Indian cities don’t have perfect services. Electricity may vanish for hours, and piped water is supplemented by tankers. Yet the urban elite can take one thing for granted: cheap cooking gas. Those who’ve grown up and live in well-off city homes can hardly imagine life before LPG: the long hours over slow stoves, the smells of kerosene and coal, the smoke of wood and dung. But the kitchen life of their grandmothers is still the kitchen life of millions of women in villages across India.
MODERN EFFORTS TO IMPROVE upon India’s traditional mud stoves date back to the late 1930s. A well-known early re-design was called the Magan chulha, after Mohandas Gandhi’s Magan Institute in Wardha. Less than a decade later, the Hyderabad Engineering Research Institute came up with a stove that would, it promised, give women “five freedoms”—freedom from smoke, soot, heat, fuel waste, and the risk of burns. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, a decade of economic and energy shocks, that the hearth came under real scrutiny. Two years after the 1973 oil crisis sent petroleum prices skyrocketing and exposed the dangers of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, the researcher Erik Eckholm called attention to what he saw as an equally important but neglected energy problem: the scarcity of firewood for the poor. “For more than a third of the world’s people,” he wrote in a 1975 paper, “the real energy crisis is a daily scramble to find the wood they need to cook dinner.”
Titled “The Other Energy Crisis: Firewood”, Eckholm’s paper drew a grim, Malthusian picture. The world’s ever-increasing poor were consuming firewood at unsustainable rates. Wood prices were rising, villagers had to walk farther to find firewood, and “in some Pakistani towns now, people strip bark off trees that line the streets.” The consequences were no less than the “suicidal deforestation of Africa, Asia and Latin America,” and the diversion of manure from fields in such quantities as to affect food production. “Without a rapid reversal of prevailing trends, in fact,” Eckholm warned, “India will find itself with a billion people to support and a countryside that is little more than a moonscape.”
In 2002, an evaluation by the National Council of Applied Economic Research indicted the programme for ineffective stoves, a lack of follow-up, and low participation. Irregularities and corruption were found in the distribution system. That year, the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources—upgraded from department status in 1992—shifted the programme’s administration and funding onto state governments. In 2004, the initiative was formally closed. By then, the ministry had approved more than 30 models both fixed and portable, and spent an estimated $32 million to distribute 34 million chulhas. It had been one of the largest stove programmes in the world.
As for Madhu Sarin, she had long stopped being the “chulhawali.” She’d had run-ins with “technocrats and engineers,” and gotten “knocked off government lists.” Most of all, a drought in northwestern India between 1985 and 1987 made the whole enterprise seem foolish. On a survey of Nada stoves in Dungarpur, Rajasthan, she found most of the able-bodied people had migrated for survival; in one home, she met an old man and his infant grandson sharing a single roti. “And I was asking them about improved stoves.” She moved on to work on larger issues of poverty and community forest rights, including the right of village women to collect fuelwood. As for clean cookstoves, she came to the conclusion that structural problems couldn’t be solved with single-point interventions. “Designing a smokeless biomass chulha,” she said, “is in some ways more complex than designing a nuclear power plant.”
TUCKED IN THE RAIN SHADOW of the Western Ghats, Pune is green and cool for much of the year. But under summer’s glare, the hills turn brown and the trees wither into sticks, dry as tinder. Many small firms cluster here, within easy reach of both Mumbai and the rural hinterland, including enterprises making clean stoves for the Indian market.
As India’s stove programme was running out of energy through the 1990s, concern over dirty stoves simmered in the international development sector. This culminated in the launch of the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air, in 2002, by the US Environment Protection Agency and the World Health Organisation. Interest and funding was sustained by emerging research on the health effects of indoor air pollution, and a new attention to women’s rights exemplified in the 1995 UN conference on women in Beijing.
At our interview, Smith said he hasn’t given up on the clean cookstove Until a Honda or BMW tries and fails, he said, there is still a chance of a technological breakthrough. “And if they fail, then that would tell us something too, that maybe there’s no point in solving the biomass problem.” Some stove promotion efforts have done well, when customised and closely monitored. And he was hopeful about a new fan stove from the US start-up BioLite, which has low emissions and an electricity-generating component for charging mobiles—a neat way of appealing to the men of the house.
Expanding electricity and gas coverage to the poor would mean greater consumption of fossil fuels, and, especially with India’s high reliance on coal-burning power plants, an increase in greenhouse emissions. That may not go down well with climate-focused agencies, and trade-offs are antithetical to technological panaceas. But, said Smith, “I’m a health man, not an energy man.” After 30 years, he takes the long view. “The history of modern innovation tells us about the problems we choose to solve. When did we learn human waste was bad for you? Have we fixed it?” he asked. “First, you have to know it’s a risk and accept that it’s a risk. And that still doesn’t mean you know how to fix it.”