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
01 April, 2015

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.”

The announcement preceded a year of international excitement around an innovation known as the clean cookstove, aimed at replacing the polluting traditional village stoves of Asia and Africa. Businesses and international non-profit organisations became interested in funding and distributing these stoves. The Indian government set a target of getting 150 million stoves into rural homes over ten years, and joined hands with the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and the XPRIZE Foundation—an international non-profit that incentivises innovation to solve the world’s problems—to create a global contest to invent the cleanest-ever biomass stove. A Gandhian problem was sought to be fixed with a high-tech Nehruvian solution.

Last November, five years later, I found myself in the gleaming bowels of Delhi’s Le Méridien Hotel. Down blue-lit glass stairs, past a room hosting the 10th Annual Summit on Capital Markets (“Increased Regulation and Governance: Boon or Bane?”), people from around India and the world had gathered for the India Clean Cookstove Forum 2014, organised by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, in partnership with international funders and non-profits. In the world outside, television news was swamped by celebrities and CEOs debating the intriguing problem set them by a new prime minister—how to get Indians to use toilets and sweep streets. At the cookstove forum, delegates asked: how can we make this as big as Modi’s Swachch Bharat campaign?

Years after its big launch, India’s stove mission is going nowhere. A new government is in power, and another object meant to save the rural poor is now galvanising excitement. Companies such as Indian Oil, L&T, Tata Consultancy Services and Vedanta, among others, have pledged to build toilets to stop people from defecating in the open. Meanwhile, the cookstove programme has practically vanished from view, quietly renamed the Unnat Chulha Abhiyan and downsized.

This was not the first time a big push for clean cookstoves started only to falter. The history of India’s cookstove programmes parallels the evolution of the global development agenda, shaped by the geopolitics of each era—saving forests in the 1970s, improving women’s lot in the 1990s, preventing global warming in the 2000s. Since the 1970s, development agencies and governments around the world have spent millions of dollars promoting clean stoves as the solution for a succession of big problems. These programmes reflect a yearning, among nation-builders and international donors alike, for silver bullets—objects that are quantifiable technological solutions, but also symbolic, such as vaccines, mosquito nets and toilets.

More than any of these objects, the cookstove brings together some of the biggest issues of our time. The smoke emitted from ordinary chulhas is a top risk factor for disease, especially for women and children, who spend the most time in the kitchen. This smoke also plays a role in global warming. The process of designing and distributing a clean stove engages key policy debates: whether goods and services for the poor should be subsidised, or left to market forces; whether big national programmes are better than small, localised efforts; and whether engineering can solve social and environmental problems. The story of India’s quest for a clean cookstove has lessons for the toilet builders of today.

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.”

An early re-design of the cookstove, the Magan chulha, was named after Gandhi’s Magan Institute in Wardha, Maharashtra. Courtesy Hedon

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.”

To avert this catastrophe, Eckholm proposed massive afforestation and population control, as well as the propagation of biogas plants and household cookers. This was a small-scale, local approach to technology, inspired by the economist EF Schumacher’s influential 1973 book Small is Beautiful. Eckholm’s predictions reflected the concerns of the emerging environmentalism of that decade. His research was published by one new outfit, the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC, and sponsored by another, the United Nations Environment Program. His solutions drew on the era’s activism, summed up in the popular slogan: “Think globally, act locally.”

Less than a decade later, major international agencies were warning of a firewood crisis. In 1981, the Food and Agriculture Organisation projected that by the turn of the millennium, at least 2.4 billion people would be unable to meet their cooking fuel needs. Fear of such scarcity set the global development agenda for the following decade: governments and aid agencies launched afforestation projects in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and initiated programmes to distribute improved stoves to the poor.

In 1982, India set up the Department of Non-conventional Energy Sources. The following year, it began a pilot project to build and distribute improved chulhas, just as China, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Guatemala launched their own stove programmes. More countries followed suit in subsequent years. India’s programme focused on training women across the country to build and install various kinds of improved mud stoves, which were subsidised by up to 75 percent. The aim was to generate livelihoods for women, while ensuring a supply of stoves that would eventually sell without subsidies. Early on, the government called in a few experts to help train the women. One of them was a young architect named Madhu Sarin.

