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Women of India’s cleanest city slums are most affected by household air pollution

As per the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019, nearly 600,000 deaths in India in 2019 can be attributed to indoor air pollution

Indore: Santosh Bai, residing in Sai Vandana Nagar Slums of Sanwer Industrial Area of Indore walks towards her home with a pack of three matchboxes in her hand. Why these matchboxes and she replies to burn firewood chulha (mud-stove).

“I have been using a firewood stove for a longtime. My house has turned black because of the smoke. But what to do, I have to feed my family as well. I have a LPG gas connection but the empty cylinder is lying inside the house as we don’t have enough money to get it refilled,” says Santosh Bai.

Santosh Bai is more worried about her house turning black because of smoke caused by burning biomass in her chulha but not her lungs.

This is not the story of Santosh Bai alone but most of the women residing in slums in Indore- the cleanest city of India- echo the same feelings.

The cleanest city has impure air

Indore was adjudged as the cleanest city in India for the sixth consecutive year. A recent survey by the Union Environment Ministry revealed that Indore was one of the 37 cities whose air quality has declined in the past four years. The survey report said that levels of PM10 (inhalable particles around 10 micrometers) particulate had increased in the city’s air during the period between 2017 and 2021.

There are women like Kshama Kanade, who too use firewood, coal, dung cakes for cooking. They too cough and have teary eyes while cooking but believe that using firewood chulha does not have any effect on their health.

When asked if anybody has briefed you about the hazards of household air pollution, women replied in negative.

The level of unawareness about Household Air Pollution (HAP) could be judged by the fact that some women advocated in favour of firewood chulha saying that it keeps away the mosquitoes. All of them admitted that they face problems like teary eyes, burning of eyes and coughing but justified that it was destined to happen if one cooks on firewood.

Household Air Pollution

Household Air Pollution (HAP) has an estimated average contribution of 30-50% to ambient air quality across India’s urban and rural areas, according to a study done by Council on Energy Environment and Water (CEEW). Biofuels also result in lower respiratory infections and coronary chronic obstructive disease (COPD) increasing the risk of severe Covid-19 with women and children being at the highest risk.

indore household air pollution environment
Santosh Bai with match boxes | Credit: Author

As per the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019, nearly 600,000 deaths in India in 2019 can be attributed to indoor air pollution. Burning of solid fuels to prepare food on simple cook stoves (chulha) in homes exposes families, particularly women and children, to the harmful impacts of smoke and indoor air pollution (IAP).

Slum dwellers are doubly affected, both by the higher concentration of particulate matter in urban areas as well as indoor air pollution from the use of unclean cooking fuels. It could be worse considering the fact that most of them are poorly nourished.

With more than 13.7 million people living in slums in the country (Census 2011), there is a strong impetus to understand the use of clean cooking fuels in such households, suggests a study done by CEEW.

Slum population in Mini Mumbai

Indore has a significant slum population, about 30% of the total population or about 8,38,977 residents reside in slums. At present there are 646 slums in the city, of which 599 are notified. The total area of slums combined is 20.35 sq km, which takes up 8% of the total area designated under the Indore Municipal Corporation.

“Many people are unaware that various forms of indoor air pollution also pose a risk to our lung health. Some of the major sources in urban settings include burning of biomass, incense sticks and mosquito coils. People with medical conditions such pulmonary tuberculosis, HIV, poor nutritional status, and concurrent respiratory infections are at a greater risk. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is triggered more during monsoons and winter seasons,” said Dr Lokendra Dave, Head of the department and Pulmonologist, Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal.

indore household air pollution indoor environment
Sheela Kushwah at her shop with firewood chulha

The damage caused to the lungs caused by COPD is permanent but awareness about risk factors can minimize chances of developing COPD, added Dr Dave.

Dr Ajay Nagpure, clean air catalyst expert said that children and women- especially pregnant women, are easy targets of HAP. “Women using biomass like firewood, dung cakes or coal for cooking food suffer more badly. Use of biomass as fuel causes five to ten times more air pollution,” said Nagpure.

