Date of Release: April 20th, 2015

Published in: DNA

In terms of health costs, indoor air pollution accounts for twice as many lives lost in India than outdoor pollution.

The issue of environmental conservation has gained in public importance because of the significant administrative measures (Air Quality Index) and judicial decisions (NGT rulings on diesel cars and construction projects) taken towards addressing environmental concerns.

The focus however, has largely been on outdoor air pollution in India’s major towns and cities – especially Delhi/NCR. Unfortunately, this overlooks two important realities about air pollution in India. First – indoor air pollution is as big a threat as outdoor air pollution from vehicular and industrial emissions, thermal power plants etc. Second – rural parts of the country are disproportionately affected by indoor air pollution.

In terms of the economic costs, indoor air pollution is almost as detrimental to our economy as outdoor pollution. In terms of health costs however, indoor air pollution accounts for twice as many lives lost in India.

 Indoor air pollution  Outdoor air pollution
Economic loss (as a % of GDP)  1.3%  1.7%
No. of deaths in 2010  13 lakh  6.2 lakh

Source: Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges in India & Global Burden of Diseases Report

The causes of indoor pollution are several and varied and most of these are linked intimately to livelihoods and household habits in several parts of the country. In rural India, the use of biomass as cooking fuel is the primary cause of indoor air pollution. According to estimates from the last Census in 2011, biomass is used for cooking in 67 percent of all households in India, including 87 percent of rural households. This is far above the average of other regions like China, South-East Asia, Middle-East and Latin America, and about the same as Africa.

Source: World Energy Outlook 2014 –  Traditional use of solid biomass for cooking 

The other major concern is the rampant use of kerosene as a fuel for lighting and other purposes. Even today, about 43 percent of rural households and 31 percent of all Indian households use kerosene – often called the poor man’s fuel, for lighting purposes. Its impact on health and environment can be threatening, particularly through the soot emitted from unvented kerosene lamps.

Steps have been taken by the government to curb indoor pollution. The real problem, however, lies in the scalability of models which were intended to replace traditional fuels like biomass and kerosene. For example, the National Biomass Cookstove Initiative (NBCI) of the Central government, which is now being implemented under the ‘Unnat Chulha Abhiyan’ targeted dissemination of 27.5 lakh improved cookstoves/chulhas in the remainder of the 12th Five Year Plan period.

Past experience, though, suggests that the cookstove models disseminated have not proven to be sustainable. The guidelines for this scheme do talk about supporting R&D activities on the development of efficient and cost-effective designs, and to provide support for test centres for performance testing of such models. Encouragement for innovation and local stakeholder involvement will hold the key to the success of any such initiative. According to a Lancet study, the stakes are high as distribution of improved chulhas to a majority of rural households has the potential to reduce by 17 percent, the number of premature deaths and disability from respiratory infections, heart disease and bronchitis in 2020.

When it comes to the replacement of kerosene for lighting, the only long-term solution is to move towards universalisation of access to electricity. The present government is implementing its vision of ‘Power to All’ under the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana. However, the real benefit to health and environment will happen only if kerosene is replaced by renewable sources of energy – in particular wind and solar. The electrification of 1,500 villages in Chhattisgarh achieved in the last 10 years through the instalment of four to 15 kilowatt solar power mini-grids by Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Authority (CREDA) under the Remote Village Electrification Programme of the MNRE is a case in point.

The challenge to the environment from indoor sources of air pollution is clearly much more than what is generally perceived. The solutions to the problem though, are not impossible to find. The key lies in encouraging innovation, spreading awareness to enhance stakeholder participation and creating effective policy incentives to encourage the use of renewable power. We owe this to ourselves and our health and wellness.