Sarin’s chulha expertise was almost accidental. In 1980, she was working with a soil conservation project funded by the Ford Foundation in the Haryana villages of Nada and Sukhomajri when she was asked by a colleague to help the communities conserve their forests. More efficient stoves would help. She found one woman in Nada so fed up with her smoky kitchen and sooty walls that she had knocked a hole in the wall to let the fumes from her chulha escape. “I knew enough about chemistry and construction to understand that smoke went up, not sideways,” she recalled when I spoke to her. The stove Sarin developed with the village women—with a cement chimney to take smoke away and dampers, or plates, to control airflow into the fuel chamber—came to be known as the Nada stove. The women even sold it to other villages.

The Nada chulha became one of the stoves selected by the government for distribution, and Sarin was part of its early meetings. But the flaws of the programme soon became apparent to her. From the start, she noted, the targets were daunting. During the pilot project, which ran for 15 months between 1983 and 1985, the government aimed to conduct 5,000 training courses, for 20 women each, and to install 500,000 chulhas.

On paper, the success went beyond any bureaucrat’s dreams: four lakh women trained, 7.5 lakh stoves installed, and estimated fuel savings of Rs 24 crore. But a survey conducted by Sarin and some colleagues, published in 1986 in the Economic and Political Weekly, found that things were very different on the ground. In Himachal Pradesh, for example, school and college girls were told they were going on a pleasure trip to Shimla, and instead bused to a training course. Old women were roped in. Training often fell short. Building a good stove didn’t mean just slapping some mud together, Sarin pointed out; it required understanding the principles of combustion, to figure out, for example, how chimney size determined air flow.

Badly trained, reluctant stove-makers meant bad stoves. In one Haryana village, 67 percent of users said the new chulhas were too high, and over half said the cooking holes were too small for their pots. In Punjab, many families found their fuel consumption increased. In Orissa, chimneys were removed because villagers feared their thatched roofs would catch fire. In one village, a row of houses did burn down. “We couldn’t talk about chulhas in that area for years,” said Sarin.

There was also a more fundamental issue: the programme’s goals were out of sync with what women wanted. While the focus was on making stoves that consumed less wood, women wanted ones that emitted less smoke, or cooked faster.

Despite these problems, the pilot project was scaled up into the National Programme on Improved Chulhas, launched in 1985 by the prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, with “technical back up” units across the country—mostly local engineering colleges—to help with stove design. Subsidies were disbursed to potters and local stove manufacturers through state governments. The new stoves caught on in states such as Maharashtra and Karnataka, where the technical units worked closely with local potters on design and follow up. But, for the most part, evaluations by the World Bank and the Tata Energy Research Institute showed, the focus on numerical targets without the monitoring of stove usage and performance, let alone provisions for repair, set the programme up for failure. The official calculations of benefits, in terms of forests saved, depended on assumptions that every chulha installed was actually used and that people only used wood to fuel their stoves. But one survey of five states found that only a third of respondents used firewood. In areas where chimney stoves were sold, villagers often accepted the chulhas for the chimney pipes, which they repurposed or sold.

In the 1980s, the “Nada cookstove,” designed by women in Haryana’s Nada village together with Madhu Sarin, was so successful that they even sold it to other villages. In that decade, the government began its first large-scale attempts to improve cookstoves. Courtesy Madhu Sarin

By the early 1990s, dismal assessments weakened the zeal for smokeless chulha programmes. Globally, studies were showing that assumptions about firewood shortages were way off the mark. Farm expansion and urbanisation were bigger culprits in deforestation. The proposed solutions for the so-called firewood crisis had also proved unsatisfactory. Many plantation programmes had resulted in commercial woodlots producing timber, not firewood, and had stripped communities of their rights to local forests.

People were simply not taking to “improved” stoves. Yet India’s programme rolled on, with the emphasis shifting to the goal of reducing smoke emissions and women’s drudgery in collecting firewood. By the end of the 1990s, the programme began to change. Subsidies were reduced; users would value new stoves more, the thinking went, if they paid for them. Manufacturers were asked to give three-year guarantees on their chulhas. With air pollution becoming a concern, some states mandated the installation of chimneys to reduce smoke exposure. But these improvements were too few, and came too late.

