Safe and locally-sourced clean energy eludes Siddapur taluk due to government apathy

Uttar Kannada

The people of Siddapur taluk—while living in a region with an abundant supply of renewable resources like wood—continue to use old-fashioned chulhas putting their health on the line and inadvertently causing ambient air pollution thanks to to the administration’s failure in providing a clean energy solution using local resources.

A smoky situation

Indira was making chai on her chulha as her mother-in-law Devi welcomed me into their tiny, thatched house. The smoke from the chulha filled the kitchen—which doubles up as the living room. I asked her if her traditional chulha isn’t easy to use and she said, “Our eyes burn all the time. We cough all the time as well.”

Indira and Devi are two of tens of thousands of people in Siddapur taluk, in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, who still bear smoke spewed by chulhas to cook food, bake arecanut, and do several other things that need thermal energy.

The popularity of firewood in Siddapur

Firewood is a popular energy source in Siddapur, as it is a mountainous region with a dense forest cover of 60 to 70 per cent. A vast majority of people are forest-dwellers and firewood is abundant. Naturally, firewood is a popular choice. According to the human development report of Uttara Kannada, 70-80 % of households in Siddapur taluk use traditional fuels like firewood for cooking.

The problem with traditional chulhas

While firewood is sustainable and affordable, the chulhas used are old-fashioned ones that spew smoke packed with harmful particulate matter (PM) that settle deep in your lungs. Furthermore, the efficiency of a traditional stove is less than 20 per cent.

Rural India, Siddapur Taluk in particular, sees significant household ambient air pollution. In fact, a recent study showed that the extent of pollution from traditional chulhas has been underestimated for years.

“Traditional cookstove burning is one of the largest sources of pollutants in India. We found it is a really big problem; this is revising what people knew for decades,” said a researcher involved with the study, Rajan Chakrabarty, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Indoor ambient air pollution is severely underestimated as there is no conversation on it despite it being one of the biggest mortality-risk factors. “People have been using it since the old days so we are all just used to it. So, no one really complains,” said Indira, a member of the SC/ST community working as a laborer in Doddamane village.

The problematic alternatives

There are modern alternatives to chulha such as LPG, bio/gobar gas, and wood gasifiers. However, they are problematic for several reasons.

People in the taluk were apprehensive of LPG. “People shy away from LPG because they are scared it will blow up,” said Indira. More importantly, LPG is a fossil fuel, and supplying non-renewable energy from a faraway place to a place that can fully rely on clean energy is debatable.

And, gobar gas is prohibitively expensive.  “Only Brahmins and Gowdas can afford gobar gas. We also don’t have access to dung,” said Shashikala Haslar, a labourer from Doddamane. They also need a lot of space. “Brahmins live in this neighborhood. They ask us to leave but we have nowhere to go. So, we have to make do with the little space we have. No room for a toilet even, let alone to set up gobar gas,” said Indira. Furthermore, studies show exposure to carbon monoxide which is present in the smoke that comes of burning wood lowers blood oxygen levels, a condition linked to anemia. This condition is even more common among rural Indian women as they also lose blood every month through menstruation.

According to the Ministry for New and Renewable Energy, a two cubic meter family-type biogas plant costs around Rs. 17,000, with subsidies ranging from Rs. 4000 to Rs. 8000. It could be argued that even the subsidized price is out of reach for the daily-wage laborers in Siddapur. The MNRE has no information on the capital cost of a family-type wood gasifier. Subsidy schemes exist only for village-level installations.

Since the alternatives to chulhas are not convincing, firewood seems to be the most feasible. There are safe alternatives to traditional chulhas like wood stoves and smokeless chulhas. But, there is little awareness. “Never heard of smoke-free chulhas,” said Shashikala Haslar.

Astra Ole

A type of Astra ole developed by IISc (Image courtesy IISc)

When asked if she had heard of smokeless chulhas, Indira said, “I have heard of it. But, since no one in this neighborhood has one, it never occurred to me to get one. I have never heard anyone mention it in this or any surrounding villages. I have seen it on TV. There is a TV show called Banuvarada Baadoota on Kasturi channel where the chef cooks on an Astra Ole.”

Astra Ole is a smokeless, three-pan efficient stove that was developed by the Center for Sustainable Technologies (formerly Centre for Application of Science and Technology for Rural Areas—ASTRA) at the Indian Institute of Science, a prominent research institute in Bangalore. The stove has an efficiency of 40-50%, compared to 10 percent in traditional chulhas. And, no smoke.