Studies say that constant exposure to burning biomass is associated with a wide range of illnesses including COPD, pneumonia, stroke, lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

“Most of the people are largely unaware about the ill-effects of air pollution, what to talk of household air pollution,” commented Sudhir Gore, working as Lead for the Rumour Tracking Project of Clean Air Catalyst in Indore. The project aims at removing myths related to air pollution among common people.

Most of the respondents in the study believed that there was no air pollution in Indore. “Our study revealed that people think that air pollution caused by industries does not affect much as it moves towards the sky through chimneys. Most of them believed that air pollution occurs only outside homes and not inside their homes,” added Gore.

Social activist working in the slum areas of Indore, Kirti Dixit too feels the same. “They have seen their mothers cooking on firewood. They have seen them with teary eyes and coughing. They think it is natural during cooking. They are completely unaware about Household Air Pollution (HAP).”

Chulha’s contribution to household air pollution

On the other hand there are women like Parwati Suleri, who cites additional reasons for using traditional chulha. “We belong to a village and we like food cooked on traditional chulha. Rotis baked on wood fire tastes different. Moreover, jowar (sorghum) and makka (maize) chapatis are baked best on wooden fire,” said Parwati.

Another intriguing thing that was observed during the visit to these areas was that most of the houses had an additional chulha built outside their homes. The chulha outside was meant exclusively to warm water during winters.

firewood indore air pollution household
Firewood stacked behind a house in Indore | Credit: Author

“We cook food on chulha inside our house. This one (pointing to chulha built outside) is used to warm water for bathing,” clarified Mamta Chouhan and Pinky Rajput, sitting outside their shanty.

The chulha built outside the house, used for warming water, is often fed with any ignitable substance in addition to wood, cardboard paper and other industrial waste.

Several women residing in slums have also opened small shops catering to daily needs of the labourers. Sheela Kushwah, one such woman runs a shop and a tea stall from her home. A firewood stove could be seen at her shop.

“I use it for making tea for the customers. I also cook food on it,” says Sheela. She said that her children and husband collect firewood from nearby places. They also collect paper, cardboard and other industrial wastes that could be burnt for fire, she added.

Sheela said that she could not bear the cost of buying expensive LPG. “The price of a gas cylinder has almost doubled from Rs 600 a few years ago to almost Rs 1100 now. Wood is cheap and often procured free from around.”

Another study by the CEEW says that though 85% of households have an LPG connection but 54% households continue to use traditional solid fuels, either exclusively or by stacking them with the LPG.

The study also states that traditional solid fuels like firewood, dung cakes, agriculture residue, charcoal for cooking increases exposure to indoor air pollution.

“The problem is serious and needs to be addressed immediately. Women should be educated about the nuances of Household Air Pollution and about the use of clean energy fuels and alternatives provided by renewable energy appliances,” said Dr Nagpure.

“Subsidy on the LPG should be ensured that it reaches people belonging to the economically weaker section. Efforts should be made to start an awareness campaign to develop understanding of ecology besides making it part of the school education as well,” said social researcher and director of Vikas Samvad, Sachin Jain.

A sustained campaign should be started among the women of weaker sections where they should be informed about ill-effects of HAP. “Once they realize the health hazards of using biofuels then only they would think of adopting the alternatives,” added Jain.

Cooking solutions based on renewable energy sources should be made affordable and encouraged, he added.

Mayor of Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC), Pushyamitra Bhargava said that IMC and the district administration have taken several steps to reduce air pollution caused by the industries, traffic and waste management.

“Ideas like installing a community water heating system at Sulabh Toilet Complexes through solar energy are welcome and we will start it soon on a pilot basis. Moreover, Deendayal Rasoi Yojana too could be modified to suit the needs of slum dwellers,” assured mayor of Indore, Pushyamitra Bhargava.

Indore, Mayor said that an awareness campaign will be started apprising women about the ill-effects of air pollution on their health.


This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Shahroz Afridi

Has a journalistic career spanning over two decades, during which he has worked with Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagran and Free Press Journal newspapers. An independent journalist, Shahroz’s bylines appear in the IANS, Boomlive, Mongabay, Firstpost, 101reporters.com, News18.com among others. Now he covers more environment related stories.

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