Interview

Ujjwala: A Transformational Scheme from Access to Usage

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Ujjwala A Transformational Scheme from Access to Usage

Ashutosh JindalDuring a period of more than 54 months from May, 2014 till March, 2019, more than 13 crore new consumers have joined the LPG family. This is unprecedented considering the fact that there were only 13 crore consumers in April, 2014 – thus meeting the nearly impossible aspirational goal of 13 crore connections in five years the same as the number achieved in nearly 60 years of LPG movement, says Ashutosh Jindal, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Government of India, in an interview with Kartik Sharma of Elets New Network (ENN).

How is Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) linked to the SDGs adopted by the United Nations?

In 2015, 193 member countries of the United Nations formally adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious set of 17 global goals designed to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. So, what do SDGs entail for clean cooking? Clean cooking is one of the significant actions which will impact 10 of the 17 SDGs and that underlines the importance being placed upon clean cooking globally.

In India, access to LPG started around 1955 and grew slowly to reach a level of 13 crore consumers in 2014, just more than half of the country’s population. It largely remained in the realm of urban and semi-urban areas and remained out of the reach of rural households.

What prompted the government to launch PMUY? What were its main objectives?

In India, at the beginning of the current decade, a large number of households continued to use conventional cooking fuels such as firewood, cowdung, charcoal, etc. Use of these fuels adversely impacts the health of women, children and the elderly due to Household Air Pollution (HAP) causing lung and heart diseases; causing environmental degradation contributing to air pollution and deforestation; drudgery of the work undertaken by women in collecting the fuel which adversely affected the socio-economic status of women in addition to its economic effect in terms of reduced earnings for the household; and loss of valuable economic opportunity through engagement of children, particularly the girl child, in these unproductive activities. Access to LPG was largely denied for the rural households on account of the urban/ semi-urban presence of the distribution network and also other factors like lack of awareness about LPG in the countryside and high initial cost of a new connection.

Studies pointed out that a poor household was not able to convert to LPG due to the high upfront cost for a new connection. This amount was in the range of Rs 4,000 to Rs 4,500 per connection for a single cylinder consumer. Various estimates of deaths in India due to household air pollution (HAP) range between 5 lakh and 10 lakh deaths annually. It was, therefore, felt necessary to address the access issues by starting a new initiative to promote LPG as a fuel by subsidizing the cost of a new connection for a poor household. Adoption and use of LPG would also help in addressing the issue of indoor air pollution.

Please provide us an overview of how the Scheme was conceptualised and launched.

In order to decisively address the problems faced by poor women due to the use of conventional fuels such as firewood, cowdung, charcoal etc for cooking , the Union Budget 2016 announced the launch of a new Scheme with a budget provision of Rs 8,000 crore. Within a few days of this announcement (February 29, 2016), the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (the Ministry hereafter) obtained the requisite approvals from the Ministry of Finance and the Union cabinet for launch of a new Scheme. The Scheme, christened Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY or Ujjwala yojana, hereafter) was formally launched by Prime Minister on May 1, 2016 to provide LPG connections to five crore poor households of the country. The Scheme was to be implemented through the field machinery of the three Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs hereafter), namely, IOCL, BPCL & HPCL.

Under the Scheme, a provision was made for the Government to subsidize an amount of Rs 1,600 towards security deposit for a cylinder & pressure regulator, cost of hose pipe, consumer passbook (called DGCC in OMC parlance) and installation charges. The other elements of cost, namely, specially designed low-cost stove (without compromising on quality) and first refill, was to be borne by the beneficiary. Alternatively, a provision was made for the OMCs to provide interest free loan to such beneficiaries who cannot afford upfront payment owing to poor financial condition. This loan amount (roughly Rs 1,600 per family) was to be recovered from the subsidy received on subsequent purchase of refills.

An OMC official was nominated as DNO (district nodal officer) for each district and entrusted with the task of coordination amongst all stakeholders. The OMCs implemented the programme through their network of distributors (15,000 plus at the time of start of Scheme).

Given the complexities involved at various levels, both at the Centre and in States, how was PMUY implemented across the country?

Efficiency, transparency and accountability have been the foundational basis of PMUY. The Scheme guidelines were framed to keep them as simple as possible and the beneficiary selection was to be done through ‘self-selection’ with any eligible household in the SECC list (more about this later) free to apply through multiple modes, eliminating existing connection holder does not get the benefits of PMUY by identifying existing connection in the beneficiary’s or any other family members name using Aadhaar, Bank details, AHL Tin and demographic parameters. Social media platform—Twitter, Facebook, a dedicated website, toll-free number, Mobile app developed by Socialcops and web-based dashboards and WhatsApp groups— were operationalised to monitor the implementation. A dedicated multilingual toll-free number (1800 266 66 96) was operationalised to seek feedback/suggestion/register complaints. Further, a dedicated 24*7 number for attending LPG leakage related emergency through ‘1906’ was activated. An under-appreciated aspect is the massive efforts made to ramp up supply chain (from bottling capacity to transport to dealer location) rapidly to keep pace with the unprecedented demand in rural areas.

