Ujjwala scheme has not freed Indian women from hazards of household smoke

Household Air Pollution (HAP) killed 600,000 Indian women in 2019. International Women's Day should serve as a reminder that there are more serious 'air pollution' issues than Delhi's AQI in winter

Representative Image
Representative Image

Purnima Niraj Singh

As the sun sets, a cloud of smoke rises from many Indian homes, especially in rural areas across the country but also in houses of the urban poor. This is the time for preparing the evening meal, a responsibility shouldered almost exclusively by women. They plod on day after day with watery eyes and sore throats.

While urban India romanticises “chulhe ki roti” and insists that some Indian food taste best when made on the chulha, cooked on ovens lit by charcoal or wood, little attention is paid to risks associated with the inevitable smoke from the chulha that women bear with.

The use of solid fuels like coal, wood, dung and crop residues have been used for generations to prepare food on simple stoves we traditionally refer to as chulhas. This results in household air pollution (HAP), especially in homes with poor ventilation, exposing families to severe health hazards and contributing significantly to diseases. In India, HAP accounted for nearly 600,000 deaths in 2019. Globally 4.3 million deaths per year are attributed to household air pollution and in India, HAP has an average contribution of 30-50% to ambient air quality across India’s urban and rural areas.

According to various data, household air pollution (HAP) from combustion of solid fuels for cooking mainly coal and biomass fuels (wood, coal, crop residues, dung) has been ranked as the second global cause of disability adjusted life years (DALYs) and a major cause of reduced life expectancy in South Asia.

And yet, we don’t seem to prioritise the reduction of HAP arising from biomass burning in homes, creating havoc for the health, well-being, livelihood and equity for women across this country. Our discourse is limited to the winter pollution in Delhi arising from vehicles, construction dust and thermal power plants, which are all very important causes to highlight, but not sufficient if we want to tackle air pollution which is a public health crisis.

This International Women’s Day, I would like to take the opportunity to highlight the importance of making clean cooking fuel accessible to women from all backgrounds if we want to reach gender equality and tackle air pollution.

The first publication in international health literature highlighting impacts of HAP were those of Indian cardiologist Dr Padmavati in the late 1950s, where the only explanation for a serious heart condition in young rural non-smoking women was the heavy air pollution from cook-fires.

Post this, several studies from the 1980s have shown the health effects associated with HAP exposures especially among women and children. Apart from respiratory and heart conditions, evidence also suggests that exposure of pregnant women to HAP could lead to low birth weight babies and pre-term births.

As a mother, it worries me to think of the future of children in this country who are continuously exposed to toxic smoke in their homes at least 2-3 times a day.

The Modi government’s flagship programme, the Ujjwala scheme has done little to provide respite from this urgent problem facing our women and children. Studies have shown that the affordability and accessibility to LPG has been a barrier for households to make the switch to clean fuel for cooking and heating in their homes. This, accompanied by the steady increase in LPG prices, has been a further deterrent for accessing clean energy in homes.

Can you imagine a poor household in a slum in Ranchi paying close to INR 900 for a cylinder? In Jharkhand, this should become a priority for our state government which has been progressive on fighting air pollution, but more urgent steps are required. The recently released National Family Health Survey-5 suggests that only 31.9 per cent households in Jharkhand have access to clean fuel for cooking.

It is much worse in rural areas, where coverage is at a dismal 19.5 per cent, much lower than the national level where 58.6 percent households and 43.2 percent rural households have access to clean fuel for cooking.

As a woman, and a Member of the Legislative Assembly, fighting air pollution especially household air pollution is a priority and I will urge all states to tackle this issue at war footing. If we want to become a 5 trillion dollar economy, we have to prioritise the health and well-being of women especially those that are poor and vulnerable.

HAP is a huge health risk to women and using a holistic approach to tackle this is the need of the hour. One centralised scheme is not going to change anything on the ground. The government must consider LPG subsidies, other clean energy alternatives and adopt an approach that puts women at the center of decision making.

(The writer is a Congress Member of the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly from Jharia, Jharkhand)

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