Up in Smoke

Why India is still looking for a perfect cookstove

Enrico Fabian / The Washington Post / Getty Images
Enrico Fabian / The Washington Post / Getty Images

ON MANY MORNINGS, especially in winter, a pall of smoke hangs over the villages of Palwal district in Haryana, a landscape of tractors, brick kilns and new colleges. It’s the haze of thousands of hearth fires burning in the courtyards of homes, boiling dal, baking rotis, and producing fine particles of soot and other pollutants at levels as high as that of Delhi—arguably the world’s most polluted city, only a few hours’ distance from here.

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.

ON 2 DECEMBER 2009, a few days before global climate talks in Copenhagen, the United Progressive Alliance government announced the launch of the National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative. The programme was intended to spur the development and sale of modern chulhas—cookstoves—that would burn dung and wood while minimising producing smoky emissions. “Success,” the government said, “could well have a transformative impact not only for our own citizens but also for the energy poor in other developing countries.”

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    Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. She has written for The Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times, among other publications. She is on Twitter as @winterapples.

    Keywords: Air pollution cook stove Energy