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Why the Ujjwala scheme is more Gas than Substance?

Sushmita 16 May 2019
It is true that clean energy is important for rural households. As per available studies, a major source of air pollution in rural India is the use of solid fuels, such as dung cakes and wood for cooking and heating. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-2016, 75% of rural Indian households reported mainly using solid fuels for cooking. It was also noted that high levels of indoor air pollution can kill infants, get in the way of healthy child development, and contribute to both heart and lung diseases. On an average lung function is worst among women who cook with solid fuel, but lung function for all adults is worse in villages in which a greater fraction of households among those that cook using solid fuels.

Modi


This context lays fertile ground for a scheme that provides clean energy to rural household. And Ujjwala scheme promised to do just that. The scheme’s stated aims are to “safeguard the health of women & children by providing them with a clean cooking fuel – LPG, so that they don’t have to compromise their health in smoky kitchens or wander in unsafe areas collecting firewood.”
And it waslaunchedin Ballia, Uttar Pradesh on May 1, 2016. Per the scheme, five crore LPG connections were to be provided to BPL families with a support of Rs. 1600 per connection in the next three years. Rs. 8000 crore was said to be allocated towards the implementation of the scheme.

However, the fine print was omitted in the fanfare of publicity: nowhere did the government’s publicity paraphernalia mention that the government only promised to ensure that Ujjwalaconnections would be delivered at places “accessible to beneficiaries” but also that the beneficiaries would have to start becoming accustomed to the LPG usage.

As it happens with most government schemes, this was followed by photo-ops and PR campaigns across the country, with leading newspapers and media houses calling the scheme a “success” within months. Deft at propaganda, within a year of its launch, the self-congratulatory BJP government had already termed the scheme a “success” A report in the prestigious and normally balanced daily, the Hindu, termed the scheme as a“game changer”.

It said that the PMUY owed “much of its success to the data provided by the Socio Economic Caste Census 2011 or SECC” that helped the Petroleum Ministry, along with the State governments, to “accurately identify the households in need of an LPG connection.”

The SECC data identifies nearly 9 crore households as deprived as per different deprivation indicators used for the Census. The same report had pointed out officials stating that, as the “Modi government heads to 2019 elections, there is a “conscious attempt” to change its core political constituency.

An intensive PR campaign followed, with “success” stories pouring in from various quarters. Around April 2018, the National Geographic reportedly ‘worked’ on a documentary, ‘Winds of Change’ on the scheme. Reports said, “National Geographic has chronicled stories of the ill-effects of firewood smoke on women and how the government’s PMUY of free LPG conections has ‘changed their lives and safeguarded them from the health hazards.”

In a “very special broadcast” aired by  Timesnow in January 2018, prime minister, Modi had asked, “What will be the ease of living for a poor woman, who uses a stove to cook food and spends her entire life in that smoke? “According to me, her ease of living is possible if I free her from that smoke. I took the big step of Ujjwala and provided gas to 3,30,00,000 families. I may even complete the target of 5 crore families before the deadline. This, in itself, is our step in the direction of ease of living,” he said.

In May 2018, in an interaction, apparently facilitated by the NaMo app, that went online as BJP completed its four years of being in power, PM Modi referred to MunshiPremchand’s story Idgah, which is centred around a boy Hamid, who sacrifices sweets at a fair to buy a chimtafor his grandmother so that she does not burn her hands while making rotisfor him. Adept at appropriating the metaphor, the primine minister then says, “If a boy like Hamid can do this then why can’t I?” He says, “I am very upset that even after so many years of independence, other parties remained oblivious of the plight of these women, because they were working for the big-wigs.”

Like every story related to the Prime Minister’s childhood, this too had an echo of the personal, on his childhood. He said that though the rich bought LPGs for themselves, as a poor child he saw that poor people “were told that it was unsafe to have a gas connection at home.”

It was not long before the glow faded. As time passed various criticisms of the scheme emerged. Infact soon as the scheme was launched, official documents reveal that the Union government was aware of its shortcomings. Interestingly, the government had launched the scheme without waiting for the findings of a study it itself had commissioned to understand how exactly usage of the LPG cylinder could be increased in poor households, it at all. Soon after the scheme was launched, the study’s findings showed important flaws in its implementation, which were obviously not factored in.
Though 30 million connections were delivered by September 2017, little was done to check what was happening to these connections. Were they working? Were they being used? Did they signify a miracle change in the lives of the poorest of the poor?

