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LEAKING OUT

Modi’s much-hyped cooking gas scheme for the poor has started failing on the ground

REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade/File Photo
Beyond reach.
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At the start of every monsoon, Doli Kumari’s family refills their LPG cooking gas cylinder and uses it for three or four months. As the rains recede in their village of Tarauna Bhojpur in Bihar’s Araria district, the family switches back to burning wood for daily cooking.

This monsoon, however, the family plans not to bother with refilling their cylinder.

“The gas prices were already as high as Rs930 ($12.75) last month when we had temporarily filled the cylinder for a wedding in the family,” said Doli Kumari, 22, a social worker. “Now they say the prices are even higher, so we will not be able to afford it.”

Doli Kumari’s reference is to the recent hike in cooking gas prices announced on March 1, when the cost of a 14.2 kg domestic LPG cylinder was raised by Rs25. This is the seventh LPG price hike imposed by the central government since December 2020. Each cylinder now costs at least Rs175 more than it did three months ago, with the price of LPG cylinders ranging between Rs800 and Rs1,000 in different parts of India.

Coming in the midst of a global pandemic that has derailed livelihoods and incomes across the country, these prices are a strain for Indians across the board. But for millions living below the poverty line—such as Doli Kumari’s family of agricultural labourers—the recent LPG price hike makes access to clean cooking fuel even more impossible than it was before.

It is also leading thousands of poor families to drop out of the much-hyped Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that provides women below the poverty line with a free gas cylinder and subsidised LPG in order to move them away from unhealthy cooking fuels like wood or coal.

An expensive bargain

Doli Kumari’s mother Geeta Devi became a beneficiary of the Ujjwala scheme in 2018 when she received a free gas cylinder and a stove to cook on for her family of five members.

When they needed to refill the cylinder, her family paid the full cost—between Rs620 and Rs700—to their LPG dealer, and received a direct cash subsidy of Rs200 to Rs250 in Devi’s bank account a few days later.

Over time, as cooking gas prices rose beyond Rs800 per cylinder, the subsidies stopped coming. “The gas agency told us they had sent the subsidy money, but it never came in the bank account, and the bank never solved the problem,” said Doli Kumari.

Such problems have been widely reported across India ever since the government made it mandatory to link bank accounts with Aadhaar numbers for welfare schemes. As with many other welfare programmes based on cash transfers, LPG subsidies often get misdirected because of errors in the Aadhaar linkage.

Since Doli Kumari’s family could no longer afford gas refills, they switched back to burning wood for fuel. “That’s why we had started using the cylinder only during the monsoon when it is difficult to get dry wood for cooking.”

In the central government’s record books, Geeta Devi is one of the 8 crore Indians to have benefited from the Ujjwala Yojana since its launch in 2016. To achieve this target, the scheme was initially allotted Rs8,000 crore, followed by an additional Rs3,200 crore in 2018-19, Rs3,724 crore in 2019-20, and Rs1,118 crore in 2020-21.

By successfully hitting its 80 million target, the centre claims that the Ujjwala scheme has helped bring LPG connections to 95% of the Indian population. To reach 100%, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas now aims to add another one crore beneficiaries over the next two years.

But as Doli Kumari’s story shows, these figures have never reflected the reality of the Ujjwala scheme on the ground.

Poor refill count

Over the years, multiple reports, and studies have highlighted the trend of Ujjwala beneficiaries returning to unclean cooking fuel because of the high cost of refilling cylinders. In 2018, for instance, a survey by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics found that 85% of the scheme’s beneficiaries in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh were still using traditional wood chulhas (stoves) for cooking. A 2019 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out that cylinder refills under the Ujjwala scheme were as low as 3.21 refills per year.

Last year, the Federation of LPG Distributors in India claimed that since the start of the scheme, 22% of beneficiaries have not chosen to refill their cylinders, and 5-7% did not receive the subsidy amount for their first refill.

