Science & Health

In Rural India, Soaring Cooking Gas Prices Reverse Gains in Tackling Deadly Kitchen Smoke 

After cooking for decades on earthen stoves lit with firewood, women in Sarmathla village in India’s northern Haryana state were excited when they received cooking gas stoves and connections about five years ago.

The gas cylinders which use liquified petroleum gas (LPG) meant that they would not have to collect firewood and breathe in the smoky fumes emitted from stoves called “chullahs.”

They are among millions of poor rural households given subsidized gas connections and cylinders under a government program launched in 2016 to help women move away from using highly polluting sources of cooking such as wood and animal dung to a cleaner cooking fuel.

But in most homes in Sarmathla, the cylinders now lie unused in a corner of the kitchen as many return to lighting their stoves with firewood.

“I am a poor person and everything has become so expensive. As daily wagers, we barely earn four dollars a day,” said Santosh Devi, a village resident. “Tell me, should I buy food for children or buy a gas cylinder?”

A series of price increases in the past year and a half has made cooking gas cylinders unaffordable for many poor households already struggling to cope with soaring food prices and incomes that declined due to the pandemic.

The approximately $13 price tag of a gas cylinder is almost double compared to six years ago when the project was launched. And although the government last month announced a $2.50 subsidy for those with subsidized gas connections, most village residents say they still cannot use it as their primary source of cooking.

Cooking gas prices in India have jumped massively as international crude prices have spiraled — India is heavily dependent on imported natural gas.

The soaring costs pose a challenge to the ambitious program that aimed to tackle the severe health challenges caused by indoor air pollution. Along with building toilets and homes for the rural poor, it was one of the flagship programs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government meant to dramatically improve the lives of poor households in the countryside.

The government subsidies had given more than 80 million rural households access to a clean energy source for cooking until last year, according to government figures.

But Poonam Devi, a resident of Sarmathla, said she uses it  sparingly.

“I only cook vegetables on gas but I make everything else on a wood fire,” said Devi as she rolled out Indian bread for the family of seven. “Sometimes I use it when guests come.”

Experts worry that this will set back efforts to address the severe health problems caused by toxic kitchen fumes. While this village depends mostly on firewood, cow dung and agricultural waste are other traditional sources for cooking in India’s vast rural areas.

“The indoor air pollution caused by these solid fuels is equivalent to a person smoking a significant number of cigarettes continuously at the same time,” said Abhishek Jain, director of Powering Livelihoods at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in New Delhi.

Calling it one of India’s biggest public health challenges, Jain said, “Broad estimates suggest that India loses half a million of its population every year prematurely because of indoor air pollution. That is the scale of the problem we are dealing with.”

The women in this village know the health consequences of the sooty flames only too well.

“I cough and I get congestion and breathing problems due the cooking. So I try to cook on gas when I can,” said Paramwati, a Sarmathla resident whose tiny kitchen traps the fumes.

It is not just poor households that have been affected — even better-off families in this village, who do not benefit from government subsidies, are struggling to cope with the high prices of cooking gas.

“I have to think many times before I can refill this cylinder. I can only do it when I manage to save $13 or I have to wait until my husband gets his salary,” said Manju Chhoker.

That feeling is widely echoed across the village. “It is a huge challenge to cope with inflation and the high prices of gas. When it is time to refill the gas cylinder, I get really worried,” said another resident, Satya Prakash Rajput.

According to studies, the number of households using clean energy as the primary fuel for cooking rose exponentially from about 30 percent to nearly 70 percent between 2011 and 2020. Those gains are now under threat, say experts, as affordability emerges as a huge barrier.

“At the very least this has stalled the progress, at worst this has reversed some of the progress,” says Jain. “So, unless prices would get more affordable through either subsidy support by the government or a decrease in international prices, households may not now shift to liquified petroleum gas for most of their cooking.”

That means women in Sarmathla village may have to continue to lug firewood and cope with the fumes in their kitchens to light their stoves.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Multimedia Exhibit Explores Intersections of Gender Identity, Disability

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month. In the Western U.S. state of Colorado, multimedia artists are exploring the intersections of gender identity and disability. VOA’s Scott Stearns has the story from Denver. WARNING: The video contains a brief depiction of nudity.

Science & Health

UK Reports 104 More Cases of Monkeypox, Mostly in Men

British health officials have detected another 104 cases of monkeypox in England in what has become the biggest outbreak beyond Africa of the normally rare disease.

The U.K.’s Health Security Agency said Monday there were now 470 cases of monkeypox across the country, with the vast majority in gay or bisexual men. Scientists warn that anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, is susceptible to catching monkeypox if they are in close, physical contact with an infected person or their clothing or bed sheets.

