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close this book Boiling Point No. 23 - December 1990
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Improved Stoves, Women & Domestic Energy

The Need for a Holistic Perspective

by Madhu Sarin, Architect/Development Planner, Chandigarh, India

Extracts from a paper presented at the Nordic Seminar on Domestic Energy in Developing Countries, Lund Centre for Habitat Studies, Lund University, September 1989.

The considerable experience with stove programmes gained during the eighties, and the problems encountered, has led to a recognition of the following:

• Domestic firewood consumption is often only a minor contributor to deforestation; the mayor causes lie elsewhere.

• The priorities of women users of stoves can be widely different, and energy saving may not be on the top of their list of priorities.

• Unless stove designs are based on women users' priorities, large scale dissemination is unlikely to take place.

• Unifocal improved stove projects need to be replaced by broader based development projects in which improved stoves are integrated as one component.

• In many areas, particularly those with good agricultural production, residues rather than firewood are the mayor domestic cooking fuel.

• The dissemination of improved stoves through commercial channels is more likely to succeed in the monetized urban areas where cooking fuel is purchased rather than collected.

Unfortunately, despite this, the perception that inefficient domestic cooking stoves are a major cause of deforestation continues to dominate, and discussions on domestic energy in LDCs often remain centred around whether improved stoves do or do not save firewood

Insights from the Field

Observations based on 10 years involvement with improved stoves, and other development work at the grass roots level, makes me feel that we are still failing to look at the problem from a holistic perspective because of getting trapped in artificially defined disciplinary boundaries. The issue is not the relevance or irrelevance of stoves

Madhu Sarin at the Nordic Seminar

within an overall domestic energy framework, but to develop micro level strategies appropriate for specific local situations within a larger macro perspective. This implies developing mechanisms which enable local people, specifically women, to deal with the underlying causes of their problems. While in some areas, and under certain conditions, improved stoves might be appropriate, in other areas circumstances might make stoves an inappropriate or low priority intervention.

Further, fuel saving stoves make sense to people only where there is an existing or impending energy shortage. But, even there, they only help people cope better with the shortage; they cannot deal with the causes. These need to be understood and dealt with simultaneously. As in the case of stoves, increasing supplies of firewood for domestic energy is too often equated with planting more trees. Issues of access to these trees for the people for whom they are ostensibly planted are often not taken into account and, in any case, few people plant trees only to increase firewood supplies. Firewood is often a by-product of trees raised for one or more different purposes.

More significantly, where availability of biomass fuels has become a problem, it is often a part of a much bigger problem related to the source of people's livelihood. The domestic energy problem in such situations cannot be treated in isolation. Increased availability of energy makes little sense to people who are struggling to find a way to keep alive or are being forced to leave their homes in search of a livelihood.

And finally, human energy conservation needs to be made central to any strategy, as it is a major component of energy used at the domestic level. As traditional division of labour allocates most tasks to women within the household, conserving women's energy in performing these tasks must receive equal attention.

A Case Study

I would like to illustrate the issues raised above with reference to our experience of introducing our improved "Nada Chulha" in Dungarpur district in south Rajasthan (India) in collaboration with a local NGO. I was first invited there in early 1983 to train some of the NGO's staff members in building and disseminating the stove.

Our whole approach to stove dissemination was centred on developing a local, decentralized network of well trained women stove builders and providing them with supervisory and minimal financial support until they became accepted as a new type of village artisan.

Our earlier experience in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh had also made it clear that biomass energy saving was only one of rural women's priorities. Women were more concerned about saving their own energy on cooking related tasks, than on reducing cooking fuel consumption alone. In pockets where fetching firewood was an arduous task, reducing firewood consumption was a major priority. This was not so in pockets where forest cover was still good.

The area had thick cover until India's independence in 1947. Most of the forest areas were owned by the local ruler and each village had its own forest for meeting several of the villagers' subsistence needs i.e. cooking fuel, timber for house construction/agricultural implements and grazing of cattle or collecting grass or tree leaf fodder, edible fruits, roots, gums and medicinal herbs/plants.

With the nationalization of forests after Independence, the strict system of rights and responsibilities towards forests maintained by the local ruler was replaced by an insensitive bureaucracy, with a centralized decision making structure. Two major policy initiatives resulted in the virtual destruction of forests within a span of barely three decades. The first was the promotion of commercial exploitation of forest produce. The government gave liberal permission to contractors to produce charcoal, extract "katha" from Acacia Catechu and harvest teak and bamboo for sale. Most of the produce and income from this went outside the area through the contractors. The second policy was to encourage the conversion of forests into agricultural land under the "grow more food campaign" of the late 1960s. Today the area looks like a bare, brown, moonscape of barren rolling hills, with barely a speck of greenery on it. Whilst having to face the devastating consequences of forest destruction, insult was being added to the local population's injury by blaming them for causing the destruction.

