Shell, UN foundations and USA spent millions on cookstoves. Where’d the money go?

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Every winter, smog settles across North India, burning people’s eyes, making them cough, and increasing hospital visits. The pollution comes from vehicles, burning landfills, crop stubble fires, and other sources.

About 25% of these fumes are from indoor open cooking fires.

The World Health Organisation is hosting its first conference this week to figure out how to protect people from toxic air—including emissions from open cooking fires.

This is a story about global efforts to cut down indoor air pollution—which kills over 3.8 million people annually—and how things got a little twisted along the way.

Start Of The Journey

Dotted with chrysanthemum and rose farms, the tiny hamlet of Parvathapura on the outskirts of Bengaluru, is where we begin our journey, in the cheerful yellow house of M. Anjalidevi. Anjalidevi is the head of the local women’s self-help group, helping its members secure loans for entrepreneurial ventures.

Anjalidevi also facilitates the sale of products that’ll improve women’s lives. “We sell solar lights, gobar gas setups, and the Green stove,” she says. The stove is the reason for our visit, so Anjalidevi sends her son to fetch one from a neighbour’s house. It’s basically a metal cylinder that burns less wood and emits less smoke than the closest alternative, the traditional mud stove, or chulha.

Parvathapura’s women are low-to-middle-income, smack-dab in the key demographic of Greenway Appliances—the stove’s manufacturer. They can afford the Rs 60 ($0.81) weekly payments until the Rs 1,360 ($18) stove is paid off. In fact, they are wealthy enough to switch to a modern stove that burns liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

So why buy a wood-burning stove? A few reasons. It’s portable and can be used outdoors. Also, Ragi mudde—a local delicacy—tastes better on firewood. It is an ancillary cooking device for them, much like the microwave is for city dwellers.

At the other end of the country, Julie Devi lives in an urban slum of migrants on the outskirts of Patna. She sits outside her dingy single-room house, a 5-month old infant, eyes ringed with kohl, at her breast. She points at her cookstove—a chulha. The awning above it is blackened with soot.

But that isn’t what we’re here to see. We’re here for her advanced cookstove. She points at a black cylinder, brand name “Envirofit”, donated by a local non-profit. The Rs 1,800-stove ($25) broke a year ago, she said. Perhaps she didn’t use it as it was meant to be used.

Greenway and Envirofit are two of hundreds of companies selling advanced stoves that burn wood, animal dung, agricultural byproducts and other biomass. The companies have been groomed by international philanthropic interests, from the Shell Foundation to the US government to Swedish furniture maker IKEA, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to solve a major environmental problem: indoor air pollution.

Globally, about 3 billion people cook on open fires or traditional stoves. More than a quarter of them are in India. The emissions have been linked to pneumonia, stroke, heart and respiratory disease and cancer. In India alone, an estimated one million lives are lost prematurely each year due to indoor air pollution.

Replacing the stoves with advanced biomass stoves, development organisations thought, would cut toxic emissions, reduce fuel use, and help mitigate climate change. Beginning in 2010, they wanted to distribute 100 million cookstoves by the end of the decade.

But studies have not borne this out.

The Research

“These cookstoves, they are still a lot better than the open fire—they are improved, but they are not close to what we consider important for health,” said Kirk Smith, a public health scientist with the University of California, Berkeley. “I just haven’t found a biomass-using cookstove that is clean enough to be termed a health intervention.”

There is a cleaner alternative available—LPG stoves, which are slowly but steadily expanding their reach across India. With the writing on the wall, some development organisations have recently pivoted toward an acceptance of LPG. Under India’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) government scheme, the poorest households get a free LPG connection but have to buy their gas stove, which can cost upwards of Rs 1000 ($13.50). With government subsidies, people can refill their cylinders for about Rs 500 ($6.75).

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