Modi’s Weapon of Mass Seduction

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An ambitious Central scheme to give out gas connections could work wonders

SEATED INSIDE her rickety but clean hut in Dalit- dominated Rautapur village of Uttar Pradesh’s mango-rich Sitapur district, Sunita Ravi, a homemaker in her late thirties, says she has been worrying less for the past three days. “We now have a gas connection,” she states, beaming. Before a fellow from the local office of Indian Oil Corporation came home with an LPG cylinder, a stove and a small green-coloured hose, installed the cooking system on a pedestal and lit it, her life had been completely different. She had woken up every day anxious about collecting firewood for cooking. Occasionally, her husband got her dried cow-dung cakes as fuel, but she still had to leave home early morning looking for dry twigs, branches and other pieces of wood. She couldn’t afford to stray too far into the villages of other castes, or, for that matter, out of sight from where people typically squat and talk in the countryside. Doing so often meant attracting the unwanted attention of men. The region has had many cases of molestation, and worse, of women in search of firewood or out answering the call of nature. Sunita’s husband, who has been silent all this while, interjects to say that she suffers from wheezing because of long exposure to smoke from cow-dung cakes and firewood. “On the first day itself, her wheezing has come down,” he says animatedly, and goes on to talk about the health benefits of using LPG for cooking instead of traditional ways.

Sunita is among the more than 6.2 million beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which, launched on 1 May, is being implemented using the money saved on LPG subsidies through the centre’s ‘Give It Up’ campaign. The latest numbers accessed by Open from the Government confirm that the scheme has accelerated the supply and distribution of LPG connections in the countryside, especially in Uttar Pradesh. “Starting from the month of May to August, the daily clearance of new applications of LPG connections through Ujjwala had touched 50,000 daily. In the month of September, the figure has touched 75,000 daily,” says KM Mahesh, director, LPG, at the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

Union Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan says that at this rate, the Government would even consider raising the scheme’s targets. In its first year, the year ending March 2017, the Government plans to distribute 15 million new LPG connections to poor households across the country. The Ministry is doling out these through oil marketing companies such as Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd, which offer equal monthly installments (EMIs) to a central pool of beneficiaries to buy and refill LPG gas cylinders and stoves. It has already cleared more than 11.5 million new applications by rural women as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious programme launched on 1 May this year in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, with a budgetary allocation of Rs 8,000 crore. The exercise is backed by an aggressive marketing campaign, as part of which Modi called upon people—especially the well- off—last year to give up their LPG subsidies.

The Prime Minister had first made that public appeal on 27 March 2015, inaugurating Urja Sangam, a global energy meet. The Centre later said that the response had been all the more tremendous as he had promised to use the proceeds to help liberate poor women from the scourge of smoke-filled stoves that typically use coal, cow-dung cakes and firewood.

Pradhan had said earlier that the Ujjwala scheme would be continued for at least two more years to cover a total of 50 million poor households, as determined through the SECC survey initiated in 2011. “Now we know we will easily surpass the target and that is a foregone conclusion. We would substantially upgrade our target to meet the Prime Minister’s dream of ending women’s hardships and also reducing environmental and health hazards,” he tells Open in an interview. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, unclean cooking fuels account for 500,000 deaths annually in India. According to various reports, indoor air pollution caused by low-quality fuels is responsible for a significant number of respiratory illnesses, and children are the most severely afflicted. Studies reveal that having an open-wood fire is almost as poisonous as smoking 400 cigarettes an hour.

5 crore LPG connections the Centre hopes to distribute to BPL households by 2019 under Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, launched in May

Early in September, Union Health Minister JP Nadda spoke of the significance of replacing unclean fuels with LPG. “As the cleanest available cooking fuel, LPG has reduced respiratory health issues among rural Indian women. Five crore LPG connections within a short span of time will not only empower more women, but also benefit healthcare. My Ministry will be the direct beneficiary of this step,” Nadda said. Explaining the need for rapidly enhancing LPG gas supplies to all parts of the country where the majority still depend on unclean fuels (which include kerosene), the Petroleum Ministry said on its website: ‘Health experts have confirmed that smoke released from the burning process contains hazardous substances which may lead to disease like lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to WHO, around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal across the world and over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.’

THE USAGE OF cleaner fuels such as LPG has been on the rise, especially in urban and semi-urban areas, thanks to higher disposable income levels of Indians compared with two decades ago. The country’s total LPG consumption rose from 18 million tonnes in 2014-2015 to 19.6 million tonnes in 2015-2016, according to data put out by Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC). The Centre has asked oil marketing companies to open 10,000 new LPG dealerships this year. Currently, there are 16,000 of them across the country. Analysts hope that the improvement in LPG penetration can help sustain and enhance the growth of the country’s economy.

With the overall quantity needed rising so sharply, Pradhan says it makes economic sense to import LPG than produce it domestically. The Centre hopes imports will help it meet nearly 50 per cent of the demand for household use and commercial purposes. In an interview to Platts, Pradhan said that to support a surge in volumes, the country would set up new import terminals and create a vast distribution network capable of handling it. OMCs such as Indian Oil and HPCL are busy upgrading and creating new facilities to expand its distribution network of cooking gas. Indian Oil is setting up a pipeline from Paradip in Odisha to Durgapur in Bengal.

