Interview with S. Narayanaswami
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What position did you hold in Indian government and what were your duties?
I joined government service in 1955. In India there is a higher level of bureaucracy in the state and federal governments called the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). This used to be a prestigious service at a time when Government was big and omnipresent. Now with private sector expanding and government shrinking and with increased powers for local administration its importance is on the decline. One just coasts along in that service serving various departments and alternating between the Federal Govt. and the State govt. in one’s career. I rose to the position Chief Secretary to the Government of Kerala State (1987-90) which is the highest administrative level in a State. The Chief Secretary is the secretary to the Council of Ministers, the head of the state bureaucracy and coordinates all administrative action in the State.
When and how did you first hear of solar cooking?
I first heard of solar cooking when I was serving in the federal government (Ministry of Petroleum) at Delhi. It was the early eighties and my wife reported to me that some friends of hers were using a solar cooker and suggested why not we. It seems I pooh-poohed the idea and there it ended. I have forgotten this incident but my wife says it is true. It must have seemed a crazy idea to me.
How did it happen that your family started cooking with the sun?
When I was serving as Chief Secretary to Kerala Govt. in the late eighties I was automatically chairman of a Government agency whose job it was to promote renewable energy. They were distributing solar cookers on subsidy. I was offered one on subsidy and readily took it as I had better know what it was about if I was to do a good job of promoting it. That led to a habit which has caught on. From a skeptic I became a fanatic as someone put it. These government agencies even exist today but do not bother to take much interest in “low grade solar thermal” devices which is the ones they should concentrate upon.
How much does your family use its solar cookers?
We use the cooker religiously every day. Not a day will pass by, if we are in town and if the day is sunny, without using it. That is for sure. Any one if free to drop in at our place unannounced and he can see the two solar box cookers - one of which is almost exclusively for boiling water ( municipal supply is not reliable and most well –to- do households in India purify water by means of gadgets like Aqua Guard, which we do not use or need) on the terrace of our house. It was one cooker till 2 years ago and shortly it may be three - like an increasing pack of puppies - with the addition of the Sunstove cooker, of Richard Wareham, which is catching my fancy. Even on marginally sunny days I put myself to the inconvenience of buttressing the single reflector with aluminium sheets (discarded printing plates) on two sides kept in place with laboratory retort stands. I get a delight in squeezing every bit out of the sun. I can afford such indulgences as I am a retired man with plenty of time on my hands.
Do you find you can cook most foods in your cookers?
We are vegetarians by upbringing. The solar cooker seems to be custom - made for vegetarians. Our staple is rice, dal (lentils), vegetables. We also eat chappatis (unleavened bread akin to tortilla toasted on flame) for supper but this cannot be made in the solar cooker. Thus chappatis and boiling milk ( unlike in the US we get raw milk which has to be boiled and we are big consumers of milk, both as milk and as curd – a kind of yoghurt) are the main load on our conventional oven.
Some of the Indian dishes involve tortuous exercises like grinding freshly shredded coconut with masalas (herbs) – especially in south India where coconuts are plenty - or preparing gravies involving a lot of frying in oil. Over the years we have been weaned away from these ‘rich’ foods by the solar cooker, which in any case we were not indulging in too much. We have become pampered by the simple boiled food with the minimum of herbs which is so easily done on the solar oven. So pampered, in fact, that we are too lazy to go back to our arduous and complicated cooking ways. Also because we are getting old. In short we are entirely happy to have adapted our cooking style to solar cooking.
We've heard about the many thousands of solar ovens that have been sold in India. Does one come across these in use there?
Yes I know those statistics. They are on paper. They represent the numbers distributed to one and all, mostly unsolicited, during the subsidy days when targets were fixed and achievements had to be reported to higher ups. The sales of solar cookers are low. Reliable statistics of sale of cookers are hard to come by. Networking among users is absent as computers are not widely in use and there are no newsletters among user communities. But the position is improving and in the last one or two years I have been able to establish contact with a handful of enthusiasts.
Do you feel that subsidies for solar cookers has helped or hurt their spread?
I wouldn’t say subsidies have hurt their spread. They did serve the purpose of making them widely known. A handful stuck with it but most people abandoned it. There was no follow up, no after sales service no networking. There was no nurturing, no commitment; it was a mechanical job done. Every thing fell by the way side when subsidies were ended in 1994. Today the younger people do not know that solar cookers exist. Older persons, important persons who were the ones to get the subsidised cookers first, do remember hearing about or having seen solar cookers. Now there are only a few enthusiasts left but they are unable to connect and discuss as they do not know about each other. The distances and the multiplicity of languages in India also makes networking difficult. The position varies from state to state in India. Since India is a vast country it is difficult to generalise. But it may be true to say that solar cookers are better known in states such as Gujarat and Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh where is a concentration of manufacturers. Even in the sun baked state of Rajasthan which has the Thar desert there is no manufacturer of solar cookers.
Does the average poor Indian know that you can cook food in a very simple cookers made from scrap cardboard and aluminum foil?
No, they do not know.
Does the average solar cooking promoter in India know this?
He may know because one becomes a cooking promoter after he reads up some material where he will find this mentioned. But no one makes a solar cooker from cardboard boxes in India to my knowledge. My friend Keshav Jaini in Delhi has made some “CookIts”.