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.

NGOs such as the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute in Pune—which had been involved in the government programme—and the Technology Informatics Design Endeavour in Bangalore, continued to develop new stoves in the 1990s. In the 2000s, these efforts expanded further into the private sector, thanks in part to a growing microfinance movement, which gave low-income homes access to credit. The shift was driven by a new belief in the ability of business to solve the problems of the poor—a notion captured in the management guru CK Prahalad’s influential coinage “the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.” The real promise for market growth, he wrote in 2002, lay not with the rich or middle classes of the emerging economies, but “the billions of aspiring poor.”

None of the stove entrepreneurs found the going easy. Scientists who spoke to me on cookstove design frequently compared their challenges to rocket science. The technical problem is surprisingly difficult. Combustion of solid fuels such as wood, dung, coal and agricultural waste is far more complex than that of gases or liquids such as LPG or diesel. Lighting a wood stove can set off many more chemical reactions than burning gas, and the emissions process can’t be modelled easily—understanding depends on trial and error. Scientists also know less about solid-fuel combustion than they do about rocket propulsion. Stoves are not a glamorous technology, and have attracted relatively little research. A scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi told me that students are so embarrassed to be working on a stove project that they ask to call it by another name.

Just as importantly, stoves are used not by engineers in labs but by ordinary folk in the real world. The home cook might throw off calculations in any number of ways—by using a larger piece of firewood, for instance, or stuffing dung into a wood stove, or by cooking on her verandah while a breeze is blowing. India’s sheer range of cuisines, fuels and cooking styles complicates things further. Fuels vary even within a single state: sugarcane is used in western Maharashtra, in addition to dung and wood, while in Vidarbha, cotton stock also finds its way into the hearth. Each fuel combusts differently.

The challenge is reflected in the range of stoves on show at the Pune office of the global stove company Envirofit. When I visited, it had the bareness of the new, with gleaming marble floors, wood veneered cabinets, and red handprints on the entrance wall. On glass shelves, stoves shared space with figurines of Ganesha.

Envirofit’s stoves were first developed by Colorado State University engineers and adapted to the requirements of different countries. When the Indian outfit opened shop in 2008, funded in part by UK non-profit Shell Foundation (an initiative of the oil company Royal Dutch Shell), the stoves were customised further. In Gujarat and Rajasthan, where large rotlas are the staple, a focused flame left edges raw, so the firm created a model with a more diffuse flame. In Tamil Nadu, cooks would let rice boil over, so a ridged plate was needed to shield the flame. In Karnataka, cooks wanted two-pot stoves. In the northeast, stoves also had to heat the room. “We’ve had to tweak our models for every region we sell in,” Harish Anchan, Envirofit India’s managing director, said.

Adapting stoves to local cooking didn’t automatically lead to their adoption, however. Cultural behaviour sticks, and often for good reason. For instance, unlike brick and mud chulhas, portable stoves were sometimes seen as unsafe because they could be toppled over by children. But the business challenge was even more fundamental: how could families with limited incomes be persuaded to splurge upwards of Rs 800 on something they already had for free?

New designs produced for India by a variety of entrepreneurs, who have been actively wooing the cookstove market since the 1990s.

As Priyadarshini Karve found out, telling them it was good for them wasn’t enough. Karve comes from an illustrious family of social reformers in Pune (a central city road is named after her great-grandfather). She became interested in biomass stoves as an undergraduate physics student in the early 1990s, went on to design a stove for her master’s project, and then worked at ARTI, the NGO run by her father. In 2005, she set up Samuchit Enviro-Tech, a private company to sell stoves, including her own award-winning inventions.

Over the years, Karve found that even better-off rural communities were not persuaded by arguments about health, the environment, or even time saved in cooking. Women’s time and health were not valued; any family with Rs 1,000 to spare would first buy a mobile phone. She came to believe that the “aspirational value” of the stove had to be engaged. Like any successful consumer product, “the price has to be right, the benefits outstanding, and it has to look good,” she said. “It has to be cool.”

