Cooking accounts for over 80% of the total household energy consumption in rural India, and biomass is a predominant cooking fuel, with firewood chips contributing to around 75% of cooking energy needs in rural areas. Fuelwood is one of the main forest products used by the poor Forest-Dependent Households (FDHs) and its use has increased in the last one and a half decades in rural India. Health implications associated with this continued dependence on traditional cookstoves in the form of Household Air Pollution (HAP) is responsible for around 500,000 deaths in India every year. This can be avoided through the adoption of Improved Cook Stoves (ICS).

Recognising the need to address these challenges in an integrated manner and engage men and VC actors while keeping women at the centre of the ICS adoption challenge, SWITCH-Asia ICS project is enabling women to switch sustainably to ICS from traditional polluting cookstoves, to ensure improvements in their health and quality of life. Environmental well-being through reduced dependence on forest fuel and an increased tree cover are some of the other long-terms impacts from this action.

The action is being carried out in the states of Chhattisgarh and Odisha to address the challenge of poor and inconsistent ICS adoption by developing and establishing a women-centred model of extension. Both these states have substantial poor and tribal population: Chhattisgarh- poor 45%; tribal 31%; and Odisha- poor 36% and tribal 23% and who are largely forest dependent. Forests in these states are the main source of fuelwood for cooking for around 19 million residents.The project is directly working with 10,000 women from FDHs.

33 years old Banti Dharua is one of the project participants and a resident of Tal Nuagaon village in Kalahandi district of Odisha. Banti lives with her husband, mother-in-law and two children. Being ignorant about clean cooking options earlier, Banti had no other choice than to depend on the traditional mud cook stove and the firewood primarily collected from the nearby forest.  Smoke from the stove, blackening of kitchen wall and the cooking vessels were her major concern related to day-to-day cooking.  Condition used to be more adverse during summer and rainy months, due to the hot and humid environment and moistened wood resulting in the poor ignition and increased suffocation within the house.

CARE India initiated SWITCH Asia II Improved Cook Stove Project (locally called as BACHAT) in Tal Nuagaon village in May 2016. A SHE (Sustainable Household Energy) school was formed with 21 women from two SHGs named, Saraswati SHG and Maa Mangala SHG to function as a platform for learning, practising and promoting clean energy options particularly, the Improved Cook Stoves (ICS). Banti being a member of Saraswati SHG along with her fellow members and other SHE school members participated in the first-ever awareness session organised for the villagers. After attending the program, she looked positive, as on deeper instance she was well connected with existing issues with the traditional cookstoves and associated hardships. Eager to learn more about aspects of household energy, implications of traditional cook stove and ways to overcome the problems, Banti ensured to attend the SHE school sessions without fail.

Motivation and self-realization were key to Banti for adopting the transformation of flame, and it has not been limited only with her but has been a sound awakening for the whole community. With her confidence, deeper understanding the challenges and a desire to lead the change, Banti encouraged other women to attend the SHE school sessions and participate in the events organised in the village under the project.The project organised a joint session between the women members and ICS manufacturers/suppliers in which 24 ICS models were demonstrated and the participants were oriented on the features of the stoves. The participants also cooked food on the stoves, assessed the performance and finally shortlisted four models to undertake further testing at the household level.

Banti is one among the four SHE school members who came forward to be the first participant for the household level testing of ICS. She selected a locally designed double pot ICS with chimney facility for the testing and received the support of her husband, who is a mason, in installing the stove in her kitchen.Though Banti was elated, she was a bit nervous too while volunteering for testing the ICS in her kitchen. Also while installing the new stove, she was worried as she had already replaced her old mud stove with the new one due to less space in her kitchen to accommodate another option and was also not sure about the performance of the new stove. But her confidence and desire to find a solution for herself and many women like her gave her courage to install ICS at her home.

Cooking in an ICS was going to be a new experience for her. She was amazed on the very first day of cooking itself seeing the drastic reduction in firewood requirement in comparison to her traditional cook stove. Banti can now easily compare the differences between the ICS and her traditional stove. It saves time on meal preparation, emits less smoke and has improved qualities of flame are some of the initial observations from the ICS testing.

With gleaming eyes and smiles on the face, Banti says, “earlier cooking with the traditional stove was a stress for me. I had a lot of itching in my eyes due to smoke, has to spend long hours in cooking and struggle to clean the blackened utensils. But with the new ICS, cooking becomes easier and cleaner. The smoke goes out through the chimney and the kitchen is free from smoke. Thanks to CARE India for sensitising us and showing women a new way.”

Banti’s husband shared that this transformation has been very beneficial to the family. He expressed, “We feel proud to be a part of the initiative being undertaken by CARE India in our village.  It will bring  a good change in our kitchen and thus, in our health and lives.”