UJJWALA – an empowering choice?

Let us put our myelin to work and imagine a setup. Lakshmi preparing lunch for her family in a kitchen with no chimney or window apart from the doorway of an entrance. As she frenetically negotiates the smoke and dust from the mud-wrapped chulha, her son playing nearby is also enveloped by the same dangerous wrap that exceeds the toxicity of over 400 cigarettes per hour . Now, imagine the whole process going on for an average of over 4.5 hours each day ; play it on loop for every day of every year. Unfortunately, that is the reality of nearly every rural household across the vast expanse of India.

In addition to the household air pollution which leads to premature deaths, the issue of time poverty is also prevalent in the lives of women of 121 million households that use inefficient chulhas . Cooking and related activities, such unpaid labour leaves little or no room for women to increase their meagre presence of 27% in the paid workforce and contribute towards country’s economy. Hence, it is a liability that needs a solution, an affordable, reliable, and sustainable solution which should change the present fuel choices – cow dung, crop residue, twigs and fuelwood etc.

On May 1st, 2016, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas launched Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh as an attempt to empower rural BPL women with Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders. By 2019, PMUY intends to provide 50 million LPG connections along with a support of Rs.1600 per connection. Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) joined hands to actively promote the transition; firstly, by using electronic bank accounts, Aadhaar, and mobile phones to shift the payment of subsidy amount to user’s bank account directly. Secondly, an appeal – Give it up was made to forego the subsidies of middle-class households in favor of the needy, resulting in 13 million people releasing their subsidies. In the first year, against the target of 15 million LPG connections, 22 million connections were distributed; overall the scheme has covered 712 districts and provided approximately 32 million connections .
The numbers very well represent the achievement of PMUY, but is a 14.2 kg LPG cylinder a solution that we were searching for? In spite of subsidy and EMI instalments provided by the government and OMCs for easy connection and refilling, a BPL family hardly goes for one or two refills annually. There can be multiple reasons; a) the loan at the time of purchasing the connection forces the BPL family to pay more approx. Rs 450 to Rs 800 during the purchase of first few refills; b) a long ride of upto 15KMs for refilling and c) a sense of fuel insecurity which leads to fuel stocking by two-thirds of households even in the presence of LPG connection. Many think-tanks are carrying out research and field studies to look beyond what numbers highlight in terms of provided connections but, one must not overlook the broad goals set behind the scheme. In midst of highlighted roadblocks, PMUY did bring some changes, the targeted LPG users do acknowledge its positive effect on their health and the reduced cost of medicine incurred on account of health hazard, cutback in cooking time by three hours and changing a subsidy from burden to asset because of its target audience .

A behavioural change will take some time to happen; people accustomed to the traditional cooking system may need some time to change their cooking practice. Fuel stacking is also practised in many parts of our country. In rural areas, the fuel stacking varies from cow dung cake, wood to LPG whereas, in urban areas, it is in the form of LPG, and the electric cooking system (microwave, induction plates). PMUY indeed is a sincere effort to make Indian rural women feel empowered, but a lot more considerate and planned hustle is required from an affordability, accessibility, and behavioral aspects.

In Delhi, Tata Power involved the women living in the slums to form a team responsible for the electricity bill payments for their respective areas . Maybe a similar effort can be planned for LPG connected villages where the woman of the house can work towards creating awareness to appreciate the benefits. Although MoPNG is working hard to increase the number of distributors in the rural area, a door to door refilling facility can ease up the task of carrying empty cylinders for long distances. One can learn from the lessons of the cookstove scheme, a need for customized portable cylinders is required to ease up the struggle for refilling as well as the amount of money paid for each refill of 14.2 kg cylinders. Finally, a transforming shift towards PNG in urban areas can be started so that subsidised LPG may be made available to the rural areas.

Whatsoever the path will be, PMUY is no doubt one of those schemes that set high agenda for the Government to provide access to clean energy. The States are also doing their part under cooperative federalism. Thinking of joining the transformation, there is something in your house to give it up!
(Shafqat Mobarak is a Young Professional in the Energy and International Coordination Division)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not represent the views of NITI Aayog.