That kind of hard-sell made Karve, with her “NGO mindset,” uncomfortable. Harish Anchan, who previously worked in rural marketing at the conglomerate Videocon, had no such qualms. Early on, he had realised that sales didn’t work without follow-up or service. Neither did making the sales pitch to women—which increasingly became the focus of development funding. “Women may understand the problem but they don’t hold the purse strings,” Anchan told me. “Men have the money but don’t understand the problem. So I need to sell to both.”

Anchan wouldn’t say so, but there was also another, much bigger stumbling block. Envirofit’s stoves look good and reduce fuel consumption, but they’re some way from competing with the ultimate aspirational kitchen fuel: gas. Like most affordable clean stove brands, Envirofit stoves are what are known as “natural draft”, or rocket, stoves. These stoves attempt to regulate the flow of air into the combustion chamber—air plays a critical role in efficient combustion—through simple modifications in design. A more advanced class of “forced draft” stoves regulate airflow more efficiently through the addition of a fan. Forced draft stoves outdo natural draft stoves especially in reducing smoke. In theory, they should sell well.

A woman in Maharashtra hauling firewood for cooking. In the 1970s, concerns about deforestation drove global anxiety about wood-burning cookstoves. Education Images / UIG / Getty Images

Yet two Pune companies that produced forced draft stoves also foundered. For First Energy, set up in 2005 by British Petroleum subsidiary BP Energy, a key element of the business proposition went awry. Its stove, known as the Oorja, was designed by the aerospace engineer HS Mukunda and others at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. For fuel, it used pellets made of agricultural waste, also sold by the company. The Oorja sold well initially, but after the firm hiked pellet prices in 2008 due to rising raw-material costs consumers stopped using their stoves, and new sales fell.

Philips India couldn’t even get its wood stove onto the market. The global electronics giant poured money and time into developing a fan stove that was widely praised for its high fuel efficiency and low smoke emissions. But the price was steep: anyone with Rs 3,000 in 2009 was more likely to buy an LPG stove. To help bring the price down, Philips sought a VAT exemption, for which it helped to have government certification. But the government hadn’t updated stove-testing protocols since 2002, and could not test the new fan stoves. Even as cement and iron chulhas tested a decade earlier continued to be dispatched through public development programmes, Philips was denied a fair chance to sell the best stove yet developed in the country.

The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid was proving elusive. Good fan stoves were expensive and required batteries; more affordable stoves compromised on design and materials. All of them required a level of customisation, marketing and servicing that was hard for small enterprises to provide on a big scale. And with those prices, none of these stoves helped the really poor. The ideal stove, it seemed, would have to be as good as gas, and cheaper than a mobile phone.

Each company dealt with the challenges differently. Philips took its India stove to more mature markets in Africa, where a raft of foreign-funded stove projects had familiarised customers with the product. First Energy successfully turned to producing large stoves for canteens and hotels. Envirofit started working with corporate social responsibility programmes and microfinance networks that could sell their stoves to existing customers. And Samuchit’s Karve found a niche among urban and peri-urban middle-class consumers looking for a second stove to lower their gas bills or charmed by the smoky flavours imparted by her charcoal steamers. “I don’t pretend that I’m preventing indoor air pollution,” she said. “Anybody who says they are is lying.”

AS KARVE AND OTHERS STRUGGLED to innovate for the market, biomass stoves returned to the global spotlight as the solution to a newly urgent environmental problem. Climate change scientists have largely focused research on the effects of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas emitted by the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels such as coal and oil that is the main cause of global warming. But in the 2000s, some also began looking closely at the

role that black carbon, or soot—a component of the particulate matter released by incomplete combustion—plays in the phenomenon. In 2002, US-led scientists drew attention to a thick layer of soot and other pollutants hovering over the Indian subcontinent during winter. By 2008, studies suggested that this “Asian brown cloud” was altering the monsoon, contributing to the warming of the planet, and, by settling as a dark, heat-absorbing layer on the Himalayan slopes, accelerating the melting of snow and glacier. The sources of this soot were inefficient diesel engines, forest fires, and the burning of biomass such as wood and dung, as well as coal, for heating and cooking.