According to U.K. data, 99% of the cases so far have been in men and most are in London.

In May, a leading adviser to the World Health Organization said the monkeypox outbreak in Europe and beyond was likely spread by sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium.

Last week, WHO said 1,285 cases of monkeypox had been reported from 28 countries where monkeypox was not known to be endemic. No deaths have been reported outside of Africa. After the U.K., the biggest numbers of cases have been reported in Spain, Germany and Canada.

WHO said many people in the outbreak have “atypical features” of the disease which could make it more difficult for doctors to diagnose. The U.N. health agency also said while close contact can spread monkeypox, “it is not clear what role sexual bodily fluids, including semen and vaginal fluids, play in the transmission.”

Meanwhile, countries in Africa have reported more than 1,500 suspected cases including 72 deaths from eight countries. Monkeypox is considered endemic in Central and West Africa.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

‘A Strange Loop’ Makes History at Tonys; ‘Company’ Wins 5

“A Strange Loop,” an irreverent, sexually frank work about Blackness and queerness took home the best new musical crown at the Tony Awards on Sunday, as voters celebrated Broadway’s most racially diverse season by choosing an envelope-pushing Black voice.

Michael R. Jackson’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize drama winner is a theater meta-journey — a tuneful show about a Black gay man writing a show about a Black gay man. Jackson also won for best book. Many of the night’s other Tonys were spread over several productions.

The victory of a smaller, more offbeat musical against more commercial offerings continues a recent trend, as when the intimate musical “The Band’s Visit” beat the big brand-musicals “Frozen,” “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” in 2018 or when “Hadestown” bested “Tootsie,” “Beetlejuice” and “Ain’t Too Proud” a year later.

“A Strange Loop” beat “MJ,” a bio musical of the King of Pop’s biggest hits, for the top prize, although the other Jackson musical nabbed four Tony Awards including for best choreography. Myles Frost moonwalked away with the award for best lead actor in a musical for playing Michael Jackson, becoming the youngest solo winner in that category. “Mom, I made it!” he said.

“MJ” represents the 22-year-old Frost’s Broadway debut as he plays Jackson with a high, whispery voice, a Lady Diana-like coquettishness and a fierce embrace of Jackson’s iconic dancing and singing style. “Heal the world,” Frost said from the stage, channeling Jackson.

Joaquina Kalukango won the Tony for best leading actress in a musical for her work in “Paradise Square,” a show about Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostling to survive in New York City around the time of the Civil War. Earlier in the night, she blew the house down with a stunning performance of the musical’s “Let It Burn.”

A gender-swapped revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” rode the fondness Broadway has for the late iconic composer by earning five statuettes, including best musical revival. 

“Company” is an exploration of a single person’s conflicted feelings about commitment, traditionally focusing on a 35-year-old bachelor. This time, it had a bachelorette and the sexes of several couples were swapped.

Marianne Elliott made Tony history by becoming the only woman to have won three Tonys for directing, the latest for “Company.” She thanked Sondheim for letting her put a woman “front and center.” She dedicated her award to everyone fighting to keep theaters open. 

Patti LuPone won best featured actress in a musical for her work in the revival, thanking COVID-19 safety officials in her acceptance speech. Matt Doyle won for best featured actor in a musical for “Company.”

“The Lehman Trilogy,” spanning 150 years and running three and a half hours, follows the fortunes of a single family into the financial crash of 2008. It was crowned best new play and Sam Mendes won for best direction of a play, praising the season for its “rampant creativity.” One of its three stars, Simon Russell Beale, won for best actor in a play and thanked the audience for coming to see a trio of British actors tell a New York story.

Deirdre O’Connell won for best actress in a play for her work in “Dana H.,” about a real woman kidnapped by a former convict and white supremacist. O’Connell never speaks, instead, lip-syncing to an edited recording of the survivor. On Sunday, O’Connell urged the crowd to ignore safe options and “make the weird art.”

“Take Me Out” won for best play revival, and “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson won the Tony for best featured actor in a play for his work in it. “Mom, Dad, thank you for letting me move to New York when I was 17-years-old. I told you it would be OK,” said Ferguson, who also thanked his understudy and his husband.

Host Ariana DeBose kicked off her portion of the show in a sparkling white jumpsuit and wide-brimmed hat, dancing and singing to the song “This Is Your Round of Applause,” which mashed up shards of musical theater favorites, like “Chicago, “The Wiz,” “Evita,” “Rent,” “Hair,” “Cabaret,” “Hairspray” and “West Side Story,” the movie remake for which she recently won an Oscar.

