By Beatrice M. Spadacini
The salt pan workers in the Gujarat region of western India are used to working long hours under strenuous conditions. Making salt requires months of digging and raking to separate the salt from the rocks and facilitate the crystallization process. Workers stay in this barren landscape up to eight months per year and live in makeshift tents or mud huts. On a daily basis, they struggle against howling winds and a scorching sun.
India is the world’s third largest producer of salt after China and the US. About 70 percent of the 19 million tons it produces annually comes from Gujarat. It is not a coincidence that independence leader Mahatma Gandhi rallied the people of India around the boycott of salt production, one of the largest and most labor intensive export industries in the country.
But despite the many hardships they face, the salt pan workers are very clear about their energy needs, especially when it comes to cookstoves.
In a landscape where trees are hard to come by, efficiency is a must. “Most of the workers I met with were not only keen to purchase high quality cookstoves but also ready to put a down payment of 200 Rupees ($4.50) toward one,” says Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, after she recently returned from Gujarat.
“Saltpan workers and their families are interested in bundling energy sources. They want to invest in a solar panel, a solar light, as well as a clean and efficient cookstove,” adds Muthiah, who was impressed both by the level of awareness among men and women about the benefits of clean cookstoves and fuels, and by their willingness to invest a relatively high amount of money, approximately 4,500 Rupees ($ 100), toward a larger bundle of clean energy technology.
The challenge, Muthiah says, is the lack of supply of quality stoves as well as proper financing mechanisms for enabling this type of investment. “Though some stoves are widely available, they produce excessive ash or frequently burn pots and pans. What are missing are efficient stoves that meet the cooking needs of the families.”
The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union that serves the needs of poor and self-employed women and their families in India, has been building awareness about clean fuels and cookstoves among the salt pan workers in Gujarat. According to SEWA, a fuel efficient stove would halve the workers’ current average need for wood, now about 5 kilograms (11 pounds) per week.
“Wood collection used to take me four hours a day with additional time needed when people came to visit,” says Sharadaben, a Gujarati member of SEWA. “With an efficient stove, it is easier to welcome guests. I also used to have problems with my eyes because of the smoke blowing form the traditional chulha (traditional cooking stove). The new stoves will ease the discomforts faced by many cooks.”
In India, 82 percent of the population relies on wood and other solid fuels for their household cooking needs. Exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and fires - the primary means of cooking and heating for nearly three billion people in the developing world - causes two million premature deaths annually. Almost half a million of these deaths occur in India every year.
SEWA is looking to harness its own network of women to distribute clean cookstoves and fuels for the salt pan workers in Gujarat. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves’ goal is to help organizations like SEWA with technical assistance, consumer financing, and connecting them to manufacturers.
Beatrice M. Spadacini is director of communications for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.