Under the scheme, the government provides a subsidy of Rs 1600 to government owned oil manufacturing companies for every free LPG gas connection that they install in a household. The subsidy is intended to cover the security feefor the cylinder and fitting charges, and beneficiaries are supposed to buy their own cooking stove. The cost of stove and first refill can be paid back in monthly instalments. However, the cost of all subsequent LPG refills are to be borne by the beneficiaries.

A study titled “Persistence of solid fuel use despite increase in LPG ownership: New Survey evidence from rural North India” done in four states Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh by the R.I.C.E. institute which released its findings in 2019 (months before the ongoing elections) highlighted that by 2018, 76 percent of rural households in the sample states [of Bihar, MO, Rajasthan and UP] had LPG, with differences across states following a similar pattern as in 2014. The study showed that among households that did not own LPG in 2014, 69 percent had these by 2018, and about 59 percent received it from the government through the UjjwalaYojana.

However, the study pointed out that even though 32 percent households had LPG gas connections in the sample states, most of them still mainly used wood or cow dung cakes for cooking. This crucial statistic suggested that low usage of clean fuels could not in anyway be explained away by less number of connections or low rates of ownership alone.

Interestingly, 98 percent of the households that owned LPG by 2018 also had a chulha and hadn’t let go of their chulhas. When the study enquired of the users about the items cooked on LPG and those on chulha, the respondents of the study said that most of them used LPG for making tea, while when it came to cooking roti, sabzi, dal, chawal they used the chulha.

One of the observations of the study, thus, was that majority of the households owning LPG either mixed fuel or exclusively used chulha.

Evidence from several states, not just these four suggested a similar pattern. For example, a cleverly titled cover story called, “Running out of gas”, published in the Frontline in April 2019 (after the election cycle had begun!), highlighted that the number of connections released under the PMUY in West Bengal stands at 78,47,110, the second highest in the country after Uttar Pradesh (1,26,40,088), but industry sources say only 20-25 per cent of the beneficiaries go for refills. This study is based on official figures were released by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

The in-depth story pointed out the hardships of the people who have been the beneficiaries of the scheme. The scheme makes it mandatory for the people to pay the cost of the gas stove and first cylinder in instalments. Only after covering the cost are they eligible to avail the subsidy on the subsequent refills. The subsidy is to be deposited in their bank account later. With the increasing price of LPG, ranging between Rs. 700- Rs. 900 at present, the study observed, “those for whom Ujjwala scheme is designed are finding it difficult to make use of it.”
 

More than any other aspect, the money spent behind the PR campaign amounts to a stupendous Rs. 293 crore, tendered by Indian Oil Corporation (IOC). The publicity was handled by a Delhi-based US advertising agency. The agency’s website says that the ruling BJP is its top client. The tender involved outdoor campaigns that highlight the “success” of the scheme. Business Standard reported that the IOC tender is considered to be too huge for a single scheme since the total budget for campaigns run by the government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity on an annual basis is only around Rs 150-200 crore. Outdoor campaigns were planned for states of Karnataka, Gujarat and Odisha, apart from cities such as Mumbai and Delhi along with 26 airports across the country. Whether the poor are getting the LPG refills or not the PR game is up for the party which awaits its fate on May 23.


However, not just the Frontline, several others had started questioning the “success” of the scheme by March-April 2019.

In an opinion piece titled, “Why the govt’sUjjwala plan is a glass half full”, published in January 2019, Livemint said, “during Mint’s coverage of the recent Assembly elections, reporters found there were implementation issues with the scheme in Madhya Pradesh”. In April it published apiece titled, “The Ujjwala LPG scheme is a half-baked programme”. This piece drew attention to the curious case of SambitPatra, BJP’s spokesperson contesting from Odisha, in which he is eating food in a rural household, while an older woman, in the background, cooked on a chulha. The report said that the scheme was a crucial publicity point to ensure the BJP’s victory in 2017 UP Assembly elections.

Controversies aside, there are serious implementation issues with the scheme. When the concept of paying back by instalments and the refill not delivered until the payment was complete, became a deterrent for refilling, the government waived the primary loan. The government allowed the subsidy for the refill to flow for six refills after the connection. However, the subsidy would still get deducted after the first six months. The beneficiaries were still not aware of this change of thinking within the government that meant that the loan was being waived permanently.

