Addressing Household Air Pollution and Celebrating Cooking : Dharma Chef

Household Air Pollution (HAP) is emerging as a major health risk and is responsible for more  than 4.3 million premature deaths globally every year. The biggest and most common contributor to HAP is the use of biomass fuels for cooking in our traditional cookstoves. Availability of free biomass, free traditional cookstoves, and our age-old and ingrained cooking practices, which revolve around these traditional cookstoves make these polluting and health threatening cookstoves quite attractive and ‘comforting’ to majority of rural households.

Making these household move from cooking on traditional cookstoves to LPG or other clean cooking solutions such as induction stove, advanced biomass cookstoves can result in substantial economic, health and environmental benefits. Yet, households have been very stubborn in their use of traditional cookstoves and fuels. The transition from traditional cookstoves to new generation cooking devices is excruciatingly slow and frustrating.

While there are many factors such as product performance, cleaner fuel availability and pricing that can be attributed to this continued use of inefficient traditional cookstove and slow adoption of dvanced biomass cookstove, the need for behaviour change has been identified as of the most significant factors. In fact, some studies suggest that it might be even more critical than the economical factors.

“Empirical work demonstrates that people do not make decisions by taking into account all costs and benefits. People want to conform to social expectations. People do not have unchanging or arbitrarily changing tastes. Preferences depend on the context in which they are elicited and on the social institutions that have formed the interpretive framework which individuals see the world.”- (Mind Society and Behaviour, World Bank, 2015).

The transition is complex for a common user. The complexity of transition often decides against the health and economic benefits of the clean cooking devices. It requires them to adopt to a new device, a new way of cooking and probably some compromise on the taste.

“It overcooked my rice.”

“The chapatis were not as good as my regular chapatis.”

“My family did not like the taste of food prepared on this.”

“I cannot cook my regular dishes on this.”

The above are the most common remarks one gets to hear in the early transition efforts. The transition becomes a drab and often there are negative memories that get associated with the new devices.

These problem forced us to take a different route for promoting transition to clean cooking devices. Something that was not dull, something that was exciting and resulted in associating positive memories with the transition. Something that excited and motivated users enough to make them find a way to overcome the early adoption challenges.  We launched a cooking competition for rural households: “Dharma Chef”.


Dharma Chef participants making “chapati” on induction stoves.

A multi-stage state level competition in which participants cook traditional and fusion dishes on clean cooking devices (such as induction stove, or advance biomass cookstove). While on surface it was just like any other cooking competition, it was designed to achieve the following:

  • Motivation:  motivate users to adopt, improvise and develop new ways to cook traditional dishes on these new devices.
  • Education: Create awareness about the challenge of household air pollution and need for clean cooking devices.
  • Celebration: Celebrate cooking skills of rural cooks and associate positive memories with these devices.

The campaign is doing very well on all these counts. We have got people to make “Roti” on induction.. Something that many consider quite a challenge.. The event not only gathered the women (who take the responsibility of cooking in rural India) but their whole family participated. They cheered them up while she cooked. The campaign is also making all the winning recipes compiled into a cookbook and the next steps is to make the videos available on dedicated youtube channel.

Dharma Chef campaign is being run by Dharma Life and supported by Tata Trusts. At present the campaign is running in Gujarat but soon it is going to be launched in other states as well.

Lighting Up Young Minds

A reading session with solar lights

A reading session with solar lights

One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood.
-Agatha Christie

Indeed, a happy childhood is something that every kid deserves. On this literacy day, we started something that was our contribution to add happiness to some childhoods. We (know more about what we do) started a campaign titled “Lighting Up Young Minds”. The objective of this campaign is to inculcate the habit of reading in rural children and make it a fun activity.

Personally, I vouch for the magical effect that reading has on growing up children. It can transform and transfigure childhoods. Unfortunately, our rural kids often do not have either access to quality reading material; or the boring academic books have made reading a drab and dull activity. We want to make reading a fun activity and inculcate the habit of reading.

So, we partnered with Pratham Books for getting some quality reading content and conducted reading sessions at more than 250 locations to start the campaign. We reached more than 17000 children in a single day.

Each reading session was followed by a painting competition and some fun activities for children. From ‘Chhota Bheem’ to ‘Indian national flag’… their imagination captured it all.

This is just a start for us. We are looking to reach more than 100,000 children on by this Children’s Day. We want to make this a regular event and get more people, partners to engage in this. Drop us a line in the comments if you want to contribute in our this goal.

Killer in the kitchen

Several news articles highlighted the deteriorating air quality in Delhi and its impact on health. Many of my friends and colleagues started contemplating options that can save them from air-pollution. They discussed options ranging from buying masks and air-purifiers to shifting to a city with better air quality. These frequent news and articles about air-pollution made them really concerned.

Mainstream media has an unparalleled capacity of influencing our priorities. However, mainstream media is very stubbornly selective in what it chooses to highlight and what it chooses to ignore.
One such issue that never got duly highlighted by the mainstream media is the impact of household air pollution (HAP) on health.

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

Annually more than 4.3 million deaths occur due to HAP. The deaths are caused by HAP from household cooking. HAP is a silent killer in many households. The majority of victims are women and children from economically backward rural population. These households use solid fuels such as wood, crop-residue, dung, charcoal etc in their traditional cookstoves, often made of three stones put together. There are more than 3 billion still dependent on solid fuel for their cooking energy needs (see here for more info).
These lives can be saved if these households shift to cleaner cooking fuel such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG), electricity; or improved biomass cookstoves which can be used with solid fuels but emissions are within the permissible safe limit. In fact, improved biomass cookstoves make a very good case for replacing traditional cookstoves. These can be used with locally available fuel and are considerable cheaper (cost USD 10–70) than LPG. Sadly, moving from traditional cookstoves to clean cooking devices is not an easy transition.
LPG is expensive and access to reliable and affordable electricity is limited. Furthermore, households have limited budget for cooking fuel and stoves. Many households build their own cookstoves and collect fuels at nominal or no cost. This makes them reluctant to spend a significant sum of money from their limited resources. Households are also not aware of the extent of health risk. Most believe that smoke is just an irritating inconvenience associated with cooking. In some areas, LPG distribution network disappoints many of the households that aspire to get LPG.
There are behavioural challenges as well. Households have been using traditional cookstoves since generations. The traditional cookstove is central in many of rituals and festivals. Switching to a new cooking devices often requires changing the way a person cooks or compromising the convenience of their age-old cooking methods. Improved cookstoves are also not seen as aspirational as LPGs or induction cooker. Several households also do not feel comfortable paying the upfront cost of improved cookstoves despite its economic and health benefits.
All of the above challenges are surmountable. But the issue itself has not got its due attention from policy makers and most importantly from the users of traditional cookstoves. Households do not feel the need to move from life threatening inefficient traditional cookstoves. They have limited awareness on its ill-effects and fail to see the benefits of clean cooking devices in context of its cost.
Creating mass awareness about the ill-effects of emission from traditional cookstoves, and need for switching to a clean cooking device is essential in solving this problem. Our media can play a monumental role. I hope more main-stream media houses start highlighting this issue so that it goes up in the priority list of policy makers and households.