High cost of refills keep LPG out of reach for BPL families in Rampur, contradict govt claims on success of UJjwala scheme

Even though govt data shows the Ujjwala scheme exceeding its target of providing 5 crore subsidised LPG connections, the scheme has been a dud on the ground with BPL families claiming they can't afford LPG refills

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Rampur: The BJP launched its flagship Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY or Ujjwala) with much pomp and fanfare in 2016, so much so that the party is still using it to try and bag votes. However, the scheme, which promises subsidised cooking gas connections to rural women of Below Poverty Line (BPL) households, seems to have been a major dud.

And national BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra appears to have unwittingly given proof of the same.

On 31 March, Patra had tweeted a video that showed him visiting a family in Puri. Patra is contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha election from the Puri parliamentary constituency. In it, he was seen sitting on the floor and enjoying a meal cooked on a traditional earthen stove by the family's matriarchal head.

Not only did that kick up controversy for many reasons, sexism being one of them, but people also raised questions over the success of the Ujjwala scheme.

To get an LPG connection under this scheme, the adult woman of a poor family needs to fill a form provided by the gas agency and pay the subsidised rate of Rs 1,750 for a gas stove, a regulator, rubber pipe, and one cylinder, which would otherwise cost Rs 2,950.

According to the World Health Organisation, 3.8 million people die worldwide due to household exposure to smoke from dirty stoves using kerosene and solid fuels. In India, 4,88,200 deaths occur every year due to pneumonia, stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

BPL families in Uttar Pradesh's Rampur district say they have gone back to traditional chulhas as they can't afford to pay for LPG refills. Vinay Kumar

BPL families in Uttar Pradesh's Rampur district say they can't afford to pay for LPG refills. Vinay Kumar

Annually, eight full years are lost among every 1,000 Indians due to indoor air pollution. The most affected groups are women and younger children, as they spend maximum time at home.

Seema Rana, one of the office bearers of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), says that working on earthen stoves (chulhas) that produce smog and fumes takes a huge toll on the health conditions of women and, if the Ujjwala scheme is well implemented, it can help these women and their family members, many of whom suffer from health issues due to the use of chulhas.

"I visit rural areas very often and I know that the women get lung problem, breathing problem and it also affects their eyesight. The sad part is that no one cares about them. The Ujjwala scheme more feels like an eyewash because people are not able to afford the refilling. The government should at least consider setting up different rates of gas refill to the people coming from BPL families, and it is very much possible when a lot of people who are good economically have withdrawn their subsidies on the LPG," Rana adds.

When even a subsidy is out of reach

Anita, 34, who goes only by her first name, was one of the early beneficiaries of the Ujjwala scheme. She received a gas connection two years ago, but it’s been more than 18 months that she has used her LPG cooking set.

"Rotis cooked on the chullah (earthen stove) are tastier than those cooked on LPG stoves," says the mother of three.

But when pressed, she mentions the "unaffordability" of LPG cylinders as the real reason behind not using gas stoves. "Who wants to sit in front of burning wood emitting fumes and spend hours cooking? We would, of course, like to cook on gas and wrap it up fast, but it’s not possible because of the prices,” she says.

"There is only one earning member in my family, and the monthly income is no more than Rs 3,000. So buying a cylinder worth Rs 760 and then keep refilling it every three months is not possible for us," adds Anita, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste.

"It was good of the government to provide the gas connections at a subsidised rate of Rs 1,750, but it should have also thought of providing the refill at a discounted rate," she adds.

Government statistics paint a different picture

On 1 May, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched the Rs 8,000-crore Ujjwala scheme from Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh. In his public address then, he had said its aim was to replace the unclean cooking fuels used in rural India with the clean and more efficient LPG.

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The initiative aimed to provide 5 crore LPG connections to BPL families in three years.

According to the data available with the Press Information Bureau, till August 2018, the government was successful in delivering 5 crore cylinders under the scheme; out of these, Uttar Pradesh got the major chunk with 87 lakh new connections.

In reply to a query in the Lok Sabha, the Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas also said that, as on 18 December, 2018, oil marketing companies (OMCs) had released 5.86 crore LPG connections under the scheme across the country; Uttar Pradesh had got 98,75,274.

In what seemed to be a counter to the allegations that there were no takers for LPG refills, the minister also said that according to OMCs, Ujjwala beneficiaries purchased more than 23 crore refills. He added that OMCs have undertaken massive LPG network expansion drives in recent years to ensure easy availability of gas connections to poor families in rural areas. The government also claimed to have undertaken an SMS campaign for beneficiaries who have not returned for a refill.

However, recently, a report quoting senior officials on the condition of anonymity stated that a subsidy on refills was being considered as the refill rates were sub-optimal. A decision on this would only be taken after a new government is formed.

No budget for refills

But all of this seems to have been in vain. Kumari Seema, who is in her 30s, says she has been using her cylinder as a table by keeping a board on it.

“The first cylinder was operational for about three months; it’s been lying unused since after the gas got over. The cost of a refill is so high that we cannot afford it — the cost is equal to the monthly expenses incurred for my three kids and mother-in-law’s medicines," says Seema, a resident of Bara Khaas area in Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur district.

"We could have thought about using it if the rate was under Rs 500, but not Rs 760 or more. The cost of everything is going up, and affording the refill at this rate is impossible for the poor families," she adds.

Hakim Nazakat Ali, a social activist from the district, says LPG connections were distributed to people from the marginalised sections with good intentions, but the refill price has cost the scheme.

"Firewood or cow dung is available almost for free or at a meagre cost; so nobody wants to shell out money for LPG cylinder refilling. For most families, the refill cost is as much as their fortnightly income. The government should consider reducing it or setting a different rate for those below the poverty line," he says.

Up in smoke or a success?

Reena Kumari, district supply officer of Rampur district says the district has given 1,51,893 new gas connections, well exceeding the target of distributing 1,05,976 connections under the Ujjwala scheme.

"The scheme is doing very well in the district. People are enthusiastic about it, and that has helped us distribute more connections and achieve the target," she adds.

But when asked about consumers using the cylinders only once and not going for refilling, Kumari refuses to comment, saying she cannot speak on the rates fixed by the government.

According to a recent survey by the Research Institute of Compassionate Economics (RICE), 85 percent of the Ujjwala beneficiaries are not using the LPG cylinders owing to financial constraints; in 70 percent of the households surveyed, no money was spent on solid fuels.

So, even the cheapest cylinder refill would still be way higher than what they already spend. And since women are generally not the key economic decision makers in these households, the switch to LPG and its sustained use is difficult. The study states that households continue to resort to chulhas, using firewood and dung cakes, which cause air pollution that can be disastrous for health, especially of infants and the elderly, getting in the way of healthy child development and contributing to heart and lung disease.

However, despite these failings, the scheme has been credited with increasing India's demand for LPG to a record high, and it is only expected to rise further. India consumed a record 24.9 million tonnes LPG in the 2018-19 fiscal, 53 percent higher than five years ago and 6.9 percent higher than the previous year.

The authors are Lucknow and Ballia-based freelance reporters and members of 101Reporters.com


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