The findings were an important piece of the climate puzzle; but they were also ammunition for developed countries pushing emerging economies such as India and China to take on more responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases. India maintained that countries should not have to cut emissions while their economies are still industrialising. Faced with the challenge of providing energy to its millions of people, however, it was in India’s interests to find alternatives to fossil fuels. One option was solar energy, which got its own national mission in January 2010. But a senior Indian official at the international climate negotiating table also became interested in the mainstay of rural energy: biomass.

Shyam Saran, who retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2006, served as the prime minister’s special envoy on climate change from 2008 to 2010. In conversations with Ambuj Sagar, a professor at IIT Delhi with a PhD in polymer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as several others, he developed the idea of a new national programme. Saran learnt about the older efforts—the countryside strewn with “the carcasses of cookstoves”—and thought he understood the reasons for past failures.

Stoves had been treated as charity, he told me in an interview at his office, in Delhi, in 2013. And they were seen as low technology. “My sense,” Saran said, “was that the problem needed top-level technology.” A poor woman’s stove would not attract corporate innovation. What was needed was a national mission that would, like India’s home-grown space programme, attract the best minds and inspire young Indians to look at rural problems. At Saran’s prodding, in October 2009, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy commissioned IIT Delhi and The Energy and Resources Institute, or TERI, to come up with a plan.

Their 200-page roadmap sought to avoid the mistakes of the past. It recommended pilot projects to test the best ways to deploy and finance stoves; proposed new emission norms, state-of-the-art testing facilities, and monitoring mechanisms; and a mass-media campaign to raise awareness. The plan also suggested the link-up with the XPRIZE Foundation for a global contest to stimulate innovation.

Past failures only added to the allure of the problem: was a perfect stove waiting to be invented? The improved chulhas of the 1980s were locally built, with small improvements to traditional designs. Newer stoves such as Envirofit’s were centrally manufactured in China, but not perfect in terms of performance. Sagar and Kirk Smith, a Berkeley professor and leading expert on indoor air pollution, elaborated on the idea of a universal stove in a 2013 letter to the scientific journal Nature, drawing an analogy to car engines. These are centrally manufactured, and, with variations on the same basic mechanism, work for all kinds of cars. Similarly, scientists might be able to design an advanced combustion chamber that could be placed in stoves around the world, for all kinds of cuisines: a universal heart for the village hearth. The adoption of cooking gas in every culture showed that technology didn’t have to be local to be accepted, Sagar argued.

Some scientists rejected the analogy, including VVN Kishore, former head of the department of energy and environment at TERI University in Delhi, who responded to the Nature article. Automobile engines aren’t expected to run on different fuels the way village stoves are, he told me in a phone interview. “A car that’s filled up with LPG one day, petrol the next, and another fuel the day after,” he said, “won’t function properly.” Besides, he argued, the fuel chamber in a chulha is more like the cylinder in a car engine than a car engine itself. A stove, in its entirety, is a combustion chamber. In addition, the technology cannot be separated from human behaviour. “Think of a biomass stove as a system rather than an object,” Kishore said. The system comprises the stove, the pot that sits atop it, the fuel, and the cook. To reconcile all four at once is too big a challenge. It would be more practical, he argued, to hold design contests for ten separate perfect stoves for ten different fuels. “A quiet improvement district-wise is what we should aim for,” he said, instead of “one stove to rule them all.”

With a target of 150 million homes in ten years and the involvement of the XPRIZE Foundation, India’s National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative made headlines around the world in the summer of 2010. So did another announcement shortly after. In September, Hillary Clinton launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, or GACC, with a pledge of $60 million from the US government and other donors, to get clean energy to 100 million homes around the world by 2020 using a market approach. By upgrading dirty stoves, “millions of lives could be saved and improved,” Clinton said at the programme’s launch in Washington DC. “Clean stoves could be as transformative as bed nets or vaccines.”

A stove manufacturing plant in Gujarat. The fundamental business challenge that entrepreneurs face with stoves is the question of how families with limited incomes can be persuaded to purchase, at considerable expense, something they can already get for free. Courtesy Greenway

India did not join the alliance. Clinton had a longstanding interest in women’s issues, but as the US secretary of state, she also gave the alliance a Washington stamp that didn’t sit well ahead of climate talks in Cancun. India saw the new focus on black carbon as a way for the US to put the spotlight on developing countries, while avoiding action at home. There was also a sense that the GACC had stolen some thunder. “They saw what we were doing,” Saran said. “We were keen on succeeding as a national project,” he added, “not part of some amorphous international institution.”

