Launched in 2016 to boost the usage of clean cooking fuels and control the related disease burden, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) has claimed success with almost 98 percent coverage of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) in India. However, in the past five years, there has been only a 20 percent increase in the overall usage of clean cooking fuel, reveals a latest government survey of 22 states. Additionally, it indicates, houses that have LPG cylinders, may not necessarily be using them.
PMUY, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, became a flagship programme of the NDA government and is credited to help the party in several key elections. The government claims that LPG coverage (estimated on the basis of active domestic connections and estimated households) in the country is almost 98 percent – an increase from 56 percent in 2014-15. It also claims the programme as a social movement that has brought a sea change in women’s life by offering them a smokeless and hassle-free cooking option as well as a healthy lifestyle and empowering them financially.
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-V), released last month, paints a different story. In the first round, the Union government has released details of 22 states which show around a 20 percent increase in actual usage of clean cooking fuel from 2015-16 to 2019-20. In Bihar, for example, 37.8 percent of the households (urban and rural) use clean cooking fuel, notes the survey. In 2015-16, before the scheme was launched, around 17 percent of the households in the state were using clean cooking fuels, according to the previous NFHS. Other states that appeared in the first round of the NFHS-V have seen similar increases (see graphic).
In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Ujjwala scheme from Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh to encourage the use of clean fuel. The initial target of the scheme was to distribute LPG connections to 50 million households (five crore) below poverty line (BPL) families. Enthused by the success, the government increased this target to 80 million (eight crore) households with a deadline of December 2020. This target was achieved way before the set deadline, in September 2019.
National Family Health Survey revelations belie government claims
Right from the beginning of the Ujjwala scheme, experts have been raising concerns that the distributed LPG cylinders are not being used with the same enthusiasm as they were during the first time and this will defeat the whole purpose of the scheme. To counter these narratives, the government regularly shared statistics of refilling of the LPG cylinders by beneficiaries of the scheme.
When the member of parliament from Kozhikode (Kerala) representing Indian National Congress, M.K. Raghvan raised the same concern in Lok Sabha in September 2020, Dharmendra Pradhan, cabinet minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas replied that each beneficiary of the Ujjwala scheme has refilled an average 3.1 LPG cylinders.
However, experts said this is the white elephant in the room that the government willingly overlooks.
K.S. Kavi Kumar of Madras School of Economics said the figures of refilling that the Union government is offering, come from the suppliers’ side. Many oil marketing companies (OMCs) like IOC (Indian Oil Corporation), BPCL (Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited), HPCL (Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited) were roped in to implement the scheme on the ground. The figure that the minister has given in Parliament has been provided by these OMCs and doesn’t tell the complete story, he said. Consumer-side of data is also needed to make complete sense of the achievement of the Ujjwala scheme, he told Mongabay-India.
The current data (from the NFHS) makes it clear that providing cylinders to households is one thing and making them use it is another thing. It is very likely that people have taken the cylinder under the PMUY scheme but are not able to use it, said Kumar.
Ashok Srinivas, an energy-expert with Pune-based think tank Prayas, that works in the energy sector, said that the recent NFHS data reiterates the same old story of people not using the LPG given under the Ujjwala scheme. This has been said earlier as well, but the government never admitted it. Now the government survey itself is saying the same thing, he noted.
Around a year ago, another government survey, the 76th survey of the National Statistical Office (NSO) in November 2019 said, only 61 percent of total households of the country use gas cylinders for cooking purpose. Around 44.5 percent of rural households still use firewood, chips and crop residue for the cooking purposes. Another 5.5 percent of rural households still rely on dung cake to prepare their meal, revealed the survey.
Experts agree that many households use both the LPG as well as other fuels for cooking purposes. They use LPG cylinders for meeting quick demand like making tea etc. but rely on other fuels for cooking food. Both types of stoves are present in the kitchen of such houses.
Challenges in the use of LPG cylinders
There are several reasons why there is resistance among the rural households to use LPG cylinders and these have been highlighted in studies, suggest media reports and studies done by analysts.
First, a majority of households in the country, especially in the rural areas, rely on firewood, chips, crop residue and dung cake as cooking fuel as these are available to them almost free of cost.
Second, the current government stopped giving cylinders at subsidised rates. Under the direct benefit transfer, now people have to refill the cylinder first and then a subsidy amount comes into their bank account later. It is a big challenge for poor families to refill the LPG cylinder at full cost, said Kumar.
At present, the refilling of an LPG cylinder costs around Rs 700. As per the last headcount of people living below the poverty line in 2013, some 220 million Indians sustained their lives in less than Rs. 32 a day. Going by the estimate, around 44 million families live under less than Rs. 4,800 a month. In the recent past, demonetisation and the COVID-19 pandemic have only made it worse for this vulnerable population. For this major chunk of the Indian population, spending Rs 700 on refilling LPG per month is a huge economic burden that they can’t afford.
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Keeping the segment in mind, Kumar says that getting the cylinder refilled from their own pocket and waiting for the subsidy amount in future is tough for them. It has been repeatedly argued that the government must consider other means to promote clean fuel for cooking purposes. The government is anyway bearing the burden of subsidy, so, it is better to spend it in advance so that the economic burden of clean fuel is reduced on the poor people of the country.
As far as free fuel is concerned, the government needs to create awareness and convince the people that it is dangerous for their health. The government needs to campaign on a large scale to explain the benefits of clean fuels, Kumar said.
Identify the focus areas
The government wants people to use cleaner fuel more so that the disease burden related to using biofuels is reduced. A study published in scientific journal Lancet in 2018 claimed that household air pollution takes the lives of 0.48 million (480,000) Indians every year. Another latest research published in the same journal claims that air pollution is causing low birth weight and short gestation. Relation of air-pollution with an increasing burden of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, ischaemic heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cataract, is already established.
To control the disease burden, the Indian government has implemented several schemes for a long time including the promotion of biogas and clean stoves. However, in 2016, the Union government launched the Ujjwala Yojana – to make the LPG cylinders available in all households – as a complete solution to indoor air pollution. Other schemes promoting clean fuel were put on hold, says Kumar.
The government has to keep the ultimate target in mind, which is reducing the disease burden. In the majority of rural households, kitchens are connected or very close to the bedrooms and other areas where people spend most of their time. There is also a lack of ventilation in these rooms. A strategy to combat disease burden needs to consider all these aspects.
“Many experts, arguing in the favour of the Ujjwala scheme, claim that this scheme is trying to deal with indoor pollution even though indirectly. But I believe that we have to take the challenge head-on if we want to achieve the bigger targets,” Kumar said.
(This article first appeared in Mongabay.com)