In the remote village of Begut in Bardhaman district of West Bengal, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), which aims to provide LPG connections to below poverty line (BPL) households in the country, is a sick joke on its residents. Although almost all the families in the village were included in the scheme around one and half years ago and got gas stoves and cylinders, hardly any of them has ever gone for a refill.
The reason? They are too poor to afford the cylinder in spite of the subsidy.
Among the potatoes piled on the ground in the small, dark kitchen of Mangal Baskey stand his cylinder and gas stove gathering dust. He had even built a shelf for them when he got the connection, but it was not long before his family had to go back to the age-old style of cooking in clay ovens.
“Gas has become so expensive that it is impossible for me to use it. It is not what I had initially expected. I had deposited Rs.250 and got a gas connection. When the cylinder became empty around mid September last year, I went to the supplier only to be told that I was to pay Rs.950 for a refill. I earn Rs.140 a day, working as a field labourer. Where will I get that kind of money?” said Mangal.
The mud-built stoves are just outside his shack, and with the untimely rains, the situation has become difficult for his wife. “As long as the gas was there, it was undoubtedly convenient. We could cook our food anytime, come rain or shine. Now once it starts raining things will become difficult again,” she said.
Their neighbour Rupchand Baskey has even taken the stove and the cylinder out of the kitchen and put them up for display in front of his modest house. His aged mother did not object to posing for the camera with this novelty.
Most of the residents of Begut and its surrounding villages belong to the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes and are extremely poor. Until recently they earned a meagre Rs.130 a day from working in the fields; after a prolonged protest their wages were increased by Rs.10.
During this time of the year, a villager gets only nine to 10 days of work in a month. They complain that unless one has connections with the ruling Trinamool Congress, there is no scope of getting work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) either. All the thatched houses in the villages have a gas cylinder inside and firewood stacked outside and on their roofs. In fact, the gas stove and the cylinder seem like a mockery of the reality of their existence.
No money for refills
According to the latest data available from the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, 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. According to the Ujjwala scheme, aimed at ameliorating the living conditions of BPL women and those belonging to the most backward classes, the beneficiaries will have to pay in instalments for the cost of the gas stove and the first cylinder, and only after covering the cost are they eligible for the subsidy for refills. However, when paying for the refill, the beneficiary will have to dish out the market price of the cylinder. The subsidy will be deposited in her bank account later. With the price of LPG varying from Rs.700 to over Rs.900 in the past one year, those for whom the Ujjwala scheme was specifically designed are finding it difficult to make use of it.
Most of the people of Begut initially believed that the gas they were going to get was free. “We were led to believe that we would be getting gas free of cost. It was only after our first cylinder got over that we realised it was not going to be the case,” said Pooja Tudu, an agricultural labourer.
Pooja, however, still went for her first refill about a year ago. At that time the cost was Rs.700. The dealer allowed her to take the gas at half the price on the condition that she paid the other half later. But even after a year, she has not been able to spare the money for the second instalment. “I am trying to return the money, but there is hardly any work any more; around 20 days in six months. Are we going to spend money on gas or on keeping ourselves afloat?” she said.
The socio-economic situation is more or less the same in all the villages in the region. People cannot afford to spend money even on subsidised gas, especially when there is the free alternative of firewood and cow dung for fuel.
Not far from Begut, in the Adivasi Para of Nabastha too, women thought that their days of cooking with firewood were over until they were hit by the rules of the Ujjwala scheme, most of which they were not aware of when opting for the connection. The very few who have had more than one refill are also unhappy they would not get any subsidy until the costs of the stove and the first cylinder were met.
Loan waived for first six refills
When this became a major deterrent for refilling, the government waived the primary loan for the first six months after the beneficiaries got the Ujjwala connection and allowed the subsidy to flow into their bank accounts. Subsequently, this was changed to the first six refills of the beneficiaries. This encouraged some people to go for refills whenever it was within their means. However, six refills later the subsidies were once again deducted to settle the primary loan. This information too was not known to many of the residents in the poorer villages of the State, and initially they thought the loan was being permanently waived.
Many of the women in Nabastha village work at the local rice mill where they earn 1 kg of rice and Rs.150 a day. Buying gas at full price without subsidy is simply beyond their means. “We were told by the dealers that the loan was being waived and we can buy gas and get the subsidy immediately. But they did not tell us that it was only for six months. Now they have again stopped giving us the subsidy,” said Nayana Das of Adivasi Para.
Most of the dealers admitted that they were under constant pressure from the companies that answer to the Petroleum Ministry to try and encourage as much refilling as possible. “How can you expect us to convince the poor people to buy something when they are getting firewood absolutely free?” asked a dealer in Bardhaman.
