Traditional Chulaahs: An Indoor health crisis in rural Budgam


‘Women, Children most affected’

SRINAGAR: It’s an early July morning, and smoke is coming out of every house hold in this remote village of Pakharpora, Budgam. Same is the scene in Nagam, Nowpora, Hafroobatpora, Lolipora, Ranger, Panzan, Mallapora, Kanir, Chraripora, Kanidajan, Dadaompora, Surasyara and other dozens of villages in the area.

Though, in this time of induction heaters, oven, electric appliances and other gadgets people living in rural Budgam are still using traditional ways for cooking food.

The meadows dotted with the camps of Gujjar community with their grazing sheep also use the same method of cooking.

With the day break women wake up before the sunlight and get ready for their daily chores. And in most of the houses here, smoke has no room to move around so it stays in, with less number of exhaust windows, people sitting inside inhale all the smoke produced by these traditional chulaah’s- made of mud.

The traditional Chulaahs are used in Nagam, Gigjipathri, Kanidajan, Batpora, Nowgam, Muqam, Hangoo, Nilnag, Kristwar, Ledan Doba, Kralgam, Waddar mohalla Watkaloo, Nilnag- Wangwass, Bajipathri, Sanidarwan, Charar-e-Sharief,  Yusmarg, Pakherpora and Braripathri.

Every day women and children in these villages spend many hours cutting, collecting, carrying firewood, a task that consumes much of their day and energy.

Nasreena Begum, 48, has been cooking food on these traditional chulaah’s since her childhood and she knows no other means.

“It’s like a tradition to have these chulaah’s at home and we are using it from the time of our forefathers. It doesn’t require electricity, kerosene or any other expensive inputs. It is just a mud hearth and fire- wood is used to cook,” she said.

Smoke coming out of these traditional chulaah’s directly affects the health of women and children sitting around and eventually they complain of respiratory and eye ailments.

“Women from remote areas come here with respiratory tract infections, eye irritation and bronchitis. It is the outcome of the smoke inhaled by them while cooking. The half burnt wood produces carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide that hinder the normal respiratory process. If, these gases are inhaled in large quantities and for prolonged period, it can cause acute asthma and severe eye problems,” Dr Rehab, a doctor at the district hospital Budgam.

Afeefa Jamsheed, 50, has been going to the Chest and disease hospital from past six years as she has been diagnosed with asthma and has to avoid smoke and dust to keep her healthy.

“I have to wear a mask while going out, and I cannot work on chulaah. I have inhaled lot of smoke and now my doctors suggest to stay away from it. So my children shifted to gas heaters, it is expensive but now I can cook without extra smoke,” she said.

Every year thousands of women are face the ill effects of smoke, and their children are becoming the new victims of it too.

School going children wearing spectacles and coughing is not a rare phenomenon here.

Zaman Amin, 12, is in class six at the government school, Panzan but he falls short of attendance due to his health.

“I have breath issues, eye allergies and I’m anemic too, all these things hamper my studies,” said Zaman, who is in continuous care of his teachers and parents.

After consulting so doctors, Zaman’s family came to know that smoke had accumulated in his lungs that was affecting his breathing, he used to go unconscious in class, his eyes were red all the time.

“I try my best to see to it, that my only son Zaman faces no more problems and that is why I bought a stove and shunned the use of the chulaah,” said Mohammad Amin, a farmer from Panzan.

Early morning women gather to collect firewood from the forest and they collect enough to keep the fire burning for few days thus putting a stress on the natural resources.

“Use of firewood is the primitives’ means of cooking but unfortunately it is still carried on in some remote villages of the district. It puts an extra load on the forests. To prevent the forests, government needs to be a little vigil and”, said environmentalist Ashraf Ahmad.

Schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) were introduced to provide free LPG connections to BPL households to lead a smoke free life.

The benefits of the scheme are not properly harnessed by the lower strata of the society and people are still seen living lives around the smoke of chulaah’s.

Unless and until these schemes are implemented properly at the ground level it is going to cost us both monetarily and in terms of health as well.

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“Women folks have always been restricted to kitchens only, and hence it has cost them their health, growth and development” said Sheikh Asma, sociologist.

As per the data from the Government of India’s 2011 Census, it shows an estimated 142 million rural households (85 percent of the total) depends entirely on biomass fuel, such as cow-dung and firewood, for cooking.

Despite heavy subsidy by successive governments to make cleaner fuels like LPG available to the poor, hundreds of households still struggle to make the necessary payments for cleaner energy in this district.