What are the major impediments to the adoption of solar cookers in India?
There are a few impediments. A commonly cited impediment is slow cooking and inability to cook outside of sunshine hours. This may be real in some homes where the routine of work does not permit cooking during daytime but not all homes are in this category. Also access to sunlight may be difficult in some homes which also is understandable. But more often these excuses are offered not because they are real but as a cover for a reluctance to try something new, to break from existing habits. The major impediment is the initial high as cost - in relation to income levels. There is also present a general disbelief, a certain amount of cynicism. I do not think that a cardboard cooker is a feasible proposition. A cooker has to have some durability. The commercially available box cooker in India is good enough but it costs at the very least Rs.1500 ( i.e., US $32). The payment is up front. You can argue that spread over a period of 15 years or more the cost is negligible but that argument does not impress. The initial high cost is a deterrent. I have just now taken a fancy to the light-weight Sunstove cooker and trying to promote its manufacture but that also might cost about Rs. 1000 ($21). If the really poor people who are the ones who will really find the solar cooker an asset, are to reap the benefits of solar cooking some form of subsidy or hire-purchase system has to be introduced. In India we have a system of identifying individual families who are below the poverty line and who are targeted by the poverty eradication schemes of government. The solar cooker has to form a part of the poverty eradication package. These economically weak groups might deserve a subsidy which indeed they are getting for the other components of the poverty eradication programmes.
The well informed and the bright - witted would take to solar cooking more easily. But the ordinary run of people would require to be worked upon with some patience to remove the fear of the unknown. A take it or leave it approach will not do. A lot of explaining, serving by example will be necessary which is lacking at present.
A good thing which has happened in India is that the syllabus of the Central Board of Secondary Education – the Federal Government system, not the other high school systems in the States - has placed a lot of emphasis on solar energy education and there are excellent text books on physics which have lessons on the solar cooker. The students coming through this system are aware of the solar cooker. But I suspect that this remains as bookish knowledge. It does not come through as a dramatic possibility impacting our daily life. Though the companion book on Practical Physics has projects for making solar cooking I doubt if these projects are actually done in many schools. If solar cookers are demonstrated and put to use in the schools I feel sure that solar cooking will come to be adopted in many households.
After discussing many different applications of solar energy in your book, why did you decide to concentrate on solar cooking?
I am completely convinced that the solar box cooker – in one or the other form - is the renewable energy (RE) device par excellence. No other RE device can hold a candle to it. It is head and shoulders above the rest – it is in a different league altogether. It is so cost-effective and convenient that I feel a sense of shame that I did not come to know of it or start using it earlier.
A major failure of the government extension agencies has been their inability to put across the multiple advantages of the solar cooker. In India most people use the pressure cooker. The public are apt to think that the solar cooker is just another cooker like the pressure cooker. They do not know about its versatility - that it easy to fabricate, it is compact and handy, it is cheap and requires no fuel for its entire lifetime, it can last 15 years or more without any maintenance, that it is easy to operate, it needs no continuous attention, it does not burn the food, it can cook several items in one go, you can place an item in it any time and take it out when done, you can cook two rounds in a day, the food cooked in it is tender and softer and more nutritious and above all it is an oven which can cook, boil. roast, can and bake! All these advantages rolled into one. Which other appliance can boast of all of these advantages? The parabolic cooker stands nowhere in relation to the box cooker.
What prompted you to write your book?
I started to write precisely because I felt people should be told about it - that here is a beautiful device that is so versatile, and so ridiculously simple that it is a sin not to use it. I also felt there a tendency to ignore or belittle the solar cooker among erudite “energy circles”. I wanted to stand up for the solar cooker because of its plain relevance to the individual household, the common man. I made the book a little broad based to provide the background against which the solar cooker jewel is to be seen.
What sort of distribution will your book have in India?
Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd, Delhi are the publishers. They are said to be good and have good marketing arrangements. They have a sister concern, UBS, and the marketing is done in tandem with them.
Are you interested in having your book published in other countries?
Yes. I think the book will be useful in all developing countries ( most of which are in the tropical zone) which have large poor populations and plenty of sunshine, particularly English-speaking countries – which is particularly large, thanks to the British who had cast their net wide across the globe.
How can someone order your book, both inside of India and outside?
They can write to Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. Their e mail Id is firstname.lastname@example.org. Vikas has branches in Bangalore and Mumbai. UBS Publishers & Distributors Ltd., have their offices in Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Patna and Kanpur. Preface Books of Mumbai are also their distributors.
In USA the book is handled by South Asia Book, P.O.Box 502, Columbia MO 65205, email@example.com. Contact person is Jerry Barrier. Phone: 573-474-0116, Fax: 573-474-8124.
How did you discover the Solar Cooking Archive on the Internet?
I acquired a computer on my last visit to USA in December 1996. I started browsing the Internet for the subjects I was interested in. Even in the late eighties when I was in service I had seen pamphlets of SCI. Now with a computer I could become a member of the mailing list. The Solar Cooking Archive is a fabulous collection of all solar cooker related news. Any one wanting to know any thing about solar cooking need only visit this site.
You can write to Mr. Narayanaswami at firstname.lastname@example.org.