The silent killer of the rural kitchen


One of the least acknowledged forms of pollution is the kitchen pollution in rural India. The smoke from the burning of biomass fuels causes severe respiratory and other diseases in women. Dr. Ramakrishna Muley writes about this issue and the life-altering benefits of the smokeless chulha invented by his institute.

Energy is the prime mover of economic growth and it is a wheel of modern economy. Future economic growth crucially depends on the long-term availability of energy. India is a developing country and it needs more energy to accelerate the rate of development. India is the sixth most energy consuming country in the world. The energy resource is constant, but energy consumption increases day by day. So each country requires more energy efficient equipment for their development.
There are three ways for efficient energy conversion
(a) Discover new energy resources
(b) Minimise the energy losses
(c) Waste heat recovery

The health hazards

More than 70% of Indians live in rural areas and they use traditional wood burning chulha (stove) for cooking their food. This type of chulha currently in use in villages operates at an efficiency level as low as 6-8%. This results in increase in demand of firewood that accelerates the felling of wood, resulting in deforestation. This has a disastrous effect on people’s health. Respiratory illness affects the health of a huge number of low-income people living in rural, underserved areas of the world, who still cook indoors with biomass fuels (e.g., wood, crop residue, charcoal or dung). Nearly 2.4 billion people, which is more than 1/3rd of the entire global population, use biomass as their primary source of energy for cooking and heating.

Smoke from the traditional chulhas during cooking is one of the major causes for ill health of rural women and children. Acute Lower Respiratory Infections (ALRI) refers to various infections of lower respiratory tract mainly caused by bacteria in developing countries – the most serious case of which is pneumonia. According to WHO, 36 per cent of all ALRI is attributed to Indoor Air Pollution (IAP) from the use of biomass fuels for cooking, heating and light. In a typical household cooking with biomass fuels, the level of particulate matter (LOPM), which is one of the health damaging pollutants due to IAP, is as high as two to twenty times higher than what the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) considers a safe level and ALRI is not the only burden due to IAP. Studies have shown that Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in women above 45 years has a strong and consistent association with IAP. COPD is estimated to claim 106,000 Indians every year. Other outcomes for which evidence is moderate or tentative, include asthma, low birth weight, tuberculosis, cataract, parental prenatal mortality, nasopharyngeal cancer and laryngeal cancer.

A prototype of the new smokeless chulha

A prototype of the new smokeless chulha

A chulha which doesn’t smoke!

However, with a little effort, it is possible to increase the thermal efficiency of these chulhas considerably. The smokeless chulha is a low-tech solution to enable healthy indoor cooking. This chulha has been developed to fight the ill-effects of indoor air-pollution, a silent threat.

Energy efficient smokeless chulha would reduce:

  • Firewood consumption substantially
  • Pressure on CPR/forest
  • Time and effort on collection of firewood
  • Smoke related health hazard as women are at high risk due to long exposure to smoke
  • Environmental hazard, and thereby make their utility economical & efficient

Benefits of the chulha
Social benefits:

  • Less time spent cooking and collecting wood
  • Reduction in indoor air pollution means healthier women and healthier families
  • The slow cooking chulha fits the lifestyle and nutritional needs well
  • More living space up as less firewood stored

Environmental benefits

  • Lower fuel wood consumption. It uses up to 50% less firewood than traditional chulha
  • Less need to cut trees for firewood, therefore increased green cover
  • Reduced carbon emissions and indoor air pollution levels
  • Its design is such that adequate oxygen is supplied in the cooking area continuously. This results in efficient combustion, which in turn results in: a)higher temperatures b) up to 80% less smoke.

Economic benefits

  • Its fit with all types of biomass fuel makes the chulha an economical cooking solution
  • No recurring or running costs
  • Modular construction gives chulha a longer life
  • Less indoor pollution means healthier families and less spending on medical care
  • Entrepreneurs earn significant supplementary income making and selling chulhas

Health benefits

  • Healthier indoor air quality benefits young children and women who spend maximum amount of time in and around the kitchen
  • Easy cleaning option reduces risk of injury

How else does this chulha score?

A rural household uses upto 3000 kgs of firewood per annum. Average cost of firewood is ` 2 per kg. Since the improved chulha uses 50% less firewood, a rural household using this chulha will save 1500 kg for firewood in a year. This translates into savings of Rs. 3,000 per annum or Rs. 250 per month. The monthly income of a representative rural household generally is Rs. 2000. A saving of Rs. 250 notionally increases the purchasing power of this family by 12.5%. This is very significant increase and will be reflected in raised living standards.

Also consider this: 1500 kg of firewood saved means saving of at least three full grown trees. If an entire village of say 200 firewood burning households adopts improved chulha then this village will be saving 600 tress per annum. This is equal to about 1.5 acres of forest area!
We, at the Sri Sri Institute of Agricultural Sciences & Technology Trust, Raipur centre, implemented a pilot project for Bhilai Steel Plant of Steel Authority of India under its Corporate Social Responsibility initiative. The project was implemented at Chhattisgarh where we installed these chulhas. The project was found to be successful by the Bhilai Steel Plant. They have in fact asked us to train a few BPL (Below Poverty Line) women who will make these chulhas for installation. The idea was to generate some income for BPL women.

We have observed that there is need of more efforts to make people aware about the smokeless chulha. People must be aware about the benefits of using smokeless chulha over traditional chulha. If people are healthy, the society will progress.

Dr.Ramkrishna Muley is Chairman, Sri Sri Institute of Agricultural Sciences & Technology Trust, Bangalore.