Prime Minister Modi’s LPG scheme for poor running out of gas

Hindustan Times, Ballia (Uttar Pradesh) | BySarika Malhotra
Dec 14, 2017 09:18 AM IST

Called the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), PM Narendra Modi launched the Rs 8,000-crore project in UP’s Ballia on May 1, 2016, with an aim to provide 50 million free LPG connections to women in poor households.

Smoke from her wood-fired chulha reflected the helplessness and anger swirling inside Jarina Begum, cooking for her family of eight in a neighbour’s courtyard in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Guddi Devi of Jigni Khas village in Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh now uses the gas stove sparingly to save fuel, for quick snacks or tea for guests but not for daily cooking. (Arvind Gupta/HT Photo)
Guddi Devi of Jigni Khas village in Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh now uses the gas stove sparingly to save fuel, for quick snacks or tea for guests but not for daily cooking. (Arvind Gupta/HT Photo)

The woman in Dubari village of Mau district shouldn’t be using a clay hearth and burning firewood. She has a stovetop, a cooking gas cylinder and the government’s blessings in the form of a subsidy that gets debited into her bank account every time she buys a refill.

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But Begum and husband Noor Alam, a cart-puller earning about Rs 6,000 a month, are too poor to pay the subsidised price for a refill. “Humare sar par chhat nahee hai, gas ka paisa kahaan se laayen (where do we get money to buy cooking gas when we don’t have a roof over our head)?” asked the mother of six whose mud-and-thatch hut was destroyed by a thunderstorm.

Her fate belies the momentary stardom thrust on the family last year. And it reflects the distance between well-meaning policy and practice.

Begum was selected along with nine more women to be the country’s first recipients of the central government’s cooking gas scheme for people living below the poverty line.

Called the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Rs 8,000-crore project in UP’s Ballia on May 1, 2016, with an aim to provide 50 million free liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to women in poor households over three years. Ujjwala was an instant hit and more than 30 million connections were given in the first 19 months.

Begum and her husband were flown to New Delhi to meet the petroleum and natural gas minister. They had a paid-for holiday of their lifetime in the national capital for three days.

Back home, the couple’s ordeal didn’t change. The family continued to struggle for each meal. There was never any question of saving money to rebuild their rain-ruined hut. In the last eight months, Begum has bought just two refills.

“Humara mazak bana diya hai … humey plane mein Dilli lekar gaye, itna paisa kharcha kiya. Sarkari afsar aaye, humara video banaya … gas lagney ke baad Jarina ki zindagi badal gayi … Koi aakar dekh hee nahi raha hai ki hum aaj kaisey guzara kar rahen hain … Itnee mehngi gas bharwaney ka paisa kahaan se layen?” she snapped, stirring the broth pot.

[They have reduced us to a joke. They spent so much, took us to Delhi in a plane. Government officials came, made our video. Jarina’s life changed after we got a gas connection. But now, nobody takes notice of how we are living. We don’t have the money to refill such costly gas.]

Reporters, television crews and officials thronged Alam’s modest home after the launch of the cooking gas scheme. The trickle continued even after their house was damaged, prompting Satinder Singh of Shaheed Paras Indane Gas Service, the area’s LPG dealer, to build the single-room with an asbestos roof for the family.

In a corner of the room sits the prized gas stove, but without fuel in the cylinder.

A similar ordeal has besieged Guddi Devi of Jigni Khas village in Ballia district — another chosen first recipient. Devi is back to using an earthen chulha, burning cow-dung cakes, kept next to a dual-burner LPG stove in the kitchen.

She uses the stove sparingly to save fuel: for quick snacks or tea for guests, but not for daily cooking. Devi has taken just two refills in 2017.

Guddi Devi prepares cowdung cakes in Jigni Khas village in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh. (Arvind Gupta/HT Photo)
Guddi Devi prepares cowdung cakes in Jigni Khas village in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh. (Arvind Gupta/HT Photo)

“Emergency mein gas use kartey hain, khaana to lakdi pe hee banatey hain (we use the gas stove during emergencies, but do everyday cooking in the wood-fired hearth),” said Renu Chaurasia of Garwar village.

The Chaurasias have taken only three refills since they got an Ujjwala connection in December 2016.

The majority of poor households took a stove and the first LPG cylinder on a loan of around Rs 1,500 offered with the scheme. They have to pay the market price for LPG cylinders till the loan is repaid. It’s tough for these families to pay the subsidised price, let alone buy cylinders at the market price, which is Rs 819 in Ballia. That is around Rs 334 more than the current post-subsidy price of Rs 485.

Devi’s gas agency, Pragya Indane Gramin Vitrak in Garwar, has around 2,300 Ujjwala connections. It registers about 20% refills a month from these beneficiaries.

“With the rising cost of LPG and alternative cooking options in rural areas, even refills in regular LPG connections are not registering 50% sales. Though the subsidy amount is credited directly in the user’s bank accounts, it is difficult for poor households to spare Rs 800 at the time of buying refills,” said Vimal Gupta, the proprietor of Pragya Indane.

The dismal rate of refills raises questions. The government and oil marketing companies have succeeded in rapidly expanding LPG coverage among poor households, but these are not translating into a surge in LPG consumption.

In 2016-17, of the 3.22 crore new LPG connections, 2 crore were PMUY beneficiaries. While the rate of growth in LPG consumers on a year-on-year basis jumped to 16.2% in 2016-17 from 10.2% in 2015-16, the rate of growth in LPG consumption rose by just 80 basis points to 9.8% from 9% in 2015-16.

The three-year average price of a subsidised LPG cylinder is about Rs 429. Assuming that a cylinder lasts six weeks, the median number of cylinders used by households with LPG as primary fuel would be nine cylinders a year. And a family would have to spend Rs 429 every six weeks for a refill. That’s big money for poor families.

“For most Ujjwala consumers, food and education come first and cooking and health come next. The rise in LPG prices is deterring them from taking refills … from Rs 597.50 in August to Rs 814 in November,” said Rajesh Kumar Gautam, president of LPG Association, Ballia.

The mindset of the poor is to use one cylinder over three to four months.

The 4,23,024 regular LPG connections in Ballia are clocking in refills at the rate of 60-70% a month, while 95,815 Ujjwala connections are registering just 25-30% refills a month, says Gautam.

Abhishek Jain, senior programme lead, Council on Energy, Environment and Water, says while Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojanais a step in the right direction it would be useful to know how the sustained use of the fuel is evolving. “As per the 2011 census, while 53% of households in India had an LPG connection, only 28% used it as the primary source of cooking. This implies that despite paying for the connection, over half of the households having LPG were not using it as their primary cooking fuel,” says Jain.

The petroleum and natural gas ministry hails the scheme as a big success, but does not give details on the average number of refills or broader consumption patterns. Several emails to the ministry asking for refill data remained unanswered despite repeated reminders.

Dharmendra Pradhan, minister, petroleum and natural gas, while inaugurating the India chapter of Women in LPG last week said, “We have studied the first year consumption pattern and have found that about 60 per cent of the beneficiaries on an average bought four refills. This is a very encouraging trend and we hope the number will increase in future.’’

The NITI Aayog’s India Energy Security Scenario 2017 predicts that 35% of rural households will still be reliant on biomass for cooking by 2032.

It’s not hard to guess why. The family of Guddi Devi has three school-going children and finds it difficult to spare Rs 819 for an LPG cylinder. But dung cakes come free, with two cows in the backyard.

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