Regular review meetings were held with the top management and the DNOs through video conferencing at the Minister level and at my level. The Minister’s personal involvement in all initiatives, like the review meetings, distribution camps, etc. was a great morale booster for the field officers, in particular. Field visits by senior officials of the Ministry and the OMCs were organized to each district for a direct on-the-spot assessment of the Scheme. Performing DNOs were also recognised by the Ministry and the OMCs during periodic review meetings. Large number of ‘safety -clinics’ were conducted across the country to educate the new consumers about safe usage and benefits of LPG. Active participation of elected representatives, distinguished local personalities and local administration ensured transparency and accountability coupled with the drive to make adoption process of LPG a ‘movement’.

Who are the beneficieries under the Scheme? What are the challenges faced during the implementation process?

When the Scheme was started, it was decided that poor would be identified on the basis of the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC)-2011, a database prepared by the State Governments and district administrations under the guidance and directions of the Ministry of Rural Development and Ministry of Urban Development. All households with at least one deprivation under the SECC-2011 were deemed to be eligible. However, during extensive field work, it was felt that SECC-2011 had exclusion errors and many deserving poor were left out of the SECC. The Government decided in March, 2018 to address the exclusion errors by identifying the following categories under the Scheme: (i) All SC/ STs households;(ii) beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) (Gramin); (iii) Antyoday Anna Yojana ration card holders; (iv) Forest dwellers; (v) Most Backward Classes (MBC); (vi) Tea & Ex-Tea Garden Tribes; (vii) People residing in Islands and river islands. These categories were identified through wide stakeholder consultations and it was felt that families belong to these categories would be generally poor and unable to afford the cost of a connection.

While the Scheme implementation moved smoothly ahead as a result of these additions, it was noticed during village level intensive campaigns (Gram Swaraj Abhiyan) that even this addition was not enough and some poor were still left out of the PMUY in most villages. It was felt that universalization is not achievable without addressing this unintended gap in Scheme guidelines. Accordingly, the scope of the Scheme was further expanded in December 2018 to include all poor households who are without access to LPG and who furnish a 14 point declaration about ownership of economic assets (a safeguard against non-poor accessing benefits of PMUY).

Where are We Now?

As of June 1, 2019, nearly 7.2 crore connections have been issued under the PMUY by OMCs. As mentioned earlier, the Scheme was launched with an ambitious target of five crore new connections. This target was envisaged to be achieved in three years, that is, by March 31, 2019. But we crossed the five crore mark on August 2, 2018, almost eight months ahead of schedule. The Scheme crossed another milestone, the seven crore mark, on March 8, 2019 as a result of the sustained effort of all implementing agencies, the distributors and their staff and the OMC officials DNO upwards.

Another feather in the cap of LPG team was the swift growth in access to LPG which crossed 90 percent of all households. During a period of more than 54 months from May, 2014 till March, 2019, more than 13 crore new consumers have joined the LPG family. This is unprecedented considering the fact that there were only 13 crore consumers in April, 2014, thus meeting the nearly impossible aspirational goal of 13 crore connections in five years the same as the number achieved in nearly 60 years of LPG movement. Many international organizations, notably IEA and WHO, have appreciated the stellar work done by Indian Government and the Ministry to enhance access to LPGin the last four-five years. Several Asian and African nations have evinced interest in emulating this model in their country.

PMUY has been facing criticism from several quarters over the issues of refilling and usage of LPG cylinders provided under the Scheme. As somebody who had been involved in the scheme right from its conceptualisation to implementation, what is your answer to the critics?

In the past few months, a narrative has sought to be built around Ujjwala Yojana, namely, the consumers have got a LPG cylinder but they are not using it. The Scheme is not getting any refills.

This is an interesting development from our perspective. As has been repeatedly mentioned in the paragraphs above, the PMUY was launched with an objective to facilitate ‘access’ to LPG for a poor household. The Scheme addressed it by subsidising upfront cost which has led to a dramatic increase in LPG access. The focus on ‘refills’ or ‘usage’ is a paradigm shift. But we are not wishing away this challenge.

First, to set the facts straight, a recent analysis shows that approximately 75.4 percent consumers have taken their first LPG refill in the very first year of issuance of connection which clearly shows the acceptability and cultural shift in the usage of LPG. Many of these consumers have taken 5 or more cylinders since inception, which signify usage of LPG as primary cooking fuel. But refills are an issue for some poor households which we are trying to address through five kg refills (for addressing the affordability issue) and by setting up points of delivery nearer to the villages (for addressing the accessibility issue).

A salient feature of PMUY implementation was intensive use of technology from day one. A three stage de-duplication mechanism was operationalised to ensure that an existing connection holder does not get the benefits of PMUY by identifying existing connection in the beneficiary’s or any other family members name using Aadhaar, Bank details, AHL Tin and demographic parameters.

The five kg option enables the PMUY beneficiaries to swap a standard 14.2 kg cylinder with a five-kg refill. Complete conversion to LPG as a cooking fuel also has socio-economic and behavioural dimensions. Some alternative fuels like cow dung, firewood may be completely free of cost for a rural household. It will take some time for a family to appreciate that what seems to be free has other costs like health impact, time lost, which could have been used for productive livelihood. We have now carried out thousands of LPG Panchayats to encourage women to further increase use of LPG.

A journalist friend who is settled in Delhi now for almost three decades mentioned to me during an interaction recently that he visits his village in North Bihar at least once every year. Firmly etched in his memory is the presence of dense cover of smoke in the skies during the late afternoon and evening hours and, for the first time this year, he saw clear skies in the evening.

For all the skeptics of Ujjwala Yojana and its efforts to provide universal access to LPG, there could not be a better reply.

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