Here, one is bound to go back and ask if the fuel being used earlier by the rural households was more affordable for these families. As per a survey by the National Sample Survey Organization, 2013, refilling a cylinder costs almost half the average monthly per-capita expenditure in rural India. If used exclusively, the average rural household would likely go through a cylinder each month (Dabadge et al. 2018). It is likely that, when cheaper alternatives such as wood and cow dung, which in many cases cost nothing, are available, this kind of an expense over the LPG is burdensome for the poorest of the poor.

The R.I.C.E. study also indicates that 35 percent of all LPG-owning households, and 60% of households that received LPG through Ujjwala, report not receiving the subsidy at all, or the beneficiaries being unaware of the account in which the subsidy was to be transferred.

Numbers aside, attitudes in the study suggested that over 92% of the households reported that the food cooked on the chulhawas tastier. So even at the cost of the health of the person who cooked, in all likelihood, the female members of the household, the households preferred the chulha.

The study emphasised that discouraging the use of solid fuels, and promoting the exclusive use of LPG will be essential for realizing health improvements. The factors that influence cooking decisions like household wealth, the availability and cost of different fuels; the status and decision-making power of the individuals who spend the most time making, collecting, and cooking with solid fuels; and beliefs and attitudes towards LPG versus chulha need to be factored in.  Finally, the study concluded by saying that “Explaining solid fuel use despite LPG ownership, and designing interventions to discourage their use are important priorities for further research”

However, the disregard of the government for research is more than evident, especially in its haste to launch the scheme without waiting for the base study. The government already has celebrated the “success” of the scheme and keeps highlighting this as one of its key achievements. Not only that, it has also launched schemes such as Ujjwala Sanitary napkins, Ujjwaladidi campaigns in order to boost the scheme.

More than any other aspect, the money spent behind the PR campaign amounts to a stupendous Rs. 293 crore, tendered by Indian Oil Corporation (IOC). The publicity was handled by a Delhi-based US advertising agency. The agency’s website says that the ruling BJP is its top client. The tender involved outdoor campaigns that highlight the “success” of the scheme. Business Standard reported that the IOC tender is considered to be too huge for a single scheme since the total budget for campaigns run by the government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity on an annual basis is only around Rs 150-200 crore. Outdoor campaigns were planned for states of Karnataka, Gujarat and Odisha, apart from cities such as Mumbai and Delhi along with 26 airports across the country. Whether the poor are getting the LPG refills or not the PR game is up for the party which awaits its fate on May 23.
 
 

Why the Ujjwala scheme is more Gas than Substance?

It is true that clean energy is important for rural households. As per available studies, a major source of air pollution in rural India is the use of solid fuels, such as dung cakes and wood for cooking and heating. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-2016, 75% of rural Indian households reported mainly using solid fuels for cooking. It was also noted that high levels of indoor air pollution can kill infants, get in the way of healthy child development, and contribute to both heart and lung diseases. On an average lung function is worst among women who cook with solid fuel, but lung function for all adults is worse in villages in which a greater fraction of households among those that cook using solid fuels.

Modi


This context lays fertile ground for a scheme that provides clean energy to rural household. And Ujjwala scheme promised to do just that. The scheme’s stated aims are to “safeguard the health of women & children by providing them with a clean cooking fuel – LPG, so that they don’t have to compromise their health in smoky kitchens or wander in unsafe areas collecting firewood.”
And it waslaunchedin Ballia, Uttar Pradesh on May 1, 2016. Per the scheme, five crore LPG connections were to be provided to BPL families with a support of Rs. 1600 per connection in the next three years. Rs. 8000 crore was said to be allocated towards the implementation of the scheme.

However, the fine print was omitted in the fanfare of publicity: nowhere did the government’s publicity paraphernalia mention that the government only promised to ensure that Ujjwalaconnections would be delivered at places “accessible to beneficiaries” but also that the beneficiaries would have to start becoming accustomed to the LPG usage.

As it happens with most government schemes, this was followed by photo-ops and PR campaigns across the country, with leading newspapers and media houses calling the scheme a “success” within months. Deft at propaganda, within a year of its launch, the self-congratulatory BJP government had already termed the scheme a “success” A report in the prestigious and normally balanced daily, the Hindu, termed the scheme as a“game changer”.

It said that the PMUY owed “much of its success to the data provided by the Socio Economic Caste Census 2011 or SECC” that helped the Petroleum Ministry, along with the State governments, to “accurately identify the households in need of an LPG connection.”

The SECC data identifies nearly 9 crore households as deprived as per different deprivation indicators used for the Census. The same report had pointed out officials stating that, as the “Modi government heads to 2019 elections, there is a “conscious attempt” to change its core political constituency.