Inevitably, this resulted in a scarcity of firewood in the area, which was the original basis for introducing our improved stove there. In certain pockets, women had to trek 10 to 13 kms to the nearest surviving patch of forest to fetch a headload of firewood.

The stoves were well received and we felt very encouraged by their good performance. This went on until 1985-86. The failure of three successive monsoons from 1985, however, brought us face to face with the really critical issues in the area and made us realise how peripheral fuel savings through the stoves were to these.

The drought resulted in the total failure of crops, crucial for sustaining the subsistence economy. Due to the destruction of the forests, no rains also resulted in drying up of wells, streams and ponds, which caused acute scarcity of even drinking water for people and livestock. Whereas in earlier times, people could fall back on the forests for food, fuel and fodder during such periods, now even that was not available. As few alternative employment opportunities have been created in the area, the only option for people was to flock to government drought relief works for daily wage employment or even migrate to other areas in search of work.

Some of the well functioning stoves collapsed during this period. The old, the sick and the infants left behind could neither maintain them nor use them properly. Even where the woman of the house had not migrated, she was unable to attend to the stove as she was barely at home. The search for wages, water, fodder and fire work took most of her energy, together with taking care of the children and other housework. Where the husband had migrated in search of work, she also had to do the work usually done by him. Increased illnesses meant that the little income coming in had to be spent on medicines instead of food, and care of the sick became an added burden. The extent of scarcity of basic essentials can be gauged from the fact that the small amounts of water and chopped straw required for preparing the mud mixture for our stove were also not available at times. Due to the absence of an alternative, many families were forced to cut down trees from the few remaining patches of forests to sell them as firewood in the towns to earn some cash. The destructive circle was complete.

Talking only about stoves under such circumstances started feeling more and more frivolous. We decided to analyse the entire situation in detail to chalk out a more meaningful intervention with a longer term perspective. It was clear that the very foundation of the local subsistence economy had more or less collapsed due to the unsustainable exploitation of forests. The resulting energy crisis was only one facet of a much larger crisis and could not be dealt with in isolation. If we were going to work towards environmental rehabilitation of the area, we had to ensure that the factors responsible for the present situation did not result in destroying the new vegetation as well.

In the approach we have developed for rehabilitation of village common lands, to begin with, we have laid a major emphasis on helping village communities to organize themselves not only to protect and maintain the new plantations but also to be prepared for outside interests wanting to come and take away the new tree produce once it has been recreated. Slowly, they will need to reassert their rights so that they have a say in how even the forest lands under the forest department are managed and how its produce is distributed and to whom. For the moment, it has been decided that first priority will be given to ensuring that the produce from the rehabilitated common lands is consumed by the local population. Only if, or when, there is a surplus, will it be sold outside the village. Re-establishment of vegetation on the denuded lands together with soil conservation measures will slowly rebuild the ecological cycle of improved replenishment of sub-soil water, less soil erosion, improved soil productivity and increased local production. Through this process, the local domestic energy crisis will also slowly solve itself No one is prepared to plant trees only for firewood. The choice of species is based on their having multiple uses (fodder, oilseeds, fruit, timber, gum, etc). Firewood will be a by-product from most of these species.

Protection of replanted lands by organized groups has already resulted in fairly good regeneration of grass and other vegetation within a span of 2 to 3 years.


The situation described in the above case study is not unique, although the area has its unique characteristics. In all the rural areas, in five or six different regions of India where we have worked on introducing improved stoves, similar processes are in operation. Unorganized, underprivileged rural people are increasingly being deprived of their access to local natural resources which are being transferred on a highly subsidized basis to the more powerful and organized urban/industrial groups. Attempts to deal with the domestic energy issues in such areas, through partial interventions such as introduction of improved stoves, make little sense unless the larger processes arc also taken into account.

Large sections of the rural population of developing countries continue to rely on a subsistence economy. This is essentially a biomass economy in which people derive most of their subsistence needs from their immediate environment. The health of this economy depends on sustainable management of local natural resources (land, water, vegetation). Traditionally, local communities controlled the management of these resources. It is the destruction of local control and over-exploitation of local resources for consumption in the urban/industrial sector which has created the energy crisis in such areas. Solutions for the domestic energy scarcities in such areas must be based on re-establishing a more equitable access to natural resources and local management and control. Improved stoves can find a meaningful place within this framework.