Among the beneficiaries who can no longer afford to refill her Ujjwala cylinder is Ayesha Shaikh from Aurangabad in Maharashtra. In September 2019, she was named the eighth crore beneficiary of the scheme and was handed her cylinder in a public ceremony by prime minister Narendra Modi himself. Last week, PTI reported that Sheikh and her family have returned to cooking on wood stoves because of the prohibiting cost of refills.

After the Covid-19 lockdown began in March 2020, LPG consumption remained low even when the Centre offered Ujjwala beneficiaries three free refills between April and June 2020. For 80 million Ujjwala beneficiaries, this would add up to a total of 240 million refills. By June, however, beneficiaries had availed only 120 million refills, prompting the government to push the deadline for consumption by another three months. At the end of September, however, only 140 million, or 60%, of the refills were utilised, and the deadline has now been pushed to March 31, 2021.

The petroleum ministry’s own data shows that from April 2020 to January 2021, LPG consumption rose only marginally from 2,113 thousand metric tonnes to 2,492 thousand metric tonnes.

According to an LPG distributor who did not wish to be named, one of the reasons for such low consumption of LPG is that some beneficiaries chose to use the money they received for free cylinders for other purposes during the lockdown. “People have their own priorities, and wood and cow dung are easily available in villages to use as fuel,” the distributor told Scroll.in.

The recent LPG price hikes have only intensified this problem at the heart of Ujjwala.

‘Don’t know how we will manage’

In Doli Kumari’s district of Araria, the manager of one of the biggest local cooking gas agencies claims he has seen a nearly 50% drop in the number of active Ujjwala scheme LPG users since the price hikes began in December 2020.

“We cater to 28,000 customers in and around Araria district, of which 19,000 are Ujjwala Yojana beneficiaries,” said Rajesh Kumar Pankaj, the manager of Nisan Gas Service. Of the 19,000, barely 8,000 had been active Ujjwala users since the scheme began. The rest, says Pankaj, did not even go in for a single refill. “Now, since the gas prices have been rising, I have lost 3,000 to 4,000 customers out of those 8,000.”

For one section of Ujjwala users, LPG refills have been unaffordable because of the inadequacy and irregularity of the cash subsidies offered under the scheme.

According to a February 2020 report by SBI Ecowrap, when cylinder prices rose from Rs 714 to Rs 858 last year, the subsidy offered to Ujjwala beneficiaries were raised from Rs 175 to Rs312 per cylinder. Gas dealers that Scroll.in spoke to also confirmed that up until last year, subsidies offered under the scheme did increase along with LPG price rises.

“But this time when the prices have increased, the official subsidy amount has not been changed—it was around Rs 150 in this area and is still the same,” said a gas agency manager in western Jharkhand who did not wish to be named. Although the manager did not share exact figures, he claims he has seen a drop in the number of Ujjwala customers seeking refills in the past few months. “But this drop is not as high as before. In this region, most people stopped refilling their Ujjwala cylinders after the first few times.”

Kanhai Singh, a farmer from Jharkhand’s Latehar district, reiterated this. “I don’t know a single person in my village, or even in the neighbouring villages, who have actually refilled their cylinders,” said Singh, whose Ujjwala cylinder and stove have been lying in a corner of his house in Ledgain village for over a year. “In farming, we don’t have any guarantee of a monthly income, so how can we pay Rs700 for refilling a cylinder? Even if a subsidy comes later, it is too expensive.”

While Kanhai Singh believes the recent LPG price hikes are irrelevant to his life, Natubhai Parmar in Gujarat’s Surendranagar town is upset about the sudden surge in the cost of cooking at home.

“When we joined the Ujjwala scheme in 2018, we used to get subsidies of Rs200-300 for refilling cylinders at Rs500-600,” said Parmar, a Dalit social worker. At the start of the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, Parmar’s family received money for three LPG refills that all Ujjwala beneficiaries were granted by the central government.

“But after that, in our town, subsidies stopped completely, I’m not sure why,” said Parmar. “Now that LPG has become even more costly, I don’t know how we will manage.”

Scroll.in wrote to the central Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas seeking clarifications over the subsidies but the email did not receive a response. Phone calls to the ministry went unanswered.

This piece was originally published on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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