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Every winter, smog settles across North India, burning people’s eyes, making them cough, and increasing hospital visits. The pollution comes from vehicles, burning landfills, crop stubble fires, and other sources.

About 25% of these fumes are from indoor open cooking fires.

The World Health Organisation is hosting its first conference this week to figure out how to protect people from toxic air—including emissions from open cooking fires.

This is a story about global efforts to cut down indoor air pollution—which kills over 3.8 million people annually—and how things got a little twisted along the way.

***

Dotted with chrysanthemum and rose farms, the tiny hamlet of Parvathapura on the outskirts of Bengaluru, is where we begin our journey, in the cheerful yellow house of M. Anjalidevi. Anjalidevi is the head of the local women’s self-help group, helping its members secure loans for entrepreneurial ventures.

Anjalidevi also facilitates the sale of products that’ll improve women’s lives. “We sell solar lights, gobar gas setups, and the Green stove,” she says. The stove is the reason for our visit, so Anjalidevi sends her son to fetch one from a neighbour’s house. It’s basically a metal cylinder that burns less wood and emits less smoke than the closest alternative, the traditional mud stove, or chulha.

Parvathapura’s women are low-to-middle-income, smack-dab in the key demographic of Greenway Appliances—the stove’s manufacturer. They can afford the Rs 60 ($0.81) weekly payments until the Rs 1,360 ($18) stove is paid off. In fact, they are wealthy enough to switch to a modern stove that burns liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

So why buy a wood-burning stove? A few reasons. It’s portable and can be used outdoors. Also, Ragi mudde—a local delicacy—tastes better on firewood. It is an ancillary cooking device for them, much like the microwave is for city dwellers.

At the other end of the country, Julie Devi lives in an urban slum of migrants on the outskirts of Patna. She sits outside her dingy single-room house, a 5-month old infant, eyes ringed with kohl, at her breast. She points at her cookstove—a chulha. The awning above it is blackened with soot.

But that isn’t what we’re here to see. We’re here for her advanced cookstove. She points at a black cylinder, brand name “Envirofit”, donated by a local non-profit. The Rs 1,800-stove ($25) broke a year ago, she said. Perhaps she didn’t use it as it was meant to be used.

Greenway and Envirofit are two of hundreds of companies selling advanced stoves that burn wood, animal dung, agricultural byproducts and other biomass.

AUTHOR

Gayathri Vaidyanathan

Gayathri writes on health, environment and science. She has reported and produced stories for the Washington Post, Discover, Nature, and the New York Times, amongst other publications. In her last assignment, she was the lead science writer for E&E News in Washington, D.C. E&E News is a news organisation focused on energy and the environment. Over the past decade, Gayathri has travelled across North America, Africa and Asia on long-form reporting projects. She has a master’s in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's in biochemistry from McMaster University in Ontario. At The Ken, Gayathri will write on healthcare, the pharmaceutical business and the environment. Based in Bengaluru, you can reach her at gayathri at the rate the-ken.com

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