Radha Muthiah, CEO of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, with Hillary Clinton at a GACC event in November 2014. Bebeto Mathews / AP Photo

Sagar agreed. “Why must the global alliance for a developing-country problem be headquartered in Washington?” he said in an interview in his IIT office, in 2013. Besides, he wasn’t sure that the GACC’s market-driven approach was the correct one. “I’m always worried when people say there’s only one way to solve a complex problem,” he said.

Within three years of the GACC’s launch, several studies had identified black carbon as the second biggest contributor to global warming, after carbon dioxide. The science was less clear-cut than the headlines about this finding suggested. Because soot is released along with other substances that have a cooling effect on the atmosphere, not all sources of soot are equally harmful. Diesel engines, for example, are more warming than biomass stoves. Yet improved cookstoves were now firmly on the international agenda; they were described as a “win-win-win” for providing health, energy and climate benefits. The UN Foundation said that better stoves would help meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which include improving public health, mitigating climate change, and enhancing the status and safety of women. Not unlike the way toilets are currently touted in India, stoves were promoted to minimise sexual assault in conflict zones in Africa—because they reduced the need for women to leave refugee camps to look for firewood.

The UN Environment Program identified replacing traditional cookstoves as one way to reduce emissions of “short-lived climate forcers”—pollutants such as soot, that dissipate quickly compared to carbon dioxide—so as to “buy time” in the battle to hold warming at bay. Upgrading millions of diesel cars and stoves was seen as cheaper and easier than getting big business to switch to renewable energy and less polluting technologies.

Suddenly, firms began to find new funds as European and US companies and agencies looked to offset their carbon emissions by financing better stoves in Africa and Asia. Madhu Sarin, ensconced in Chandigarh and still engaged in community forest rights, heard from Delhi friends in Delhi that “chulhas are back.” The new craze seemed strangely familiar. “In the seventies, we were told that poor people’s stoves are responsible for deforestation,” she said. “Now, we’re told they are melting glaciers. I find it hard to understand.”

BY 2014, the National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative seemed to have collapsed. The global contest had failed to take off. The XPRIZE Foundation failed to fulfill its agreement with the government, for which it was criticised by Smith. (Its representatives told me in an email that funding hadn’t worked out, but didn’t explain why.) A few testing labs had been commissioned, new testing protocols issued and a few thousand large stoves for schools and canteens had been distributed. Saran had left the PMO—he became the chairman of the Research and Information System for Developing Countries—and with him, the driving force behind the programme was gone.

Top officials had moved to new posts. Sagar and other independent experts lost touch or, as some believed, were kept at a distance. Many of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s permanent officers hadn’t been keen on the new programme to begin with, resenting outside experts and resisting new approaches. “Why are foreigners so interested in our villages? We should be worried about that,” a recently retired ministry official told me. Both politics and business were overwhelmingly focused on solar energy. In the manner of other deathless government programmes, the National Biomass Cookstove Initiative survived only in a few lines in annual reports. For Sagar, “India lost an opportunity to take leadership on an important issue.”

In June 2014, just as the new government was taking over, the ministry, now headed by the cabinet minister Piyush Goyal, quietly announced the Unnat Chulha Abhiyan. Everything that had gone before was the pilot phase, officials said. The new target was to distribute 2.75 million stoves by 2017—far below the original goal of 150 million. The target was distributed across states which would have to invite tenders and pay out subsidies—R300 for each natural draft stove distributed, and Rs 600 for each fan stove. The inclusion of natural draft stoves was not uncontroversial: they were held to lower emission standards than forced draft stoves, in effect reproducing the existing divide between the clean-energy haves and have-nots. But they were cheaper, and also what most stove manufacturers continue to produce. Then, in a last-minute insertion, the scheme was extended to mud chulhas with metal combustion chambers.

