By Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar
On many mornings, especially in winter, a pall of smoke hangs over the villages of Palwal district in Haryana, a landscape of tractors, brick kilns and new colleges. It’s the haze of thousands of hearth fires burning in the courtyards of homes, boiling dal, baking rotis, and producing fine particles of soot and other pollutants at levels as high as that of Delhi—arguably the world’s most polluted city, only a few hours’ distance from here.
Indian cities don’t have perfect services. Electricity may vanish for hours, and piped water is supplemented by tankers. Yet the urban elite can take one thing for granted: cheap cooking gas. Those who’ve grown up and live in well-off city homes can hardly imagine life before LPG: the long hours over slow stoves, the smells of kerosene and coal, the smoke of wood and dung. But the kitchen life of their grandmothers is still the kitchen life of millions of women in villages across India.On 2 December 2009, a few days before global climate talks in Copenhagen, the United Progressive Alliance government announced the launch of the National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative. The programme was intended to spur the development and sale of modern chulhas—cookstoves—that would burn dung and wood while minimising producing smoky emissions. “Success,” the government said, “could well have a transformative impact not only for our own citizens but also for the energy poor in other developing countries.”
The announcement preceded a year of international excitement around an innovation known as the clean cookstove, aimed at replacing the polluting traditional village stoves of Asia and Africa. Businesses and international non-profit organisations became interested in funding and distributing these stoves. The Indian government set a target of getting 150 million stoves into rural homes over ten years, and joined hands with the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and the XPRIZE Foundation—an international non-profit that incentivises innovation to solve the world’s problems—to create a global contest to invent the cleanest-ever biomass stove. A Gandhian problem was sought to be fixed with a high-tech Nehruvian solution.
Last November, five years later, I found myself in the gleaming bowels of Delhi’s Le Méridien Hotel. Down blue-lit glass stairs, past a room hosting the 10th Annual Summit on Capital Markets (“Increased Regulation and Governance: Boon or Bane?”), people from around India and the world had gathered for the India Clean Cookstove Forum 2014, organised by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, in partnership with international funders and non-profits. In the world outside, television news was swamped by celebrities and CEOs debating the intriguing problem set them by a new prime minister—how to get Indians to use toilets and sweep streets. At the cookstove forum, delegates asked: how can we make this as big as Modi’s Swachch Bharat campaign?
Years after its big launch, India’s stove mission is going nowhere. A new government is in power, and another object meant to save the rural poor is now galvanising excitement. Companies such as Indian Oil, L&T, Tata Consultancy Services and Vedanta, among others, have pledged to build toilets to stop people from defecating in the open. Meanwhile, the cookstove programme has practically vanished from view, quietly renamed the Unnat Chulha Abhiyan and downsized.
This was not the first time a big push for clean cookstoves started only to falter. The history of India’s cookstove programmes parallels the evolution of the global development agenda, shaped by the geopolitics of each era—saving forests in the 1970s, improving women’s lot in the 1990s, preventing global warming in the 2000s. Since the 1970s, development agencies and governments around the world have spent millions of dollars promoting clean stoves as the solution for a succession of big problems. These programmes reflect a yearning, among nation-builders and international donors alike, for silver bullets—objects that are quantifiable technological solutions, but also symbolic, such as vaccines, mosquito nets and toilets.
By Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar