By Andrew Quinn
CHENNAI, India (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed one of her simplest but potentially most transformative diplomatic priorities in India on Wednesday: clean cooking stoves.
Clinton, who last year launched a $50 million U.S. drive to bring clean cooking stoves to developing countries to cut deaths from smoke inhalation and fight climate change, visited an Indian demonstration site to watch some of the stoves in action.
Clinton watched several Indian women working different models of cookstoves, ranging from a traditional fire to the new model stoves which burn both hotter and more efficiently, reducing the need for fuel and cutting emissions.
"The women here today represent women all over the world who are by and large the biggest users and victims of cookstoves," Clinton said after smiling and greeting each of the women crouched by their different stoves.
"We will work with people around the world to help develop clean cookstoves, help to manufacture them so they are affordable for you to buy them."
A U.S. official traveling with Clinton said improving cooking stoves in India alone could have a major impact.
Cooking fires are blamed for some 400,000 deaths in the country each year, mostly of women and children, and for as much as a quarter of India's emissions of soot or "black carbon," which along with ozone air pollution is seen as a major driver of global warming.
Clinton used her visit to announce that two major Indian trade federations were signing on to the clean cooking stove initiative, potentially using their huge networks to spread both the word and the technology behind the new cookers.
Clinton has advocated for clean cooking stoves on many of her trips to the developing world, seeing it as a way both to improve the environment and empower women, long one of her signature issues.
U.S. funding, which will be spread over five years, is part of a Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to spearhead the fight against a problem officials equate with malaria and unclean water in terms of its health impact worldwide.
Some 1.9 million premature deaths occur annually due to smoke inhalation from rudimentary stoves, which in many cases consist of a few stones and an open fire inside or outside a shelter.
Campaign officials say the aim is to make better cooking technology available at relatively low prices -- ranging from $10 to $100.
The cook stoves are not given away, which officials say can make them seem less valuable for the recipients, but the program aims to set up micro-lending programs or other methods to make them affordable, including potentially using carbon credits to offset loans for the purchase price.
The alliance seeks to have 100 million homes adopt cleaner stoves and fuels by 2020, and campaigners say they hope that the drive will spread -- creating new and more innovative stoves which can further cut emissions.
"It's not about a specific stove, it's about reaching the target," one official said. "We are trying to set a standard that anyone can follow."
(Editing by Matthias Williams)