Mountain communities in the Himalayan region are almost entirely dependent on forests for firewood even though this practice has been identified as one of the most significant causes of forest decline and a major source of indoor air pollution.
Improper burning of fuels such as firewood in confined spaces releases a range of dangerous air pollutants, whereas collection of firewood and cooking on traditional stoves consumes a lot of time, especially for women.
The WHO estimates that around 4.3 million people die globally each year from diseases attributable to indoor air pollution. Women and children are said to be at far greater risk of suffering the impacts of indoor pollution since they spend longer hours at home.
Data from the Government of India’s 2011 Census shows that 142 million rural households in the country depend entirely on fuels such as firewood and cow dung for cooking.
Despite heavy subsidies by successive federal governments in New Delhi since 1985 to make cleaner fuels like LPG available to the poor, millions of households still struggle to make the necessary payments for cleaner energy, which compels them to opt for traditional and more harmful substances.
This has prompted environmental organisations like Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) to help mountain communities minimise the health and environmental risks involved in using firewood for cooking in confined places.
IPS spoke with the Regional Director of ATREE for northeast India, Sarala Khaling, who oversees the Improved Cooking Stoves (ICS) project being run by the organisation in Darjeeling, Himalayas.