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Tackling indoor pollution

Lanstoves and rural restaurants have emerged as innovative alternatives to battle indoor air pollution in rural households, elaborates Anil K. Rajvanshi.

Tackling indoor pollution

Last week, a forum on clean cooking was arranged in New Delhi, funded by international organisations like the United Nations, the World Bank and USAID, among others, which attracted about 600 delegates from 50 countries. The three-day forum discussed various cooking energy strategies to mitigate the misery of poor households in rural areas.

There are reports (the veracity of the data is questionable) that nine million deaths take place globally, every year, due to indoor air pollution, in rural households. Thus, various governments are dedicating moves to tackle this pollution by producing clean cooking fuels and technologies. There were panel discussions on improved biomass stoves, the supply chain of pellet fuel, solar PV cooking and ethanol stoves, and on funding and investments in this sector.
In India, this programme is being spearheaded by the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), where the aim is to provide 50 million LPG connections to the rural poor by 2020. The government claims that 30 million connections have already been provided. India today imports 90 per cent of its LPG (50 per cent is directly imported and 40 per cent is produced from imported oil), with a total outlay of Rs 32,000 crore ($5 billion), per year. Providing 50 million connections to rural households means this import bill will substantially increase.
Besides the cost, there are problems on the ground impeding the implementation of the scheme. There are instances of poor households not getting cylinders because of the lack of a comprehensible delivery infrastructure or because they are diverted to other customers. Also, even at the subsidised price of Rs 490 per cylinder, it is too costly for the rural poor. Thus, in many cases, when the gas in their cylinder is over, they go back to wood or biomass residues, which are nearly available for free.
Another scheme involves promoting electric cooking to reduce pollution. Even today, there are more than 50 million rural households which do not have any electricity; even in villages where the government claims that electricity has reached, it comes for a few hours late at night when there no cooking is done. The induction method consumes nearly 1,000 W of power. With this kind of power, a rural household can get excellent lighting and sufficient energy to operate a fan or other household gadgets.
The government is also talking about using PV solar power for running the induction stoves. Since there is no sun in the evening and early morning (when most of the cooking in rural households is done), there will be a need to store power, unviable at the moment. Besides, all PV modules currently used in India are imported. For a decentralised, rural economy like ours, we should opt for systems that convert locally available energy resources directly into heat for cooking. Liquid fuels have the highest energy density among all the fuels and are easy to transport. Thus, they should be promoted for use in efficient liquid fuel stoves for cooking.
An excellent technology for liquid fuel cooking is a lanstove developed in Phaltan, Maharashtra. It runs on diesel, which is available even in the smallest village. It produces excellent light (equivalent to a 100-200 W incandescent bulb) via a thermoluminescent mantle and the heat from the mantle cooks a complete meal for a family of five. It does not produce any smoke, smell, or particulates and since both heat and light are produced simultaneously, it is five times more efficient than electric cooking and lighting. And, diesel can be subsidised for the rural poor through the Aadhaar system.
Whenever we talk of kerosene or diesel, the first reaction is that they are dirty fuels. But, all fuels are ultimately dirty -- it is their combustion which makes them clean. Thus, the focus should be on developing excellent combustion technologies for liquid fuels. There is a need to fund R&D so that agricultural residue can be converted into liquid fuels. India produces close to 600-800 million tonnes of agricultural residue, per year. Most of it is burned after harvest, resulting in air pollution in both cities and towns. Use of this residue to produce liquid fuels can drastically reduce our petroleum import bill. However, very little international funding is available for pushing such technologies for rural cooking. Though there are worldwide efforts underway on improving stoves, the biggest problem of rural women remains the drudgery of cooking. After toiling the whole day in the field, they have to cook a complete meal for the entire family. This, together with the meagre rations from the Public Distribution System shop results in malnourishment in rural households.
To tackle this, a very novel scheme of creating rural restaurants has been proposed. These restaurants will provide clean, wholesome food to the rural poor at a subsidised price via Aadhaar cards. For normal clients, the restaurants will charge the full price. This will not only give good food to the poor but the indoor air pollution in rural households will also be reduced, besides providing women with some relief from the drudgery of everyday cooking.
Global forums, like the one held in Delhi, may not help the rural poor directly but have been successful in emphasising the problems encountered by them. This will facilitate an influx of funding, and, hopefully, bright brains to the neglected areas of development.
(The writer heads the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Phaltan, Maharashtra. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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