An intensive PR campaign followed, with “success” stories pouring in from various quarters. Around April 2018, the National Geographic reportedly ‘worked’ on a documentary, ‘Winds of Change’ on the scheme. Reports said, “National Geographic has chronicled stories of the ill-effects of firewood smoke on women and how the government’s PMUY of free LPG conections has ‘changed their lives and safeguarded them from the health hazards.”

In a “very special broadcast” aired by  Timesnow in January 2018, prime minister, Modi had asked, “What will be the ease of living for a poor woman, who uses a stove to cook food and spends her entire life in that smoke? “According to me, her ease of living is possible if I free her from that smoke. I took the big step of Ujjwala and provided gas to 3,30,00,000 families. I may even complete the target of 5 crore families before the deadline. This, in itself, is our step in the direction of ease of living,” he said.

In May 2018, in an interaction, apparently facilitated by the NaMo app, that went online as BJP completed its four years of being in power, PM Modi referred to MunshiPremchand’s story Idgah, which is centred around a boy Hamid, who sacrifices sweets at a fair to buy a chimtafor his grandmother so that she does not burn her hands while making rotisfor him. Adept at appropriating the metaphor, the primine minister then says, “If a boy like Hamid can do this then why can’t I?” He says, “I am very upset that even after so many years of independence, other parties remained oblivious of the plight of these women, because they were working for the big-wigs.”

Like every story related to the Prime Minister’s childhood, this too had an echo of the personal, on his childhood. He said that though the rich bought LPGs for themselves, as a poor child he saw that poor people “were told that it was unsafe to have a gas connection at home.”

It was not long before the glow faded. As time passed various criticisms of the scheme emerged. Infact soon as the scheme was launched, official documents reveal that the Union government was aware of its shortcomings. Interestingly, the government had launched the scheme without waiting for the findings of a study it itself had commissioned to understand how exactly usage of the LPG cylinder could be increased in poor households, it at all. Soon after the scheme was launched, the study’s findings showed important flaws in its implementation, which were obviously not factored in.
Though 30 million connections were delivered by September 2017, little was done to check what was happening to these connections. Were they working? Were they being used? Did they signify a miracle change in the lives of the poorest of the poor?

Under the scheme, the government provides a subsidy of Rs 1600 to government owned oil manufacturing companies for every free LPG gas connection that they install in a household. The subsidy is intended to cover the security feefor the cylinder and fitting charges, and beneficiaries are supposed to buy their own cooking stove. The cost of stove and first refill can be paid back in monthly instalments. However, the cost of all subsequent LPG refills are to be borne by the beneficiaries.

A study titled “Persistence of solid fuel use despite increase in LPG ownership: New Survey evidence from rural North India” done in four states Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh by the R.I.C.E. institute which released its findings in 2019 (months before the ongoing elections) highlighted that by 2018, 76 percent of rural households in the sample states [of Bihar, MO, Rajasthan and UP] had LPG, with differences across states following a similar pattern as in 2014. The study showed that among households that did not own LPG in 2014, 69 percent had these by 2018, and about 59 percent received it from the government through the UjjwalaYojana.

However, the study pointed out that even though 32 percent households had LPG gas connections in the sample states, most of them still mainly used wood or cow dung cakes for cooking. This crucial statistic suggested that low usage of clean fuels could not in anyway be explained away by less number of connections or low rates of ownership alone.

Interestingly, 98 percent of the households that owned LPG by 2018 also had a chulha and hadn’t let go of their chulhas. When the study enquired of the users about the items cooked on LPG and those on chulha, the respondents of the study said that most of them used LPG for making tea, while when it came to cooking roti, sabzi, dal, chawal they used the chulha.

One of the observations of the study, thus, was that majority of the households owning LPG either mixed fuel or exclusively used chulha.

Evidence from several states, not just these four suggested a similar pattern. For example, a cleverly titled cover story called, “Running out of gas”, published in the Frontline in April 2019 (after the election cycle had begun!), highlighted that the number of connections released under the PMUY in West Bengal stands at 78,47,110, the second highest in the country after Uttar Pradesh (1,26,40,088), but industry sources say only 20-25 per cent of the beneficiaries go for refills. This study is based on official figures were released by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

The in-depth story pointed out the hardships of the people who have been the beneficiaries of the scheme. The scheme makes it mandatory for the people to pay the cost of the gas stove and first cylinder in instalments. Only after covering the cost are they eligible to avail the subsidy on the subsequent refills. The subsidy is to be deposited in their bank account later. With the increasing price of LPG, ranging between Rs. 700- Rs. 900 at present, the study observed, “those for whom Ujjwala scheme is designed are finding it difficult to make use of it.”
 