Subsidies, targets, low technology—India’s new programme was looking a lot like the old one. Even experts associated with the ministry were dismayed enough to voice their criticism publicly in November at the India Clean Cookstove Forum at Delhi’s Le Méridien Hotel. “We started out with the dream of a global innovation competition,” Rajendra Prasad, a professor at the Centre for Rural Development and Technology at IIT Delhi, one of the official stove-testing labs, said. “And now we’re back to mud stoves.”

The forum, which was co-sponsored by the GACC—a sign of a patch-up between it and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy—also brought out other challenges. There was widespread confusion around the ministry programme: officials from Gujarat asked how they should distribute the subsidy; a manufacturer from Maharashtra said that officials in his state didn’t know about the initiative at all. The NGO Sewa complained about receiving rusty stoves from a well-known firm. A representative from Hindustan Lever offered lessons gleaned from selling water filters in villages. “You have to climb to the base of the pyramid,” he said.

Then, at the end of the second day, Kirk Smith got up on stage and blew open the discussion with a single slide. It showed a graph plotting the particulate emissions of different fuels, from wood to coal and natural gas, against the first-ever indoor air quality guidelines, issued that very month, by the World Health Organisation. The guidelines reflect a new understanding of the non-linear relationship between smoke exposure and illness: exposure to smoke has to be reduced dramatically to produce improvements in health. Biomass fuels fall abysmally short of the new safety standards; only LPG and electricity make the cut.

“After today,” Smith told the audience of officials, aid agencies and stove entrepreneurs, “no one can say they don’t know what clean is.”

THE DAY AFTER THE FORUM, Smith met me at a cafe opposite IIT Delhi, where he had been a visiting faculty member the previous year. Smith has worked on indoor air pollution for 30 years. As an undergraduate he majored in physics and astronomy, but switched to nuclear power for his PhD after a backpacking trip through Asia. It was the 1970s—the Vietnam War was ending, the environmental movement was taking off, and he wanted to be relevant. At the end of his doctorate, he became involved in a rural energy project, and became interested in the smoke he had seen in South Asian villages. In 1981, with the help of the Indian scientist Ramesh Mehta and some borrowed equipment, he measured household pollution levels in a village near Anand, in Gujarat, including at the home of a woman named Diwaliben, whose photograph he still presents as that of “the first person to have her exposure measured doing the oldest task in human history.”

Air pollution has been recognised as a health issue since the industrial revolution, but it had largely been seen as a problem of smokestacks and exhaust pipes. In India, the spread of cooking gas made indoor air pollution a rural—and ignorable—problem. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when scientists such as Smith began studying kitchen smoke and mysterious cases of young village women getting heart disease, that indoor smoke began to be seen as dangerous. More studies on the alarming effects of this smoke emerged in the 1990s, making the issue ever more urgent. Smith completely stopped working on nuclear power. When people asked why, he said, “I told them the risks were too small.”

But it was the World Health Organisation’s 2004 Global Burden of Disease report that really made people sit up and pay attention. That study ranked pollution from household fuels as the eighth biggest risk factor for disease globally, pointing to its links with heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer—the same diseases caused, at just slightly lower risks, by smoking. “The worst thing you can do for your health is stick burning stuff in your mouth,” Smith said. “The second worst thing you can do is burn stuff in your kitchen.”

The 2004 report put indoor air pollution on the global health map. The WHO’s 2010 Global Burden of Disease report came up with more accurate estimates of the toll: smoke from kitchen fires was responsible for 3.5 million premature deaths in a year, a fourth of them in India. Factoring in stove smoke’s contribution to outdoor air pollution pushes up the number up by another half a million deaths, to 4 million—double the previous estimate. Over half of global premature deaths under five are due to pneumonia caused by inhaling soot. In South Asia, household air pollution is the second highest risk factor for disease overall and the highest environmental risk. Smoke from solid fuels is now known to carry 14 carcinogenic compounds.

The roll call of statistics is overwhelming. When I first spoke to Smith in 2013, he appeared discouraged by what had happened to India’s programme (he had been the only foreign advisor on Saran’s original plan). But in November last year, he was fired up. He had recently revisited Diwaliben in her Gujarat village, still cooking on a traditional chulha. His attention was drawn to her neighbour’s electric induction stove. “This is a great example of not seeing what you’re not looking for,” he told me. He discovered that the induction stove market in India was growing at 35 percent a year, with most sales in urban centres. As more states get reliable electricity, he figured, more people would be able to adopt electric stoves. It was, he said, “a leapfrog technology”.

