The superhuman efforts of Rohit Pillai, a student, have made the lives of several rural households much better today, especially with the smoke-free stoves. But it wasn't easy, as Pillai faced resistance during every bit of the journey
when we are kids, we are full of idealistic intentions to change the world, do good for humanity, make a difference in people's lives etc. As we grow up, we somehow lose these ideals and duly join the rat race in running after money, comfort and security. Every once in a while, steps in someone who actually dares to swim against the tide and better the lives of people who actually are in need of it. Rohit Pillai of Nasik, currently doing Masters in Technology and Development at IIT-Bombay, is one of the best examples of such a trailblazer — by making low emission covered stoves for Indian villages. After doing exemplary work for villagers during his Masters, he had the confidence to actually not sit for any placements so that he could continue working for the country's rural masses.
Where it all began
Rohit's journey began way back when, after graduating from NIT-Trichy, and working for Larsen & Toubro for one-and-a-half years, he joined IISc, Bengaluru as a Research Assistant at the ASTRA (Centre for Sustainable Technologies) department. “This was my first encounter with technology for rural areas,” he says. Rohit's interest in this area was piqued and on weekends, he began to travel to arbitrary rural areas near Bengaluru to understand their problems. He would simply board a random train, get down at any village which appeared scenic enough, explore it on foot and stay there for the weekend.
From his visits, he noticed that most rural folk used inefficient, firewood-based cooking stoves which emitted a lot of smoke containing dangerously high amounts of Carbon monoxide (CO), which would affect the women folk in the long run. “She (woman of the house) will continuously cough every time she cooks, and the method of cooking produces a lot of smoke. In addition, the man never enters the kitchen, so he has no idea of the woman’s effort and pain. The sad part is women don’t have any say in the decision-making process,” he explains.
Rohit realised that even as many women were being affected by this – which was apparent from the number of people who were getting infected with respiratory disorders like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – they hadn’t realised that the reason for this was their stoves. Rohit himself measured the CO levels inside the kitchens and found it to be 150-180 ppm, whereas the MNRE (Ministry of New and Renewable Energy) has specified the maximum permissible CO content as only 4 ppm. He also found that most girl students quit education only because they had to travel far in search of firewood for cooking, with a typical family requiring 100-120 kg of firewood per month. “It’s not that there aren’t efficient cooking stoves in India, there are plenty. Even the MNRE website suggests 40 stoves approved for subsidy schemes. The real challenge is in dissemination,” he says and explains that culture and habits of the people have to be kept in mind while designing a stove, which is not done. If people have to change their behaviour even a little, they would rather revert to the old stove, he adds.
Breaking the ice
After IISc, Rohit got admission into Masters in Technology and Development at IIT-Bombay. During his first year, he had to make a two-month field trip to a Singnapur village of Parbani district of Maharashtra as part of his course. “Although my research topic was something else, I realised there was a lot of potential for bringing cooking stoves into the village. I called my friend Pramod from IISc to the village for a week.” Both Rohit and Pramod made a few tweaks to the existing stove mould which made it lighter and easier to build. Rohit started off by going to every house in the village and explaining to people the benefits of the stove. But the selling point for the villagers was not its health benefits or its efficiency, it was instead the fact that the new stoves wouldn't blacken the walls with the emitted smoke, unlike the existing stoves.
“The initial zeal that the villagers showed died out when they became abreast of the price — `1,000 for each stove. It couldn’t be given for free, because anything which is, is not valued at all,” he explains. He then reduced the price of the first 20 stoves to `500, but the villagers were still hesitant, until a lady, a former Grama Panchayat member of the village, came up to him and said she wanted the product. This sort of broke the ice, which made the others more confident, and in 30 days, Rohit had managed to disseminate 30 cook stoves.
The road ahead
Rohit wanted the people to continue using these stoves after he left too, for which he gave a mould to 2-3 people and trained them to build the stove using it. During this time, Rohit’s vision got a big fillip as the Deputy Collector of the district got interested and involved in the project, and asked for 500 stoves to be commissioned, of which 100 have been built until now. To spread awareness about the stove, Rohit circulated a video explaining the stove’s working and advantages among the villagers (they surprisingly had a whatsapp group) after which people from neighbouring villages too approached him.
“I surveyed the situation after almost a year, and people are still using our stoves. They are very happy about it, and have been saving around 50-60 per cent of firewood, and also a good amount of time every day. The best part is, the women have begun joining Self Help Groups (SHGs) and contributing economically to their houses, all because of the time they save while cooking. There are almost 12 SHGs involved, and we'll soon be training them for making the stove. Some families have also cancelled their LPG connections. In another taluk of the same district, a group of SHGs approached me for training so that they could start using the stove in their village too. I visited the village, gave a demonstration, and the people were really happy. I have a team of 10 people now, with guidance from Pramod.”
Rohit and his team are now on the verge of beginning a start-up - Rural Caravan which, apart from implementing the use of cook stoves, would also strive to improve rural tourism and spread technology in rural areas. They have identified Palunde, a village about 100 km from Mumbai, for implementing this. Rohit's heart is so much into these projects that he has decided this is what he intends to work on full-time after completing his course, which is why he did not attend even a single placement exam. In a scenario where brain-drain to other countries and running after corporate jobs are almost the norm, Rohit has set a precedent by doing something that actually provides help to people who need it, even if they themselves don't realise it.
Note - The design and construction of the stove was done by IISC, Bengaluru