More than any other aspect, the money spent behind the PR campaign amounts to a stupendous Rs. 293 crore, tendered by Indian Oil Corporation (IOC). The publicity was handled by a Delhi-based US advertising agency. The agency’s website says that the ruling BJP is its top client. The tender involved outdoor campaigns that highlight the “success” of the scheme. Business Standard reported that the IOC tender is considered to be too huge for a single scheme since the total budget for campaigns run by the government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity on an annual basis is only around Rs 150-200 crore. Outdoor campaigns were planned for states of Karnataka, Gujarat and Odisha, apart from cities such as Mumbai and Delhi along with 26 airports across the country. Whether the poor are getting the LPG refills or not the PR game is up for the party which awaits its fate on May 23.


However, not just the Frontline, several others had started questioning the “success” of the scheme by March-April 2019.

In an opinion piece titled, “Why the govt’sUjjwala plan is a glass half full”, published in January 2019, Livemint said, “during Mint’s coverage of the recent Assembly elections, reporters found there were implementation issues with the scheme in Madhya Pradesh”. In April it published apiece titled, “The Ujjwala LPG scheme is a half-baked programme”. This piece drew attention to the curious case of SambitPatra, BJP’s spokesperson contesting from Odisha, in which he is eating food in a rural household, while an older woman, in the background, cooked on a chulha. The report said that the scheme was a crucial publicity point to ensure the BJP’s victory in 2017 UP Assembly elections.

Controversies aside, there are serious implementation issues with the scheme. When the concept of paying back by instalments and the refill not delivered until the payment was complete, became a deterrent for refilling, the government waived the primary loan. The government allowed the subsidy for the refill to flow for six refills after the connection. However, the subsidy would still get deducted after the first six months. The beneficiaries were still not aware of this change of thinking within the government that meant that the loan was being waived permanently.

Here, one is bound to go back and ask if the fuel being used earlier by the rural households was more affordable for these families. As per a survey by the National Sample Survey Organization, 2013, refilling a cylinder costs almost half the average monthly per-capita expenditure in rural India. If used exclusively, the average rural household would likely go through a cylinder each month (Dabadge et al. 2018). It is likely that, when cheaper alternatives such as wood and cow dung, which in many cases cost nothing, are available, this kind of an expense over the LPG is burdensome for the poorest of the poor.

The R.I.C.E. study also indicates that 35 percent of all LPG-owning households, and 60% of households that received LPG through Ujjwala, report not receiving the subsidy at all, or the beneficiaries being unaware of the account in which the subsidy was to be transferred.

Numbers aside, attitudes in the study suggested that over 92% of the households reported that the food cooked on the chulhawas tastier. So even at the cost of the health of the person who cooked, in all likelihood, the female members of the household, the households preferred the chulha.

The study emphasised that discouraging the use of solid fuels, and promoting the exclusive use of LPG will be essential for realizing health improvements. The factors that influence cooking decisions like household wealth, the availability and cost of different fuels; the status and decision-making power of the individuals who spend the most time making, collecting, and cooking with solid fuels; and beliefs and attitudes towards LPG versus chulha need to be factored in.  Finally, the study concluded by saying that “Explaining solid fuel use despite LPG ownership, and designing interventions to discourage their use are important priorities for further research”

However, the disregard of the government for research is more than evident, especially in its haste to launch the scheme without waiting for the base study. The government already has celebrated the “success” of the scheme and keeps highlighting this as one of its key achievements. Not only that, it has also launched schemes such as Ujjwala Sanitary napkins, Ujjwaladidi campaigns in order to boost the scheme.

More than any other aspect, the money spent behind the PR campaign amounts to a stupendous Rs. 293 crore, tendered by Indian Oil Corporation (IOC). The publicity was handled by a Delhi-based US advertising agency. The agency’s website says that the ruling BJP is its top client. The tender involved outdoor campaigns that highlight the “success” of the scheme. Business Standard reported that the IOC tender is considered to be too huge for a single scheme since the total budget for campaigns run by the government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity on an annual basis is only around Rs 150-200 crore. Outdoor campaigns were planned for states of Karnataka, Gujarat and Odisha, apart from cities such as Mumbai and Delhi along with 26 airports across the country. Whether the poor are getting the LPG refills or not the PR game is up for the party which awaits its fate on May 23.
 
 

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