Why the Quest for Clean Cookstoves in India Is a Women’s Rights Issue

I created this video using footage I gathered during a visit to India in 2016, where environmental nonprofit Climate Healers is conducting a pilot project to bring cleaner cookstoves to rural Rajasthan.

The Biofuel Problem

3 billion people worldwide still rely on biofuel for heat and cooking.
4 million women and children die each year from breathing indoor air pollution from cookstoves.
Young tribal woman Anjana bai holds her daughter after explaining that she cannot finish her education because of household duties, including collecting firewood.

It was still dark as we drove out of the city of Udaipur, Rajasthan, early one winter morning in 2016. I could see fires lit along the roadside, indistinct figures huddled around the flames. Even within a modern Indian city, I was surprised to find that cooking with wood was still a common way of life.

We watched the sun rise over the Aravalli mountain range as we headed to Cheetarawas, one of several neighboring villages where environmental nonprofit Climate Healers is carrying out a pilot project to bring cleaner cookstoves to women in rural Rajasthan. Last year, I accompanied Climate Healers to the villages where they were conducting field tests of the Mewar Angithi, a metal grate designed to retrofit traditional stoves, called chulhas, into high-efficiency units.

Kali bai cooks rotis for her family using a traditional chulha, which is usually located indoors. The walls are blackened with smoke from the indoor air pollution.

I had become interested in the project after hearing about women in India who trekked through the forest each day carrying axes to find firewood to haul home on their heads. As the forests had begun to dwindle in recent years, they were forced to travel further afield, balancing up to 80-pound bundles of wood on their heads in intense heat that often reached 110 degrees in the summer. Once home, they breathed in toxic smoke for hours as they cooked curry and makiki rotis (corn flatbread) indoors using the wood they’d collected.

A group of village women finish their daily ritual of collecting and carrying loads of wood home to use for cooking.

Close to half of the world’s population still uses firewood or charcoal for cooking. As a result, 4 million women and children die each year from indoor air pollution caused by cookstoves, according to the World Health Organization. In India alone, cooking with biofuel causes 1 million women and children to die prematurely every year, often from pneumonia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Children often play in the kitchen while their mothers cook and are therefore exposed to indoor air pollution from burning biofuel.

I learned of this from Professor Udaykumar, who teaches mechanical engineering at the University of Iowa. He and his students had collaborated with the founder of Climate Healers, Dr. Sailesh Rao, to build solar ovens for the villagers, but the project had ultimately failed due to challenges with energy storage. Professor Udaykumar went on to help Rao develop the Mewar Angithi, which, as he explained in a TEDx talk on the University of Iowa campus, was a simpler yet more effective solution in the end. In lab tests, the Mewar Angithi reduced wood use by 63 percent and reduced smoke by a staggering 89 percent.

Professor Udaykumar and Rao recognized the potential ripple effect the Mewar Angithi could create for women living in these villages. While preventing unnecessary deaths and deforestation were the main objectives of the project, the Mewar Angithi could also help free up one of the women’s most valuable assets—time. If the Mewar Angithi could cut down on the amount of hours women spent gathering firewood, perhaps they would be able to use that time to go to school.

The first time I visited the villages, I was surprised by how haphazard the homes in the hillside were, which were made of crumbling brick, palm leaves, and branches that offered no true escape from the elements. The people were shy and kind, saluting us with their customary greeting “Ram Ram,” invoking the Hindu deity with palms pressed together in front of their chests.

A young girl stands in front of her home, which is partially open to the elements and has dirt floors. Some homes have electric light bulbs, but none have running water.

During the winter, the landscape was dry and parched, save for the occasional sprawling banyan tree. Rao told me that the villages in the area were named after predators like cheetahs and tigers that used to roam the area but that have all but disappeared today due to deforestation.

The women were small and physically fit, with dark eyes and brightly patterned skirts. The women were constantly in motion, I observed, whether caring for children, cooking, tending cattle or the fields, or carrying heavy pots of water and bundles of wood. The older women had worn hands and weathered skin, signs of a life filled with manual labor.

One morning during my visit to the villages, I accompanied the women to collect firewood. It was 8 a.m. when they departed, walking along the road in sandals with hand axes perched over one shoulder. Soon, they veered away from the road and took off for the hills. My translator and I struggled to keep up as we followed the women up a steep incline, littered with loose rocks.

At the top of the hill, two of the women found a large fallen tree trunk. They went to work breaking it apart one blow at a time. The cool morning air had dissipated and was replaced by searing heat that beat down on their backs. They worked together to split the log, taking turns hacking at each side, blades alternating in a seesaw motion.

Sigri bai takes turns swinging an axe with Shanti bai (not pictured), working together for more than an hour to break apart a large log to carry home for firewood.

It was mid-afternoon by the time the women returned to the village. They headed home with the loads of wood on their head to start a fire for the evening meal. While I was exhausted, thirsty, and hungry by the end of the excursion, I knew it would be hours before the women would be able to eat or drink any water.

During the trip, Climate Healers made house visits to survey the women in the villages. Most women who were using the Mewar Angithi reported burning less wood when cooking and having “no tears” in the kitchen, instead of the eye irritation they usually experienced from indoor smoke.

I also interviewed the families we visited to learn the impact of the Mewar Angithi in other areas of life, such as education. One couple I spoke to said collecting wood less often has made it easier to let their children study instead of help with chores. Shanti bai, a mother of five who lives in Cheetarawas, said she wanted her daughters to learn to read and write in Hindi, an opportunity she had never had. She, like many villagers, is illiterate and speaks only the tribal Mewari dialect.

University of Iowa graduate student Kayley Lain weighs a stack of Mewar Angithis to see how they’ve held up after several months of use.

“It is important to get literate,” said Shanti bai. “If we are educated, we can get a job and earn money and feed ourselves.”

Shanti bai and her husband Jagaram ji are sending their 16-year-old daughter Sunita to a boarding school in a town 120 kilometers away called Mavli. Shanti bai says she and her daughter in law do the housework in order to allow her daughter to study.

“If she will study, then she will be happy later,” Shanti bai said. “And, if I will make her work, then she won’t be able to study well.”

Jagaram ji attended school through the eighth grade, and said the experience helped shape him. “I think education is good, and therefore I made my daughter go for studies,” he said. “Not every daughter from this village is uneducated.”

According to Jagaram ji, views toward education for women and girls are changing. “When I was in school, only boys went to study,” he said. “Since girls will go to a different house when they get married, parents thought there was no point in teaching girls. Today, both boys and girls are going to school, but still girls ratio in school is less compared to boys.”

Their daughter Sunita, who was visiting home on a school break, said she preferred her life in Mavli to being in the village. “My parents want me to get an education and do something good with my life,” she said.

Shanti bai said many villagers take their daughters out of school to help in the home.

“Many parents do not have enough understanding of education, so they send their daughters to the field,” she said. “In those houses, where there is no one to help in the work, then the children will help in all the work.”

Sunita, 16, is attending a boarding school in Mavli.

The Mewar Angithi has shown promise of relieving some of the burden on women and children in rural Rajasthan. While Climate Healers is still conducting field tests of the Mewar Angithi and seeking funding to deploy on a larger scale, the device has the potential to help women and children who have little recourse to change their circumstances alone. In these communities that are facing extreme poverty, the potential upside is great.

To learn more about Climate Healer’s Mewar Angithi project, visit climatehealers.org.

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