With Half A Million Deaths Due To Indoor Air Pollution, This Is What We Can Do

Co-author: Aditya Ramji

The role of modern energy services and its benefits has been recognised and included in mainstream discussions around the development agenda for over a decade and a half. Though this was a recognition accorded to ‘energy’ globally, with large parts of Asia and Africa still depending on biomass fuels for cooking and poor access to electricity for lighting, it was felt that the era of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did not explicitly state ‘energy for all’ as an outcome. This led to the launch of the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) mission under the UN framework in the year 2011, and later in 2015, when world leaders including India endorsed the transformation plan, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), energy was included as Goal 7.

While India is a signatory to SDGs, it is also home to close to 240 million people who still lack access to electricity and over 800 million who continue to use solid biomass for cooking in traditional stoves. This exposes a significant population, particularly women and children, to severe health consequences by way of indoor air pollution (IAP) from the use of inefficient fuels such as biomass and kerosene in rural areas, with about half a million deaths each year due to IAP.

Earlier, in practice, energy access was mostly synonymous to electricity access. In the recent years, the government has made efforts to promote clean energy access for households, with targeted flagship programmes being implemented for providing 24×7 power for all, and for facilitating access to clean cooking for households. As compared to the previous decade, access to grid electricity in rural areas has drastically improved in the past few years, with significant improvement in infrastructure under the government’s flagship rural electrification scheme. In his 2015 Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a target of electrifying 18,452 un-electrified villages by March 2017. The government’s progress report indicates that so far 74% of this target (13,570 villages out of 18,452), as per the current definition of village electrification, has already been achieved.

In May 2016, the Prime Minister launched another flagship programme, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana to facilitate free LPG connections to 50 mn below poverty line (BPL) households, wherein the connections would be given to the woman member of the household with a financial assistance of ₹1,600 per connection. So far, as part of the PMUY, over 222 million LPG connections have been released across 704 districts with the objective of facilitating the transition of these households to clean cooking and to reduce their dependence on biomass.

In order to address the grave challenge of cooking energy access, the government is also supporting the construction of biogas plants. As per a recent report of the Standing Committee on Energy, over 4.9 million family type biogas plants have been installed and commissioned through the on-going National Biogas and Manure Management Programme (NBMMP) of the government. The government has also set a target of supporting the installation of 0.1 million plus biogas plants during the year 2017-2018. In addition, the Unnat Chulha Abhiyan aims at promoting the usage of improved biomass-based cookstoves. Similarly, off-grid schemes are leveraged to address the challenge of electricity in rural and remote areas. Hence, it is through a portfolio of technology-based targeted schemes that the government tackling energy access.

It is evident that partnerships will play an important role in demystifying the challenges associated with clean energy access. In its current approach, the government is keen on leveraging existing institutions such as the Panchayats to advance access to clean energy. For example, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has partnered with the Ministry of Panchayati Raj to promote the usage of biogas in rural kitchens, an important step in the right direction. Similarly, interventions such as the UCSD-TERI-Nexleaf Analytics led Project Surya/Climate Credit Pilot Project (C2P2), demonstrate multi-partner ICT-based approaches for containing IAP by implementing smart subsidy options such as climate credit for actual use of clean and efficient technologies in households for cooking and lighting.

In the past, several government, business and civil society led energy access initiatives, particularly for clean cooking access, have only been able to garner partial success. This is because the reliance of communities on inefficient fuels and technologies is also often governed by intangible factors such as cultural practices, beliefs and perceptions of opportunity cost.

One of the key components of achieving a successful transition to cleaner fuel mission is getting the messaging right. Targeted communication through relevant and impactful channels will trigger the desired change. When the MNRE along with the Ministry of Panchayati Raj notified its biogas promotion programme, it noted the importance of leveraging the strength of functionally active institutions at the grassroots that interact regularly with the community to also serve as agents of communication to facilitate this clean energy transition. In this context, the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHAs), who are a network of thousands of trained female community health workers, could play a very important role in the clean energy transition. Trained under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), along with the counselling they provide for healthcare, ASHA workers could also sensitise households to the ill-effects of indoor air pollution and the opportunities available for households to transition to cleaner fuels for household use.

The Sure Start project in India, which was operational during 2007-11, documented the benefits of mainstreaming ASHA workers into the health system for addressing maternal and child health issues. The ASHA worker typically lives in and around the villages where they are responsible for their duties, and have a close rapport with the communities they serve. Very often these communities include significant numbers of those who are energy deprived. Best practices from Sure Start suggest that with a very small incremental effort in training and handholding, the network of ASHAs can be leveraged for communicating to and educating women about the socio-economic and health impacts from the use of traditional cook-stoves and inefficient lighting solutions. Such an institutional mechanism shall help transform the perception of the community on the link between clean energy access and health, and consequently set the platform for transformation- the SDGs.

Engaging ASHA would not only bridge the flow of information to households in terms of how they could access clean cooking fuels but also potentially reduce the health burden of the community and the primary healthcare system, thus, notionally freeing up resources in terms of avoided social costs. Efforts such as the ICMR-CEEW ‘Initiative for Solar in Healthcare’, which aim at creating resilient primary health systems using clean energy, can help close the loop on an integrated messaging strategy for clean energy and health.

While synergies between various programmes and objectives of different ministries are recognised at the policy level, the same needs to be effectively communicated to and understood by the community for maximising the impact of policy decisions. Achieving accelerated and long-term adoption rates of clean technologies for lighting and cooking will entail the choice of relevant and effective communication strategies and also, the right communication agents.

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