It is a matter of great concern that a large number of Indians still rely on inefficient and unhealthy energy sources. Approximately 80% of Indians cook and heat their homes with biomass fuels —largely wood and animal waste. This has a tremendous negative impact on people's health and the environment. Experts estimate that about 3.5% of India's total disease burden can be attributed to indoor air pollution resulting largely from biomass fuels.
Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of biomass fuels. Pneumonia, together with exposure to indoor air pollution, is the leading cause of death among children below five years of age. It accounts for more than a quarter of all deaths in this age group. Luckily, many of these deaths can be easily prevented with simple interventions that ensure a healthier living environment. Experts from institutes such as Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER, Chandigarh, and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore estimate that using cleaner fuels and improving ventilation can significantly reduce the risk of pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses.
One promising programme is the National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative (NCBI), which aims to spur the development and delivery of cleaner burning stoves. However, policies are also required to make liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and innovative smokeless chulahs more readily available across India. Perhaps India can learn lessons from fuel subsidy programmes in other countries, like Senegal and Brazil, which have helped people living below the poverty line to move away from biomass fuels.
While the government already subsidises LPG, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) estimates that 76% of these subsidies are diverted to urban centres where households can afford market prices for cooking fuels. While considering reforms, discussions are also focusing on the role that the Aadhaar scheme can play in directing fuel subsidies to those who need them most. A pilot subsidy programme utilising Aadhaar was recently initiated in Mysore. If successful, it can have a profound effect on access to healthier forms of energy in India. As Aadhaar is being rolled out across the country, policymakers should ensure that similar arrangements can be initiated at the earliest. At the same time, additional investments in the development and delivery of innovative cooking stoves will help ensure a healthier living environment for those who may not have access to LPG distribution networks. This is important, as subsidy programmes are also subject to price fluctuations and other economic concerns.
It may come as a surprise, but energy policies are essential to prevent pneumonia and to ensure timely treatment of children. However, no intervention should be considered in a vacuum. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child's life, improving nutrition outcomes and vaccinating the child against some of the major causes of pneumonia can ensure a healthy life for them.
Unfortunately, 'inclusive growth' is absent in a country that regards itself as an emerging global leader. Policies that provide a healthy living environment to millions of Indians will help secure economic growth and demonstrate to the world that the Indian government takes all aspects of its social and economic development seriously.
Anjali Nayyar is senior vice-president, Global Health Strategies and Brian Wahl is consultant, Global Health Strategies
The views expressed by the authors are personal.