Not just a rural phenomenon
It is not just among the poor in the rural sector that the Ujjwala scheme has failed to take off. Even those BPL families living in semi-urban regions find it almost impossible to enjoy its benefits. In Dhamaitala village in South 24 Paraganas district, just a little outside Kolkata, Sujata Mandal has never been able to refill her gas cylinder. Her husband works as a driver and earns around Rs.8,000 a month, which is barely enough to take care of the medical expenses of an ailing father-in-law; buying gas under the Ujjwala scheme is a luxury she cannot afford.
“The price of LPG is so steep that we have not been able to refill even once. Besides, we do not really need a connection as long as there is firewood,” she said.
From family to family, the story is the same; during cooking time, there is a wholesome aroma of different kinds of food being prepared, as the mud ovens in the open air are all busy, while the LPG cylinders and stoves lie forgotten in some dark corner of an unused kitchen.
In the neighbouring village of Polghat, the residents are even poorer. Samir Mandal, a daily wager, had in better days once got his cylinder refilled. “They have given us the connection free of cost, but it is of little use if we cannot buy the gas itself,” said 60-year-old Samir. Partial paralysis of his body means he cannot work any more, and his wife, Krishna, is the sole breadwinner now, working in a medical shop where she packs medicines for which she gets Rs.3,000 a month.
His neighbour Rohit Mandal has two kitchens—one in which his wife keeps the utensils and the gas stove and cylinder and the other in which she does her cooking on mud stoves. “I am sure the government had good intentions when they set up our connection free of cost, but it is just not a practical idea when the gas costs are so out of reach for us people who live hand to mouth,” he said.
With a total budget of over Rs.12,000 crore and already having disbursed more than seven crore connections across the country, the PMUY is showcased as one of the biggest successes of the Narendra Modi government. However, the fact that the implementation of the project was not properly thought through has now become all too evident.
There was no rancour among the Ujjwala beneficiaries when they spoke of their inability to use the scheme, for their lives have not taken a turn for the worse as was the case during demonetisation. But the quality of the lives of the women has not improved either, as claimed by the Prime Minister. If the government felt it could ease the daily hardship of poor women and free them from the smoke and pollution of the kitchen by the Ujjwala scheme in its present form, then it was a failure on its part to properly understand the ground-level reality of the poor in the country.
In interior pockets of Odisha, possession of a cooking gas connection soon became a status symbol after the Ujjwala scheme helped many rural women use LPG for the first time. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pinned its hopes on the scheme to increase its support base in the State; the number of active LPG consumers increased from 20.22 lakh on June 1, 2014, to 76.65 lakh on February 1, 2019.
However, only an average of 3.3 per cent refills was recorded among the consumers from December 1, 2017, to November 3, 2018 (for consumers enrolled from May 2016 to July 2017). It, however, did not deter the Union Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry from inventing more innovative schemes around the name to keep the brand intact.
Dharmendra Pradhan, Union Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister, who hails from Odisha, chose the State for making most of the experiments. Most of the programmes devised around the Ujjwala scheme were aimed at milking the flagship programme politically, according to political analysts.
From using decorated vans across Odisha to increase the awareness of the Ujjwala scheme to launching the PMUY scheme at different places in the presence of BJP leaders with much fanfare, the underlying objective was to drive home the message that the scheme purely belonged to the Centre.
By the end of 2018, the Centre launched the Ujjwala Sanitary Napkin initiative to improve women’s accessibility to sanitary pads and create employment opportunities for women.
In its efforts to keep women hooked to the Ujjwala brand, the BJP has launched the Ujjwala Didi campaign, engaging 10,000 Ujjwala beneficiaries, to create awareness among the people about the Ujjwala schemes and bridge the gap between existing and prospective LPG consumers and distributors.
According to sources in the BJP, arrangements were put in place by oil marketing companies to ensure that the Ujjwala Didis earned about Rs.10,000 each a month by inducting new consumers and running awareness campaigns. The party expects that these women will play a key role in attracting more women into its fold. The concept of Ujjwala Didis and ensuring a monthly income for them may not last for more than six months, critics say.
Efforts are on to make the Ujjwala Didi concept a success in Odisha since Pradhan is also a prominent leader of the party in the State.
It is not Ujjwala beneficiaries alone who are being used by the BJP at the grass-roots level for political gains. A total of 30,000 Skill Sathis have been engaged in the State to reach out to people in rural areas. These Skill Sathis, engaged on a temporary basis under the Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Department, are distributing Rozgar Guarantee forms among the youth to facilitate training and employment. Pradhan is also the Union Minister of Skill Development. A mechanism has also been made to pay them Rs.10,000 a month at least for six months.
Apart from Ujjwala, the party is also highlighting the household toilet scheme under the Swachh Bharat Mission to win over women.