Up in smoke

  • 30/01/2003

Up in smoke In 1985, the Union ministry of non-conventional energy sources (mnes) introduced improved chulhas (fuelwood-based cooking stoves) to primarily conserve forests, reduce pressure on rural women who collect fuelwood and to protect their health against indoor air pollution. Called the National Programme on Improved Chulhas (npic), it formed a part of the 20-point programme as well as the minimum needs programme of the government of India. More than 30 models of chulhas were developed during the last 17 years and around 34 million chulhas were installed by 2001-2002. So when mnes suddenly disbanded the programme in April last year, it caught everyone by surprise. The decision evoked a simple question: why was it stopped?

On the face of it, the answer lies in the recent evaluation of npic by the Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research (ncaer). The evaluation stopped short of rating the programme a failure, but fuelled an intense debate over the effectiveness of the programme. Observing the lack of people’s participation and rampant corruption, the report recommended a complete overhaul of the programme both in context and content. According to ministry sources, at least 70 officials have been suspended after the report was submitted to the mnes in September. Some corruption cases have also landed up in the office of the Central Vigilance Commission (see box: Doused!).

ncaer’s evaluation is the third in a decade: it was done earlier in 1988 and 1995-96. The recent one is the most extensive, given its sample size and the geographical area covered. The latest study, carried out in 2001 and collated in 2002, surveyed 10,000 households with improved chulhas and 2,000 households without the chulhas spread across 25 states. “The current survey is crucial as the programme is at crossroads,” says R K Shukla, project leader of ncaer survey (see interview: Target-chasing).

Interestingly, the ncaer study was commissioned by mnes reportedly to obtain more funds for the programme. But even before the recommendations of this 178-page report could be incorporated into the programme, the government disbanded it. “The decision was definitely not as voluntary as it seems,” admits a senior mnes official. However, K C Khandelwal, advisor, mnes, says that the programme has not been disbanded and is set for reformatting in its funding pattern. “We realised that the programme has done much demonstration of the improved chulhas (ICs) and now it must take a concrete shape as an utility-based programme,” he says. But this is only one side of the story.

Here’s a reality check. When mnes prepared its estimate for the 10th Five Year Plan, no fund was allocated to the programme. Officially, mnes says that npic will be handed over to state governments or to panchayats directly. “The state governments should takeover the programme now as we have demonstrated the utility of ics,” says Khandelwal. After washing its hands off the programme, mnes has put the ball in the Planning Commission’s court. The Planning Commission, on its part, has neither taken a decision on the future course of the programme nor is it sure as to how to channelise the funds to the states or panchayats, as suggested by mnes. It is now up to the chief ministers of all states, who will meet at the National Development Council in June this year, to approve the plan. Till then, the programme’s fate is uncertain.
Burnt out The evaluation has shaken the foundations on which the programme was built. Most people found improved chulhas wanting in a number of ways. Around 50 per cent found only a marginal saving in fuelwood consumption, 24 per cent felt only a perceptible change and 10 per cent said that fuelwood consumption had, in fact, increased, thereby debunking the primary purpose of the programme. As far as health impact is concerned, some 50 per cent beneficiaries said there was only a marginal difference in the elimination of smoke.

The programme suffered from three major lacunae: it failed to identify the targets households; people’s participation was so poor that it couldn’t be made sustainable; and that it suffered from lack of interest from state governments. In Maharashtra and Karnataka, the programme did well at least in its spread and sustainability only because of the interest taken by the governments (see box: Fanning the embers).

There was little effort to train people about the uses and benefits of chulhas: only 27.2 per cent households were trained

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