A year after Smith and Sagar called for a stove innovation contest, they published an article in the journal Energy Policy, titled ‘Making the Clean Available,’ in which they called for an expansion of natural gas and electricity coverage to the poor. The number of Indians exposed to deadly household smoke, they noted, had not changed “in spite of hundreds of programmes to make the ‘available clean’, i.e. to burn biomass cleanly in advanced stoves.”

Globally, the percentage of homes relying on solid fuels fell from 62 percent to 41 per cent between 1980 and 2010, although population growth ensured that the number of solid-fuel users stayed the same, at 2.8 billion. In India, the 2011 census showed that 67 percent of the population, or 166 million, mostly rural, households, were still dependent on solid fuels—down by only six percentage points since 2001. “There is need,” Smith and Sagar wrote, “to open up another front of attack on this health hazard.”

Smith’s shifting views may also have had to do with a study he was associated with in 2013. The Delhi-based International Clinical Epidemiology Network, or INCLEN, had distributed the last remaining 200 Philips stoves in India to women in Palwal district in Haryana, and monitored their use alongside a control group for 15 months. But the results were disappointing: even with an expensive fan stove like Philips, the study found, there was only a small improvement in women’s exposure to smoke, and fuel consumption actually went up. The reasons were not far to seek.

IN PALWAL IN 2013, I met Durga, who lives in a small home with her husband and infant son, wide-eyed Vivek. She has a gas stove and cylinder, gifted to her when Vivek was born, but only uses it to make the odd, quick cup of tea for visitors. When I visited, though, she showed me how she uses her Philips stove. She fetched some sticks from her stack of firewood, broke and stuffed them into the fuel chamber, put a pot of water on top, then lit the fuel with kindling. She pressed a button on the base of the stove, and when nothing happened, gave it a whack.

The battery-powered fan inside began to whir; the flame grew strong and steady.

While we waited, she became chatty, complaining about living in “the most boring village in the world” (she grew up near Delhi) and scorning praise for her stunning multicoloured rug (“I’ve made better ones”). Within a few minutes, in not much longer than it takes on a gas stove, the water was boiling. Durga is the stove entrepreneur’s ideal customer, an NGO’s dream case-study. She likes her clean cookstove so much, she broke her mud chulha.

As the INCLEN study showed, however, Durga is an exception. Most women in Palwal continued to use their traditional chulhas—large families here usually have three or more—alongside the clean stoves. This is known as “stove stacking,” and is, as one entrepreneur put it, “the dirty secret” of the clean stove sector. International companies and agencies that fund the dissemination of improved stoves get carbon credits for the emissions saved by every clean stove. Of course, the calculations don’t add up if the stove is not used or is used only half the time, so stove distributors—whether NGOs or firms—are supposed to monitor usage or ensure that old stoves are discarded. In practice, this doesn’t always happen. One stove marketer in Pune, who distributes rocket stoves and is financed under the UN Clean Development Mechanism, told me that his clients give him a “verbal commitment” that they won’t use their old stoves. “We can’t keep going to every village and checking,” he said.

But stacking wasn’t the only reason for the continuing household pollution. In Durga’s courtyard, smoke from chulhas in other homes drifted in—suggesting that community-wide adoption is needed to make a difference to health. Emissions from a nearby highway and brick kiln also permeated the air. The hearth could not be separated from the village, nor the village from its region.

The US firm Biolite’s stove is able to charge mobile phones—one way to get reluctant men to spend on upgrading stoves. Courtesy Biolite

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.

In the meantime, Smith said, “we’ve got to make what we know is clean available.” He was encouraged by the Indian government’s new experiment with direct cash transfers for its LPG subsidy. This, he said, could help target the subsidy directly at the poor, instead of selling the gas at lower prices to everyone, and the money freed up could then help expand gas coverage. In December, LPG customers across the country received notices about the cash transfers, asking those who could afford it to give up the subsidy and give the “gift of good health particularly to womenfolk exposed to high levels of indoor pollution.”

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.”