Transforming Lives Of Tribal Women With Energy Efficient Cook-Stoves

Transforming Lives Of Tribal Women With Energy Efficient Cook-Stoves

“Our kitchens are always blackened and dark. One can easily fall sick in this soot filled environment”, said Hopanmay Hansda who is a resident of Bada Sabaikundi village. She was one of the few women from this village who interacted with us during our exploratory exercise to understand their needs and aspirations with respect to a shift in traditional cooking practices. Few months after the new chulha was constructed in her kitchen, she said, “It’s been four months that I went into the forests for collecting firewood. Whatever I had collected before making this chulha, are still catering to my needs. My kitchen is clean and now I have more time for myself.”

Oxfam India piloted improved cook-stoves in Bada Sabaikundi in 2018. Firewood piled outside households is a common visual as one steps into these, otherwise clean, villages. While living in abject poverty, forest is the only solace for these communities. They rely on forest for almost everything – firewood, food, fodder, water and livelihoods. In our very first interaction with women, it was clear that they wanted some change but they could not express their aspirations. It may be because they were used to the burden – the watery & itchy eyes, the black carbon soot, the regular bouts of cough, the drudgery associated with collecting firewood, the long hours spent in kitchen for cooking – and could not imagine a favourable change in their circumstances.

Each Adivasi household, on an average, consumes 7 kgs of firewood every day for cooking because cooking is not limited to making meals for family, rather it stretches up to preparing animal feed, heating water, boiling paddy, steam cooking oil seeds before oil extraction etc. To meet their daily requirements, women and girls usually spend 6-9 hours per day in the forest collecting firewood – weight of a headload ranges between 25-40 kgs. They largely collect fallen logs or logs felled to facilitate shifting cultivation. In the absence of alternatives, at times, young trees were also cut for this purpose. Such biotic pressure adversely impacts forest regeneration.    

It was clear that a solution is imperative either to replace firewood or to reduce its consumption whilst being mindful of the history of Government interventions that were, largely, unsuccessful. Government of India had started promoting improved chulhas in 1986 which continued for sixteen years and then shifted its focus to Research and Development. In 2014, Unnat Chulha Abhiyan was launched with a target to construct 2.75 million chulhas. Unfortunately, trails of these efforts were not visible in these villages of Jharkhand. However, there were a few recipients of LPG connections distributed under Ujjwala Yojana at one-time subsidised costs. Though communities admired the clean cooking that it offers, cost of LPG refill discouraged them from continuing its usage.

In the process, we also learnt that none of the technologies including LPG could replace firewood and we switched our focus to find an improved design of traditional chulha which can reduce firewood consumption. With technical support from Technology Informatics Design Endeavour (TIDE), new design for chulha – suitable for the necessities of this community – was developed. These designs are energy efficient, ecologically and economically sustainable. A chulha can be built for Rs. 1500/- only. Made of locally available bricks and soil with a design that is not a major departure from the traditional ones, these chulhas were easily accepted by the communities. “This chulha is very much like the ones that we were using. We can make it ourselves. External support is not required to maintain it. I am saving a lot of time and energy that was earlier being spent on cleaning the soot from utensils. The best part is that cooking takes less time and I don’t get irrigation in my eyes. It is a big relief.”, says Helen Hansda.   

Helen got the new chulha in her kitchen when first batch of 80 chulhas were made; not every household gave their consent for chulha construction at the first instance. More so, because every household could not afford to even pay for the bricks then; delayed monsoons led to paddy crop failures which provided cash incomes to communities. Families whose male members had migrated, were in a better position. So, the communities decided to pool in the resources to help all interested households.

It took them time to see the difference and change their behaviour to adapt to the new designs. Majority of the households of Bada Sabaikundi have now demolished their old chulhas.

261 chulhas have been constructed till now across seven villages in Sundarpahari block which are working at 33 percent efficiency (estimated conservatively). Going by this estimation, each chulha will potentially remove 3 tonnes of CO2eq per year. Communities saw its benefits for themselves over a period of time. The recently constructed ones were in village Gardih where every family contributed and raised a resource pool of Rs. 6000/- in no time. This is a remarkable shift!

Our objective was not to expose communities to advanced technologies and modern sources of energy but the emphasis was on arriving at a sustainable solution to reduce firewood consumption. Because, these designs were developed in consultation with the women in the community, it catered to their needs and aspirations and they adopted it. For the sustainability of this intervention, it was necessary to develop local market for fabricated steel components and transfer the technology to the users. Few fabricators in the Godda local market and a cadre of stove constructors have been trained.

Government’s access to sustainable energy programmes for rural welfare will have to take local contexts and social aspects into consideration. Most importantly, such programmes should aim at enhancing local economic activities to increase the purchasing capacities of marginalised communities. Only then they will be able to afford electricity or clean cooking sources. Until this happens, necessity for energy efficient biomass based cooks-stoves will remain a practical necessity. We hope to see this intervention survive, even after we exit from these villages.

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