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close this bookBoiling Point No. 30 - April 1993 (ITDG - ITDG, 1993, 48 p.)
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View the documentNEWS

Chulhas for Tibetan, Communities in India

by Tom Andrews, ApTT Trust, 6 Rockhall Rd. London, NW2 6DT, UK

Installation services for mud-built stoves are difficult to commercialize, so dissemination of chimney stoves often relies on extension workers and is unsustainable. But based on experience with Tibetan refugees, Tom Andrews argues that installation can he sustained by community installers, if the stove agency adopts the right approach at first.


Fleeing from repression in their own country, over 1 million Tibetans now live in India. Like the local Indian population, the Tibetans have in recent years suffered the harsh effects of environmental degradation.

Appropriate Technology for Tibetans (ApTT) is a non-profit making environment organization dedicated to assisting India by supporting sustainable projects using locally available technologies. One such project was the introduction of improved stoves (the Astra Ole) within several Tibetan refugees settlements in Karnataka State, South India, which began in April 1990.

ApTT's experience so far shows that non commercial projects can be sustainable, as long as the programme is:

i) appropriate to the culture and traditional structures;
ii) adaptable to local specifications and needs;
iii) based on a transfer of skills to local people.

Locally trained instructors are the key to this strategy, as they ensure stoves are well-built and carry dissemination forward.

Appropriate Channels of Dissemination

Dissemination was through existing community structures, a method suggested by Tibetan leaders.

The stoves were thus accepted and distributed through traditional Tibetan organizations (co-operatives, village councils etc). This enabled the local people to understand, feel part of and learn about the project - essential factors if the programme is to continue following the departure of ApTT. Although at times frustrating and at this stage male-dominated (the village councils and chulha constructors being predominantly male), the channelling of the project through these structures, placing the knowledge and responsibility in the hands of the Tibetans at all levels, helped the programme avoid many pitfalls.

The Use of Grants

The use of grants enabled cheap, efficient stoves (or 'chulhas') to be disseminated widely. The chulhas reached all sections of the community and after the first grants (of 50%) it was hoped the project would be self-generating. But following the training of constructors and the initial grants, several Tibetan households attempted to build their own improved stoves without the assistance of the trained constructors. These 'home-made' stoves were invariably constructed improperly, performing poorly and having knock-on effects within the surrounding communities. In order to prevent this and in response to the popularity of the chulhas, a second phase of the project with 35% grants was made available. This ensured that trained constructors would construct the new chulhas in the proper way, that they could correct mistakes in the households and that as many people as possible obtained an improved chulha.

Adaptable Construction Methods

Both the design of the chulha (adapted to fit the specific requirements of the individual household) and the maintenance training were carried out during construction and involved the primary users of the stove (who were usually but not always women). This individual adaptability was vital in providing the users with the stove they wanted tailored to their needs. Through evaluations and meetings, the improvements made by the Tibetans were incorporated back into the original design (for instance the use of a tin with a removable lid enabling the flue to be cleaned more easily, is now standard for all new chulhas). This customization, as well as the maintenance training received, contribute to the sustainability of the stoves.

Lasting Expertise

The programme aims to be self-supporting and the key to this is the training of constructors. By employing and training local people the project generates local employment. This is particularly valuable with the continued migration (both seasonal and permanent) to Indian cities, that often leaves the remaining villagers (usually women) with an increased workload. The chulha constructors employed are trained, learning a skill that following the formal completion of the project can be a valuable resource for the local community.


Despite the initial 'top down' approach of working with and through existing institutional frameworks, it is the people who daily cook on the chulhas and the constructors who were trained to build them who have taken the major initiative during the construction and evaluation phases, shaping the cookstove they want and influencing future models.

The impact of the programme is small in scale, but so far users are very positive. The general consensus is that the stoves use less firewood (10-30%), produce less smoke in the cooking area and are safer, healthier and cleaner to use (eye and lung diseases aggravated by smoke are a major problem news among the refugees). This eases a significant economic and time-consuming burden, as well as raising awareness of, and reducing, environmental damage.

In achieving sustainability, the methods used are as important as the results. By using established structures and by letting the beneficiaries dictate the project, the programme was firmly rooted in the community, relying less on outside aid and more on the people involved. The stove project has already been the initial catalyst for further developments within the settlements using the network of skills and contacts established.

The building of capability and skills in a nucleus of constructors has created a resource pool in each of the five settlements, from which trainees have been drawn to develop other community projects (ea. toilet building), at the same time helping to increase and add to the range of income generating opportunities in the settlements.

Only time will tell, but so far the signs are encouraging, similar programmes are currently being undertaken in other Tibetan settlements (from Arunachel Pradesh, Himachel Pradesh, Orissa State, Madhya Pradesh, to Ladakh), following requests by the settlement representatives. Future projects will learn from past experience, women will be encouraged to participate to a greater extent and the modifications made by ordinary Tibetans from the first programme will be assimilated into the new models.

Although the Tibetan situation is somewhat different from other instances, the example of ApTT's Improved Chula Projects proves that non-commercial projects can be sustainable, as long as they are appropriate to the culture, and the everyday needs of the people, leaving them capable of continuing the development on their own. The benefits of Improved Chulas is now well known throughout the Tibetan communities in Karnataka and trained installers have the skills to continue repairirg stoves and building new ones. The price of the stove is no longer subsidised so full sustainability - meaning dissemination independently at an outsider - has now been achieved.