At first glance, a pile of freshly deposited cow dung on the road may not seem like much more than, well, a freshly laid pile of cow dung. Yet after traveling India’s countryside, tourists begin to see this natural resource as Indians do: a commodity so entwined with daily survival that it’s nearly impossible to think of life without it.
There are more than 283 million cows roaming the terrain of India. That equates to more than 700 million tons of manure produced daily which needs to be collected, distributed, discarded or somehow otherwise used. Amazingly little is wasted due to the ingenuity of India’s rural population. Part 1 of the uses of cow dung in India focuses on the collection, drying and burning of this natural waste product.
Finding enough fuel to support the energy needs in a land of 1.1 billion people may seem an insurmountable task. With 75% of India’s population living in rural areas, and continuous access to fuel still a luxury for most, everyday meals and heating depend on cow dung. Lack of firewood or brush means many of India’s rural are forced to turn to cow dung for their energy needs. The heat of the flames from dried cow dung leaves much to be desired which is why other additives are combined to create a better burn.
Dung is collected by both men and women however it’s generally left to women to finish the process of mixing and drying the dung. Farmers and those villagers with their own cows have an ample dung source nearby while villagers or those unable to afford a cow of their own roam local roads or popular paths where cows frequently pass. Young children are often hired and paid a very small wage to perform this task in cities which still rely on the old tradition of burning cow dung.
Once collected, dung is then mixed with straw or charcoal, formed into melon-sized balls, and pressed firmly against a wall with good sun exposure. In good weather the round flat discs (roughly 8″ in diameter) are dry and ready for burning in 3 to 4 days. The storage of dried cow dung discs varies based on the region of India. In the villages where traditions still run deep, marvelous stacks of cow dung are erected. The higher the stack, the more influence you have within the village. In other villages it is common to see the dried dung stacked within a makeshift covered structure, then plastered with a layer of fresh cow dung in which designs are drawn while still wet. This storage house provides protection against monsoon and winter season when it’s difficult to produce more fuel patties.
There are unfortunate downsides of using dried cow dung patties as fuel. Long term exposure to airborne particulate matter has been associated with increased rates of cataracts and other eye problems, acute respiratory infections (including tuberculosis), chronic obstructive lung disease and cancer. Studies have found higher incidence of these problems in people who use dung as fuel, indoors for cooking or heating. Other studies of homes where cow-dung-cake-fired ovens are used consistently have found significant concentrations of arsenic in indoor air samples. Inhalation of arsenic can cause respiratory problems, such as persistent coughing, chronic bronchitis and X-ray abnormalities.
Cooking with cow dung is not much different from using wood or other gases. A flame is ignited under pots and pans, fanned or cooled to achieve the right temperature and quickly stopped when cooking is complete. Smoke from the fire is said to enhance the flavor of food. Many Indians will swear the taste of food when cooked over cow dung coals is far superior versus food cooked using regular gas or kerosene.
Part 2 of the uses of cow dung in India will look at how farmers use this waste as fertilizer.