Still panting while welcoming viewers, she told the crowd that this was the season “Broadway got it’s groove back.”

Phylicia Rashad won best featured actress in a play for “Skeleton Crew.” The Dominique Morisseau play is about blue-collar job insecurity set in a Detroit auto stamping plant. “It’s wonderful to present humanity in all it’s fullness,” Rashad said.

And the Tonys ushered in the latest EGOT winner: Jennifer Hudson, who has an Emmy, Grammy and Oscar, and joined that elite group Sunday when “A Strange Loop” won best musical — she’s a producer.

A starry revival of the classic show “The Music Man” with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster walked away empty-handed despite six nominations and being a box office smash, regularly pulling in more than $3 million a week.

The season was marked by the embrace of seven Black playwrights, from contemporary writers like Dominique Morisseau, Keenan Scott II and Antoinette Nwandu, to underappreciated historical playwrights like Alice Childress and Ntozake Shange. DeBose said Broadway was more representative.

DeBose celebrated the Black voices and onstage talent — as well as noting that two Broadway theaters were being renamed for Black icons James Earl Jones and Lena Horne — saying that The Great White Way was now a nickname “as opposed to a how-to guide.”

DeBose also hailed the heroic efforts of understudies, swings and standbys to keep shows going throughout pandemic spikes, noting that she and many other Tony nominees had once been unheralded understudies and swings. After the cast of “Six” performed, DeBose noted that one was a fill-in at the last minute. 

Having been freed of handling the technical awards, the main telecast had a less frantic, more airy feel. DeBose was an assured, funny and versatile host, one who roamed the seats, sat in Andrew Garfield’s lap, danced with Sam Rockwell and prompted Laurence Fishburne to do a Daffy Duck imitation. She closed the show with a medley of the musical nominees, at one point making “MJ” part of the Dylan show: “You’ve been hit by/A rolling stone.”

Some of the show highlights included the massive cast of “The Music Man” filling the massive Radio City stage with “Seventy-Six Trombones,” as well as Prince Jackson and Paris Jackson introducing the show about their father before the “MJ” cast danced to an energetic “Smooth Criminal.”

Billy Crystal taught the crowd “Yiddish scatting,” and the original cast of the 2007 Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening” — including Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff — reunited for a performance.

Many acceptance speeches thanked the audiences for braving spikes in COVID-19 to come to see shows, and Marsha Gay Harden cheered 150 safety officers invited as guests to the Tonys.

Earlier, Darren Criss and Julianne Hough kicked off the four-hour awards, handing out mostly design awards. Criss opened the telecast with the original song, “Set the Stage,” as he and Hough energetically danced up ladders, on laundry hampers and in sliding theater seats to celebrate the artists who keep theater alive.

The first award of the night — for best score — went to “Six: The Musical,” with music and lyrics by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Marlow became the first out nonbinary composer-lyricist to win a Tony. “Six: The Musical” also picked up the award for best costumes for a musical.

The season — with 34 new productions — represents a full return to theaters after nearly two years of a pandemic-mandated shutdown. At the last Tonys nine months ago, the winners were pulled from just 18 eligible plays and musicals, and many of the competitive categories were depleted.

Sondheim, the iconic composer who died in late 2021, was honored in a special segment by Bernadette Peters singing his song “Children Will Listen.” Angela Lansbury, who was honored with a lifetime achievement Tony, wasn’t present so her “Sweeney Todd” co-star Len Cariou accepted on her behalf.

Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

SIPRI STUDY: World Headed for New Era of Nuclear Rearmament

After 35 years of decline, the number of nuclear weapons in the world is set to rise in the coming decade as global tensions flare amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, researchers said Monday.  

The nine nuclear powers — Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, the United States and Russia — had 12,705 nuclear warheads in early 2022, or 375 fewer than in early 2021, according to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).   

The number has come down from a high of more than 70,000 in 1986, as the U.S. and Russia have gradually reduced their massive arsenals built up during the Cold War. 

But this era of disarmament appears to be coming to an end and the risk of a nuclear escalation is now at its highest point in the post-Cold War period, SIPRI researchers said. 

“Soon, we’re going to get to the point where, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the global number of nuclear weapons in the world could start increasing for the first time,” Matt Korda, one of the co-authors of the report, told AFP. 

“That is really kind of dangerous territory.” 

After a “marginal” decrease seen last year, “nuclear arsenals are expected to grow over the coming decade,” SIPRI said. 

During the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has on several occasions made reference to the use of nuclear weapons. 

Meanwhile several countries, including China and Britain, are either officially or unofficially modernizing or ramping up their arsenals, the research institute said. 

