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A Cleaner Air to Breathe: Improving Lives of Tribal Women in Odisha

Story by UN India June 27th, 2014

Odisha is amongst India’s poorest states. Close to two-thirds of the state’s 10 million strong tribal population lives in poverty with little access to land, healthcare, education and sanitation facilities.


For women like fifty-five year old Pratima Jani from Sisaguda, a remote hamlet, life is particularly challenging. She has been cooking for her family on a traditional cook stove for over 35 years. Like most people in the area, she lives with her family in a single 10 square foot room with mud walls and no windows.


“ The walls of my house are covered in black soot and my eyes burn when I cook”, she says. She worries about her two-year old grand daughter Nandini, who spends a lot of her time in the windowless room. Like Pratima, nearly three billion people in the developing world use traditional cook stoves and open fires. The World Health Organisation estimates that indoor pollution causes 1.9 million premature deaths each year, affecting women and young children the most.


Firewood is the only source of fuel for the 175 families that live in the village. Cooking on stoves that use firewood places a heavy burden on women who need to trek to the forest at least three times a week in search of the fuel. With the forests depleting at a rapid rate, the search for firewood is getting more difficult with time.


Since 2004, the International Fund for Agricultural Development is supporting the Odisha Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme to improve women’s health and reduce dependence on natural resources. Enabling the use of smokeless stoves in tribal households is an important part of a larger initiative to improve food security and livelihoods for tribal populations in seven districts.


Thirty families in Sisaguda are now using smokeless cook stoves in their homes. Biomass stoves are cleaner and more efficient. They consume less firewood and cause less indoor air pollution, the fourth biggest health risk in the developing world.


An improved design of the cook stove has also reduced the burden on women. Forty year old Gori Barboi takes less than half the time to make a meal for her family of four than she used to last year, thanks to the double burner food stove. Gori has to no longer be forced to inhale the choking smoke as her new stove reduces emissions by 80 percent.


“I have more time to spend with my children,” says Gori. Smokeless stoves consume one-third less firewood than traditional stoves, reducing the time she has to spend gathering firewood.


The extra time allows Gori to cultivate her small vegetable field. She has started growing ginger, brinjal and other vegetables which she sells in local market, adding to the family income.


What started as a small project with 30 families is now set to be scaled up to 1500 tribal households in seven districts in Odisha by 2015. The success of the initiative demonstrates multiple wins—reduced burden on women, decreased environment impact, and better health for women and their families who have a cleaner air to breathe.

Footnote: photo copyright: Prashanth Vishwanathan / UN India