelam, zonal head, Tata Trusts, and executive director, Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives, an associate organisation of the Trusts.

No precise figures are available to measure the improvement in health in the rural communities where the programme has taken root, but anecdotal evidence suggests there has been a change for the better. For instance, in Amsin village in Ayodhya, where more than 90% of residents now have gas connections, there has been a sharp fall in tuberculosis cases.

The clean cooking campaign will take time to cover more extensive ground, but it has shown how rural communities can be prompted and persuaded to say goodbye to gas-chamber kitchens.

Roshani Mishra from Anjana village in Ayodhya breathes easier these days