Cooking up a storm

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Cooking gas cylinders ready for delivery in Kochi, a file picture. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

JANUARY 13 was a day of concern in Kerala with the Congress-led State government set to file an affidavit before the Supreme Court declaring its support to the Central government for its proposal to use the Aadhaar scheme to target subsidies and other welfare benefits.

In November last year, the Supreme Court asked all State governments to file their responses to the questions raised in a public interest petition filed by a retired High Court judge, especially on the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar scheme. In its interim order, the court had also directed the Central government not to make Aadhaar numbers mandatory for obtaining subsidies and other welfare benefits.

But, despite the court directive, oil companies continued to insist that customers link their gas agency connections with their bank accounts by December 31 in order to obtain the subsidy for cooking gas under the direct transfer scheme.

More than 95 per cent of the people in Kerala are enrolled under the Aadhaar scheme, and unique identification (UID) numbers have been generated for nearly 90 per cent of those enrolled, according to the State government. However, of all those in the State who have a cooking gas connection, only 51.29 per cent had linked their Aadhaar numbers with their bank accounts by December 31. It meant that the others, though eligible for subsidised fuel, would have had to buy cooking gas at the full price because they did not have bank accounts linked to the gas agency for the direct transfer of subsidies.

By the time a decision to extend the cut-off date by two months was announced under pressure from the State government, the oil companies had reportedly changed their computer software and made all other arrangements to implement the direct transfer scheme from January 1. Confusion prevailed for several days, and delivery of cooking gas came to a standstill in the State.

In the new year, the oil companies had also announced a steep hike of over Rs.230 in the price of cooking gas for domestic customers, and over Rs.385 for commercial customers. It meant that the bulk of domestic customers had to pay over Rs.1,300 in cash to buy a cylinder of cooking gas (with the subsidy only being remitted subsequently to their bank accounts, and only if they had one), whereas earlier they could buy a subsidised cylinder for about Rs.445.

For commercial customers, the new price was over Rs.2,000 a cylinder and, along with the incremental hike in the prices of petrol and diesel, led to a backbreaking increase in the price of essential commodities and the cost of food in hotels and restaurants. It was the third such hike in the price of cooking gas since December, and it was announced that the price would be raised further by Rs.100 in the near future.

In spite of tentative reassurances by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy that the time limit for linking gas agency connections with bank accounts would be extended by six months, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas M. Veerappa Moily stressed that the government had no intention of reviewing the decisions about the drastic change in price or the need for Aadhaar numbers and bank linkages to obtain the cooking gas subsidy.

“The Congress-led government will soon start feeling the heat of this agitation,” State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Pinarayi Vijayan declared confidently in Kochi on January 15 as he launched the main opposition party’s indefinite agitation against the rising price of cooking gas and other essential commodities at 1,400 centres, 10 each in the 140 Assembly constituencies in the State. There is no doubt that the price issue and the decision to provide subsidies only to those who had Aadhaar cards and bank accounts is going to be a “game changer” for the Congress-led government in the Lok Sabha elections.

For now, in the face of widespread protests, the State government has decided not to file the affidavit in the Supreme Court supporting the implementation of Aadhaar “until people’s apprehensions on the issue were resolved”.

Information Technology Minister P.K. Kunhalikutty said that reports appearing in the media were based on the contents of the affidavit prepared by officials. “The Advocate General has been instructed not to submit the affidavit until it is approved by the State Cabinet,” he said.

R. Krishnakumar