Editorial: A worthwhile programme

Published in The Hindu on December 31, 2009

The National Biomass Cookstove Initiative launched recently will for the first time put the user at the centre of the efforts to develop improved chulhas. The programme that was started in 1986, and discontinued in 2002, aimed at providing improved chulhas to reduce indoor pollution and fuel consumption. It is a classic example of how developing a product for the rural masses without the involvement of actual users is destined to fail. The abject failure to understand the cooking habits and the lack of facilities to maintain the chulhas were the primary reasons for the improved chulhas not evoking widespread interest. While the programme helped in spreading awareness about the need to improve cooking practices to reduce smoke, it failed to achieve the primary objective of reducing indoor pollution. The government appears to have finally learnt from its mistakes; the latest initiative makes it abundantly clear that the cookstoves will be “easy to use and maintain” and will “conform to local cooking habits.” It also does not see the cookstoves to be “free handouts” but as “economically sustainable business solutions.”

If reducing indoor pollution was the main objective of the earlier programme, the latest initiative seeks to achieve the twin objectives of reducing indoor pollution and cutting the amount of soot emitted. Indoor pollution from stoves is a major public health issue. According to the World Health Organisation estimates for 2002, nearly 400,000 deaths were attributable to indoor pollution from chulhas. Soot arising from incomplete burning of fossil fuel and biomass used in chulhas is seen as a contributory factor to climate change, whose effects are manifesting themselves in the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and the erratic behaviour of the monsoons. The potential to slow down the pace of global warming by reducing the soot emitted from chulhas has caught the attention not only of India but of a few developed countries as well. Chulhas are used in many developing countries leading to the continual emission of soot. However, unlike carbon dioxide, the life span of soot in the atmosphere is only a few days or weeks. Hence any solution that would cut soot emission has the potential to quickly bring about discernible changes in atmospheric pollution. With climate change issues coming to the fore, it is small wonder that the quest for improved chulhas should get a fillip. Under the new programme, apart from testing the commercially available cookstoves and processed biomass fuels, work are to be taken up on developing the next-generation cookstoves and biomass-processing technologies.

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