A recent survey in Nagpur revealed that 43% of the 1,500 households surveyed in the city’s slums continue to use chulhas for cooking and heating even as most of them have LPG connections.

The Silent Killer: Assessing the Impact of Biomass Burning on Women’s Health

Research in the field has established that women and children are disproportionately impacted by indoor air pollution

At 5am on a May morning, as we made our way through the narrow bylanes of Adivasi Nagar, a slum colony in urban Nagpur, we could see thick smoke arising from the homes that were almost stacked on top of one another. As we passed by one such house, we spotted a frail woman bent over a traditional chulha (a brick stove which is used to burn solid fuels for cooking and heating in several households), preparing the daytime meal for her family. She gave us a weak smile and wiped her watery eyes but really couldn’t get herself to greet us warmly from behind the toxic soot billowing out of her chulha

This sight of women—who over the years have spent hours preparing and then cooking on the chulha—is common in several parts of India. In addition to rural households who extensively use chulhas, several homes in urban slums also rely on biomass for their cooking and heating needs as clean cooking fuel is often not accessible or affordable to them. While husbands, in-laws and others might insist on a “chulhe ki roti”, which as per traditional notions is tastier than the one prepared on gas, women especially belonging to the poorest sections of society have no choice but to continuously and frequently inhale the smoke that comes from burning biomass like wood, crop residues, cow dung and in some cases even plastic to ensure their families are well-fed. 

Several women who use a chulha for cooking complain of eye irritation, cough and difficulty in breathing. These are just surface-level symptoms that they experience which, over the years, makes them vulnerable to serious respiratory issues, cardiovascular diseases and even lung cancer. Research in the field has established that women and children are disproportionately impacted by indoor air pollution, which is a result of burning solid fuels for heating and cooking. Pregnant women are likely to face adverse outcomes such as still births, low birth weight babies and infant mortality due to the continuous exposure of smoke. 

For instance, Poonam Markam, a daily wage earner from Siddheshwari slums in Nagpur, Maharashtra continues using the chulha even in the ninth month of her pregnancy. With a meager income of Rs8,000 per month, Poonam’s family of five cannot afford to refill an LPG cylinder every month putting her and the unborn child at grave risk of the health impacts that come along with inhaling the toxic fumes. With a history of miscarriage in the past, Poonam is now anxious about this pregnancy. Her case is just a representation of the hardships that women undergo while cooking and feeding their families in the absence of affordable clean fuel. 

A recent survey conducted by Warrior Moms, a countrywide mothers network and the Centre for Sustainable Development (CFSD) in Nagpur, Maharashtra, revealed that 43% of the 1,500 households surveyed in the city’s slums continue to use chulhas for cooking and heating even as most of them have LPG connections. The survey revealed that 81% respondents who use chulha experienced coughing compared with 23% respondents who only use LPG. Similarly, 65% respondents using chulha faced issues like eye irritation as compared to 18% who only use LPG. Women reported spending anywhere between 4 and 5 hours every week gathering firewood and said they mostly rely on biomass to meet the additional needs of heating water during the winters. 

Dr Sameer Arbat, Pulmonologist from Nagpur, said that constant exposure to chulhas for several years puts women at a higher risk of developing COPD and lung issues. “By the time the women come to us, they have already had high exposure to the chulhas for several years and the symptoms have already been aggravated and there is very little that can be done to avert the damage,” he added at the launch of the policy brief based on the Nagpur survey in June 2022. 

The problem at hand is more complex and multidimensional than it seems. It is deep-rooted in patriarchal and socio-cultural norms, social-economic status and issues with affordability and availability of alternative cooking solutions. 

While the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana has improved the overall LPG coverage with over 9 crore connections being distributed across the country until January 2022, it has unfortunately not translated into increased adoption of LPG as the primary cooking fuel. As we have seen in the study in Nagpur, despite having an LPG connection, close to 43% of the households continued using the traditional chulha. This is despite the challenges of collecting firewood and other biomass to prepare the chulha, which is time consuming for women and girls and often puts them at risk. 

Even as most women acknowledge the hardships that come with burning biomass in households including the impact to their health, they are forced to continue its use in the absence of alternatives. More than half the women in our study reported using LPG but said that this is at the cost of cutting down on their groceries and other household expenses. As of August 2022, the cost of an LPG cylinder in Maharashtra is at Rs. 1053.

Cooking fuel represents a difficult choice for tens of millions of women in Markam’s position— between the family’s finances and personal health. Unfortunately, for most, the former comes out on top. Any avoided costs from compromising health is however likely to be temporary, as cumulative healthcare and medicine costs, even if they come delayed, grow exponentially and throughout one’s life. Some studies have estimated that the averted ill health attributable to clean cooking alternatives can result in lower household medical expenditures

Despite the magnitude of the problem and the various challenges involved in bringing about the transition to clean cooking, currently there is only one scheme at the national level to deal with it—the PMUY—which in its current form aims to improve access and availability to LPG. Handling the issue needs a robust mechanism at the policy and the implementation level in states and the centre. 

Some of the key recommendations that are a part of the policy report created by Warrior Moms and CFSD are as follows. Given that biomass burning results in indoor air pollution, which contributes to 30-50% to ambient air quality across India, the National Action Plan to control air pollution needs to prioritise this issue. We found that Nagpur’s city’s plan has zero budget allocation to make the shift to cleaner energy sources in households. It is also significant to map vulnerable households to provide LPG subsidies. At the state level, there is a need for policy intervention to supplement PMUY and address the gaps in its implementation on ground. Alternative cooking options such as smokeless chulhas and electric chulhas run on solar panels can be tested, piloted and possibly scaled up. While some such initiatives have been launched and piloted in the state and across the country, there is an absence of a larger strategy at the policy level to scale them up and ensure that the alternate solutions are efficient and pocket friendly. In addition to this, the government needs to strategically invest in research and development around clean cooking alternatives. 

All these interventions can only help when they are accompanied by behavioral changes as well. There is a need to underline the labour and health impacts that the women have to go through to ensure that the family can eat ‘chulhe ki roti’ and that can only happen by constantly engaging with local communities, sensitising them and most importantly providing them with affordable and efficient alternatives. 

*Neha Saigal is the Head of Programme-Gender and Climate at Asar Social Impact Advisors and has several years of experience in building and sustaining movements and networks with diverse partners and stakeholders. 

*Ankita Bhatkhande is an Associate Communications and Engagement Strategist for the Gender and Climate Programme at Asar Social Impact Advisors. She is a former journalist and has worked in various leading newspapers covering education and communities.  

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