Of all the welfare schemes launched by the Narendra Modi government in the past eight years, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) had the rare distinction of being applauded equally by those in power and also the Opposition.
Yet, six years since its launch in May 2016, has the steeply rising price of domestic LPG cylinders, now past the ₹1,000 mark across most states, taken the sheen off Ujjwala (loosely translated to bright or luminous in English)?
The PMUY had envisaged the allotment of LPG cylinder connections to over eight crore rural and urban households backed by a direct benefit transfer (DBT) subsidy model. That the scheme, at least in the initial years, was wildly successful was evident when even Congress leader Jairam Ramesh conceded after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls that Ujjwala had brought incremental votes to the BJP.
The general perception, boosted in earnest by the BJP and its social media wing, has been that by making access to cooking gas easier, PMUY had endeared the amorphous vote bank of homemakers, particularly in rural India, to the saffron party.
However, the flagship scheme seems to be loosing its luster with the cost of domestic LPG cylinders reaching an all-time high and amid worries of a further price rise. Added to this is the inadequate ₹200 subsidy Ujjwala beneficiaries are entitled to, for getting 12 refills each year.
Official data provided by Rameshwar Teli, Junior Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, in response to an unstarred question by Mallikarjun Kharge, the leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, shows that as many as two crore of the over eight crore PMUY beneficiaries either took no refills under the Ujjwala scheme in the last financial year or got just one refill in the entire year.
Very few refills taken
If customers outside the PMUY coverage net who took just one LPG refill or did not take any refill throughout 2021-22 are also factored in, the figure goes up further to a staggering 5.02 crore domestic LPG cylinder customers, roughly 16 per cent of the 30.53 crore active customers for domestic LPG cylinders (including Ujjwala beneficiaries) during the last financial year.
“During Financial Year 2021-22, of the total 30.53 crore active domestic customers, 2.11 crore domestic LPG customers had not taken any refill while 2.91 crore had taken only one refill,” Teli said in response to Kharge’s question.
As per data provided by Indian Oil Corporation Ltd (IOCL) on behalf of all oil marketing companies, the number of PMUY beneficiaries who had either stopped taking LPG cylinder refills or were receiving just a single refill through the year has also begun to rise after registering a steep fall during FY 2020-21.
Since 2017-18, 0.46 crore PMUY beneficiaries did not take a single refill for their cylinders while another 1.19 crore customers took just one. Over the next two years, a similar trend continued with 1.24 crore and 1.41 crore PMUY customers not taking a single refill from 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively. Similarly, from 2018-19, the number of Ujjwala beneficiaries who sought only a single refill touched a record high of 2.90 crore; the figure for the following financial year was 1.83 crore customers.
FY 2020-21 seems to have seen a jump in customers returning to seek PMUY subsidy benefit with the number of beneficiaries seeking no refills falling to a record low of 0.10 crore and those getting only a single refill too registered at 0.67 crore.
However, over the last fiscal, when domestic LPG cylinder rates were revised upwards several times, there was an increasing number of Ujjwala beneficiaries refraining from taking refills. As such, from 2021-22, the number of Ujjwala beneficiaries who did not take a single refill rose again to 0.90 crore while the figure for those who got only a single refill through the year too went up to 1.08 crore.
Over the past two days, as both Houses of Parliament discussed issues arising out of rising prices of essential items, Opposition members claimed that the upward trend of Ujjwala beneficiaries refusing to seek refills was proof that they could no longer afford the 14.2 kg domestic gas cylinders despite the ₹200 subsidy per refill for 12 refills annually. Kharge asserted that the government’s own data had now “exposed the propaganda” spread by the BJP over the so-called success of Modi’s Ujjwala scheme.
Opposition politicians argue that domestic LPG cylinder users, particularly those under the Ujjwala net, have been severely hit by the steadily rising cooking gas prices, and are reverting to traditional wood-fired chulhas. Media reports, political commentators and activists seem to agree.
Assembly poll optics
During the 2022 Assembly polls in five states, including the all-important Uttar Pradesh, numerous media reports, political commentators and activists repeatedly red-flagged how rural households which comprise a bulk of the over eight crore Ujjwala beneficiaries, had stopped getting their LPG cylinders refilled. In the hill state of Uttarakhand, one of the five states that had gone to polls, several videos had gone viral of homemakers using wood-fired chulhas for cooking while their Ujjwala cylinders lay abandoned or found use as utensil stands.
Though the BJP’s victory in these states, except in Punjab, put an abrupt end to the commentaries about public anger over rising prices including those of gas cylinders, the official data shows that the Centre’s tall claims about the resounding and continuing success of Ujjwala is more rhetoric than reality.
The Centre, however, remains in blissful denial of the situation just as it continues to assert that price rise and inflation, in general, is merely a political hoax being pushed by a beleaguered Opposition to put down Modi and his policies.
Also Read: TMC targets PM Modi over LPG price hike
On Tuesday (August 2), as the Rajya Sabha debated over rising prices of essential items, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman scoffed at the Opposition’s charge that the high cost of domestic LPG cylinders was forcing households to stop buying refills. Sitharaman got into an angry exchange with Congress MP Ranjeet Ranjan and some other Opposition MPs who had, during the debate, asked the government to rein in rising cooking gas prices.
Her counter argument relied on a comparison of the admittedly larger customer base for LPG cylinders during the Modi years than what it was during the UPA-era. When some Opposition MPs tried to read out to Sitharaman the government’s own data or estimates put out by private agencies about the drop in customers (both Ujjwala beneficiaries and general customers) getting LPG cylinders refills, the Finance Minister emphatically disagreed.
“Ranjeet Ranjan said you have given Ujjwala but what is the use because LPG cylinders have become so expensive that people are not taking refills… LPG coverage is defined as the ratio of active consumers to total households covered; that has increased from 61.9 percent in 2016 to 102.2 percent in November 2021. This is not possible unless people are getting their refills periodically… it is not true that people aren’t coming for refills, yes the price has gone up but it is not in our hands… we are still giving ₹200 (as subsidy) and that may not be sufficient but I also have to consider the number of people I can afford to give the subsidy,” Sitharaman argued.
Her assertion that the charge of customers not getting refills was “not true” evoked an uproarious response from the Opposition benches. When Opposition MPs pointed out that RTI replies as well as the government’s own disclosure before Parliament proved her claim to be untrue and that, additionally, the Centre had also drastically brought down LPG subsidy to just over ₹240 crore, the Finance Minister retorted angrily. Stating that the government was working with a budgetary provision that was in public domain, she told Ranjan to “go to your constituency and get the people their subsidy… you cannot force me to give you an answer you want, I will give an answer that I want… you like it or you don’t like it”.
The uproar from the Opposition benches made it clear that they did not like Sitharaman’s answer. With the Finance Minister evading questions on possible efforts being made by the government to rein in LPG cylinder prices and instead insisting that there was nothing wrong with the current pricing mechanism for cooking gas or other essential items, it is likely that common customers wouldn’t like her answer too. There may well be dark days ahead for Ujjwala.