The Village Smoke

by | Dec 19, 2017

The difference in the color of the dusk sky, while returning from Dehna (one of my villages where i work) can assure one of the entry in the precincts of Mumbai city. Tall buildings were almost invisible in the scattered yellow of sunset. The phone starts pestering endlessly with notifications as it gets back into ‘the zone’. The top five notifications talks of the capital city of India, New Delhi, becoming the global hotspot for air pollution with vast swathes of the city gripped by a suffocating smog. Toxicity of the air has reached nearly 30 times what WHO considers safe. 

Coming back from a village that is a cradle of nature, to a city that is now a gas chamber, one might think of finding escape and spending the life in the village; not a luxurious life with all the modern amenities, but a healthy and perhaps, a longer one. However, this could be a single story about a village life – villagers are also facing the wrath of pollution! Their conventional methods are not so sustainable in the 21st century. Following is a story of an experience from a visit to village Belda in Haridwar district of Uttarakhand.

Clad in a torn and faded green dupatta, the woman with the silver curls on her wrinkled face who looks like a lustreless moon shining from behind the dark clouds is Tara* Devi. 66 years old, she is a mother of 2 daughters and 3 sons – her eldest son died last year of dengue. She lives in Belda, a small village that is 6km from Roorkee city of Uttarakhand. As one enters the village, there lies a series of pakka houses owned by the people who considered themselves of upper caste. The first kaccha house that one notices is that of Tara Devi. Seated with her daughters, she does not look healthy, as she suffers from some respiratory problem. She complains of the pain from her sores in joints. For the past few months, she has been taking medicine from a nearby government hospital. Yet, there has been no change in her condition. The blood report states infection in her body. She eats organic food while living a normal life in a village with unpolluted air. What could be the reason for her ailment? Was it the lack of cleanliness and sanitation?

Her day starts with cooking food followed by daily chores and ends with cooking. Every day, she lights woods in a Chullah (an earthen hearth) to cook food for herself and her ailing husband. For the past 40 years of her life, she has been using this chullah daily, albeit cooking on chullah is suffocating lungs. Her daughter explains that while blowing air to the fire, the smoke gets sucked into their lungs, which results in coughing and sometimes becomes even severe. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that promises to provide free LPG connections in name of women of the BPL households has failed to reach, even after applying twice for it. Kailash* blames himself for this, as he did not support the party who won the past elections.

Tara Devi is just one among the 142 million rural households, 85% of total rural households that burn solid fuels like wood, cow dung or crop waste, for cooking. This generates the soot in the process, which cast black shadows on the health of these people. These solid fuels emit substantial amounts of health-damaging pollutants, including particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, benzene, formaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, and polyaromatic compounds such as benzo(α)pyrene. Studies reveal that having an open wood fire in the kitchen is almost as poisonous as 400 cigarettes in an hour. The indoor air pollution caused by such low-quality fuels is responsible for a significant number of respiratory illnesses, which occur among small children.

A recent report by WHO revealed that around 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (i.e. wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal, and dung) in open fires and leaky stoves. Over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributed to the smokes of the low-cost solid fuels. More than 50% of the premature deaths among children under 5years of age are due to pneumonia caused by the particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution. Around 3.8 million premature deaths occur annually from non-communicable diseases, like stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer, resulting from household air pollution.

India accounts for 25% of the 4.3 million premature deaths that occur globally from household air pollution (HAP). According to a report by The Lancet Respiratory Medicine Commission, about one million deaths occur annually in India due to household air pollution, where the smoke released by cookstoves is the main culprit. Nearly 39% of early neonatal stillbirths were attributed to cooking fumes, according to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information that examined the relationship between biomass fuel-use and stillbirths in India.

Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana scheme, in May 2016, reserved approximately Rs. 8,000 crore to issue 5 crore connections to women belonging to the below poverty line category. The goal is to be achieved within 3 years of initiation. However, will they be successful in reaching the desired goals? What about the affordability? For a below poverty line family, getting an LPG connection is aspirational but inaccessible as the merely subsidized rate will not be sufficient to make a shift from solid fuels to modern fuels. These low-income households will still have to bear the cost of the LPG cylinder. Also, the belief? Some families believe that the cooking through biomass is better for digestion. Not just Kailash and Tara Devi, millions of people in India are going through the same problems. They are being suppressed by the people with power with caste and religion playing the role of weapons which are stopping them from coming out of this vicious circle of poverty and improving their living standards. Hope is the only thing that keeps them alive.

Going to the depth of the problems being faced by people like Poonam Devi, poverty and illiteracy are sure to be blamed. However, poor public healthcare facilities and a corrupted system cover the other side of the wall. So, what can be the solution to Kailash’s problem?

  1. Increasing the awareness – educating masses about the health effects of smoke produced from indoor biomass cooking
  2. Change in the design of conventional chullah – providing proper exhaust for the smoke to move out of the house, and to employ complete combustion of fuel
  3. Spreading awareness about the government subsidized health and development schemes
  4. Filing the petition at PM grievances and tracking its status regularly

*Names and images changed to protect identity

*Featured photo by 2017 cohort fellow Saurav Verma

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