“It’s going to be very difficult to make progress on disarmament over the coming years because of this war, and because of how Putin is talking about his nuclear weapons,” Korda said. 

These worrying statements are pushing “a lot of other nuclear armed states to think about their own nuclear strategies,” he added. 

‘Nuclear war can’t be won’ 

Despite the entry into force in early 2021 of the U.N. nuclear weapon ban treaty and a five-year extension of the U.S.-Russian “New START” treaty, the situation has been deteriorating for some time, according to SIPRI. 

Iran’s nuclear program and the development of increasingly advanced hypersonic missiles have, among other things, raised concern. 

The drop in the overall number of weapons is due to the U.S. and Russia “dismantling retired warheads,” SIPRI noted, while the number of operational weapons remains “relatively stable.” 

Moscow and Washington alone account for 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. 

Russia remains the biggest nuclear power, with 5,977 warheads in early 2022, down by 280 from a year ago, either deployed, in stock or waiting to be dismantled, according to the institute. 

More than 1,600 of its warheads are believed to be immediately operational, SIPRI said. 

The United States meanwhile has 5,428 warheads, 120 fewer than last year, but it has more deployed than Russia, at 1,750. 

In terms of overall numbers, China comes third with 350, followed by France with 290, Britain with 225, Pakistan with 165, India with 160, and Israel with 90. 

Israel is the only one of the nine that does not officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons. 

As for North Korea, SIPRI said for the first time that Kim Jong Un’s Communist regime now has 20 nuclear warheads. 

Pyongyang is believed to have enough material to produce around 50. 

In early 2022, the five nuclear-armed permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — issued a statement that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” 

Nonetheless, SIPRI noted, all five “continue to expand or modernize their nuclear arsenals and appear to be increasing the salience of nuclear weapons in their military strategies.” 

“China is in the middle of a substantial expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal, which satellite images indicate includes the construction of over 300 new missile silos,” it said.  

According to the Pentagon, Beijing could have 700 warheads by 2027. 

Britain last year said it would increase the ceiling on its total warhead stockpile and would no longer publicly disclose figures for the country’s operational nuclear weapons. 

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Tony Awards Begin With Non-acting Honors Handed Out in NYC

Darren Criss and Julianne Hough kicked off the four-hour Tony Award celebrations at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night, handing out mostly design awards exclusively on the streaming Paramount+. 

Criss opened the telecast with the original song, “Set the Stage,” as he and Hough energetically danced up ladders, on laundry hampers and in sliding theater seats to celebrate the artists who keep theater alive. 

The first award of the night — for best score — went to “Six: The Musical,” with music and lyrics by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Marlow is the first out nonbinary composer-lyricist to win a Tony. 

Criss and Hough have an hour to hand out a total of eight technical awards for things such as best lighting and sound design, along with best score, orchestrations and choreography. They will then pass hosting duties to Ariana DeBose for the main three-hour telecast on CBS and Paramount+ from the same stage, live coast to coast for the first time. 

The season — with 34 new productions — represents a full return to theaters after nearly two years of a pandemic-mandated shutdown. At the last Tonys nine months ago, the winners were pulled from just 18 eligible plays and musicals, and many of the competitive categories were depleted. 

DeBose, the Tony-nominated theater veteran and freshly minted Oscar winner for “West Side Story,” said Broadway is due for a party. 

“I feel like if there was ever the time, the time is now,” she said. “I think it’s a triumph to have simply made it to this point, to have made art and to have a show.” 

The telecast will have performances from this year’s Tony Award-nominated musicals, including “A Strange Loop,” “Company,” “Girl from the North Country,” “MJ,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” “Music Man,” “Paradise Square” and “Six.” The original cast members of the 2007 Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening” will also reteam and perform. 

“A Strange Loop,” a theater meta-journey about a playwright writing a musical, goes into the show with a leading 11 Tony nominations. Right behind with 10 nominations each is “MJ,” a bio musical of the King of Pop stuffed with his biggest hits, and “Paradise Square,” a musical about Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostling to survive in New York City around the time of the Civil War. 

Front-runners for best actress in a musical are Sharon D Clarke from the revival of “Caroline, or Change” and Joaquina Kalukango of “Paradise Square.” The best actor in a musical may come down to Jaquel Spivey from “A Strange Loop” versus Myles Frost as the King of Pop in “MJ the Musical.” 

“The Lehman Trilogy,” Stefano Massini’s play spanning 150 years about what led to the collapse of financial giant Lehman Brothers, is the leading best new play contender, while David Morse in a revival of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” is the leading contender as best actor in a play. His co-star, Mary-Louise Parker, could become the first actor to receive consecutive Tonys for best actress in a play.