The taluk sees a four-month-long (June to September) monsoon period during which using firewood is a struggle. “We have to stock up on it beforehand,” said Indira, pointing to the backyard which had a pile of firewood stocked up for the day and the next. An efficient modernized chulha would greatly reduce the effort to stock up, on a daily basis, and especially for the monsoon season. 

LPG is front and center

While wood stoves and smokeless chulhas were invented decades ago, the state and local administration do not seem to have taken effective measures to popularize them.

In order to construct Astra Ole in villages, the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology (KSCST) had used a two-tier training programme. A group of 19 project assistants, one for each district, was trained for two weeks in making Astra Ole. The group was sent to different districts to carry out training of local artisans, according to the information on the KSCST’s website.

When asked if the government has ever promoted smokeless chulhas, Indira said, “No. They promote only gas. There was a programme for SC/ST through the Panchayat wherein LPG was offered for free. I’m a member of the local Gram Panchayat for this ward and I go to the meetings. The Astra Ole or smokeless chulhas have never been mentioned.”

Firewood is freely and easily available in this area, but you see fewer and fewer people getting it in this neighborhood as Siddaramaiah is doling out LPG for free. So is the central government. Only the first month usage is free, but the existence of such schemes encourages people to get LPG, said H G Naik Kodige, a labourer from Kyadagi village.

“Never heard from the government regarding this. We have only heard about electricity and voting,” said Shashikala Haslar.

A former Astra-ole maker’s view

Manjunath Golikai Hegde, a former and the only Astra Ole maker in his time in the whole of Siddapur taluk, explained how he got into making Astra Oles and why he stopped. “I modified the carbon exhaust pipe in such a way that the heat that was leaking out was reduced. Basically, I built an air control system that increased the efficiency of the wood. In fact, I manufactured Astra Oles for ten years before I had to stop, as I could not keep the business profitable. I could not find enough workers locally, apart from age catching up with me,” said Hegde. “Also, there was no support from the government. The government is pushing for LPG very hard. LPG in village households has become a common sight.”

Failures of the administration

The taluk sees significant ambient indoor air pollution.

The stoves which were initially built under the National Project on Demonstration of Improved Chulhas (NPDIC), are now apparently being built under other schemes such as People Housing Scheme and National Rural Employment Programme, according to the information on the KSCST’s website.

But the local administration in the Taluk says otherwise.

“Right now we don’t have any scheme or initiative to promote Astra Ole. We did have a training programme many years ago. But, since then and right now we don’t have any programme in place,” said Kamakshi Naik, Taluka Audit Officer, Siddapur Taluk Panchayat.

“The Astra Ole training programme initiative never came to us. It is in the jurisdiction of the Taluk Panchayat. We don’t have any programme in place,” said Sumana Satish Kamat, President, Town Panchayat, Siddapur.

While the local administration initiated a programme to popularize smoke-free chulhas such as Astra Oles, the importance given to LPG seems to have pushed smoke-free chulhas to the background. They seem to have given up too easily on smoke-free chulhas, while people are still interested in owning smoke-free chulhas.

“I would very likely get it. But, people buy these things only if they see other people buying it. If people see how convenient it is then they will buy it. It doesn’t even need a lot of firewood, I’ve seen it. It would make a world of a difference,” said Indira.

Poor efforts to drum up improved chulhas

The central, state, and local administrations have failed to drum up awareness about improved chulhas, in comparison to the amount of publicity LPG schemes get. The central government’s LPG scheme has its own website. Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah’s LPG scheme Mukhyamantri Anila Bhagya Yojane got a special focus in the 2018 state budget announcement. In comparison, the administration seems to have sidelined publicity efforts for chulhas. The last significant promotional programme run by an administration at any level was the National Programme on Improved Chulha that started in 1984. However, funding to the programme was stopped in 2002.

Apart from Astra

Apart from the Astra Ole models, there are several others that the administration could have looked into. For instance, a Pune-based alternative energy startup joined hands with IISc to develop a biomass fuel and stove called Oorja in 2010, that is nearly smoke-free and more affordable than LPG. Also, the top American university Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a fuel-efficient smokeless wood stove back in 2010—that costs just five dollars. There are several fuel-efficient options to the traditional chulha that the administration can or could have looked into, to popularize improved chulha.

The bottom line

Ultimately, it seems that the people of Siddapur taluk—while living in a region with an abundant supply of renewable resources like wood—continue to use old-fashioned chulhas putting their health on the line and inadvertently causing ambient air pollution thanks to the administration’s failure in providing clean energy solutions using local resources.

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