1.5 crore Target of the scheme for this current financial year; 1.5 crore is the target for the next fiscal year; and 2 crore for 2018-19

The rise in demand is also expected to offer an opportunity for energy companies in the private sector, which typically sell LPG to state- owned OMCs, to scale up operations. Piped natural gas is another segment that has seen quick growth in Indian cities as more people switch from LPG cylinders to piped gas. According to official statistics, as on 1 April 2016, there were 3.2 million PNG connections in the country, up from 2.8 a year ago.

But it is rural India that is on top of Pradhan’s mind. “Even when I am away from India, the first thing I do every morning and before I retire to bed is to check this app,” Pradhan says, flaunting numbers on his smartphone. He has a district-wise list of new LPG connections as it keeps growing every few minutes or so. He reels out some numbers that are otherwise for the internal consumption of his staff. “Almost 45 per cent of the beneficiaries in UP are Dalit women. We have numbers to prove the slide in deforestation after people began using LPG instead of firewood,” he avers, adding that steering the Ujjwala scheme has been an amazing experience. He scrolls down WhatsApp messages from district nodal officers of state-run OMCs who are delighted to be part of the programme (and to be on a first-name basis with the minister). “They give me feedback from the field of action. Some of them tell me about the grievances that people who are not considered for the Ujjwala scheme have. All of their suggestions are considered and we keep ourselves abreast of problems that OMC executives typically face in implementing this programme,” says the minister. Several of the DNOs who play a pivotal role in the rollout of this scheme are fresh graduates from IIT and other engineering colleges.

Almost 45% of the beneficiaries in Uttar Pradesh are Dalit women. They are among millions of recipients of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana

To avail of an LPG connection, rural womenfolk often have to attend large fairs where all their identity and address details are collected once their names are verified as being on the SECC list. They need to have an Aadhaar card, a savings account passbook or bank account statement, residence proof and a recent passport size photograph, besides a few other documents. The processing is done online to ensure the person doesn’t have another LPG connection in her name. OMCs then transfer Rs 1,600 to their savings bank account which can be paid back in EMIs with zero per cent interest. Some of the field workers tell me that the cost of refilling is also borne by OMCs. Most beneficiaries, field workers in a few UP villages say, don’t pay much more for LPG than what they are forced to pay for unclean fuels. “This scheme will be a game changer,” Pradhan asserts, especially in arming rural women with the extra hours they need to boost their work productivity.

The rise of OMC activity in villages also stirs up the local economy and creates new jobs. To make sure that village heads or local bullies don’t walk away with the doles, the Ministry is planning to get OMC workers to collect photographs of the beneficiaries from their homes where LPG facilities are newly installed.

Ajit Kumar Singh, an MBA and an Indian Oil executive from Rautapur village, explains how he and his team work overtime to keep things transparent. “We do everything in the public glare and don’t let any complaints arise. Complaints usually come from people who avail of BPL facilities offered by the state government and are not entitled to get LPG connections through the Ujjwala scheme,” he says, adding that he is doing his best to expand the business of his company in his village and also do social work—educating villagers about the benefits of LPG and what precautions to take. “This is a village where you don’t have power supply and have to use dongles (USB modems) to access the internet. But many people have found a new world of comfort and convenience thanks to LPG connections,” notes this 29-year-old who has earlier worked with companies such as Whirlpool as a marketing executive in Lucknow.

62 lakh Target already achieved through the new LPG scheme for this financial year

He says one of the main grouses that some people in his village and several nearby places have is that details such as the parents’ name of several poor women are missing from the SECC database, which is supposed to have comprehensive information. Meanwhile, he says, for a sum of money he also offers ‘simple’ solar lamps that beneficiaries are encouraged to use around the spot they keep their LPG cylinders as a safety measure against accidents. They are also taught about their rights and related benefits, says Singh. This includes “educating people” about the insurance cover of Rs 6 lakh in the event of a person’s death if an LPG system catches fire and the compensation for those who are injured.

Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Himanshu says it is indeed a laudable attempt on the part of the Government to speed up the supply of LPG cylinders to villages that have suffered shortages of the fuel. “Similar schemes have been in place for several years, but this one could accelerate supply as rural incomes, too, have been growing,” he points out, adding that greater emphasis needs to be placed on easing supply-side constraints. He is of the view that in rural India, LPG connections have to be subsidised for all and not only for those who are part of the BPL list.

“In Uttar Pradesh, besides Dalits, some of the major beneficiaries are Muslims,” says a Petroleum Ministry official, adding that a lack of proper identity cards among them poses a problem in drawing larger numbers of them into the ambit of the new scheme. “Several of them live in extended families and do not often possess identity cards required for this exercise,” he explains.

23.5 lakh LPG connections disbursed in Uttar Pradesh, the highest figure for any state

MEHRUNNISA FROM SITAPUR is, however, an exception. She lets you inside her home with great warmth. In her late fifties, she has lived all her life cooking for a large family for endless hours using hazardous fuels. “I have taken great pains to get myself an identity card and other documents, unlike other members of my family. Now it is as if life has come to a new level. I have time to clean utensils of some of my rich neighbours and make some extra income. I am also feeling much better. There were times when I used to wake up dead tired,” she says, as her goats move around playfully outside.

Ministry officials contend that while the scheme has been welcomed by various non-BJP state governments, it has faced some indifference from the governments of West Bengal and Odisha, regarding which Samir Mohanty, BJP vice president in Odisha, told a television channel, “Why [ruling party leaders] are opposing the Ujjwala scheme remains a mystery.” However, non-cooperation from state governments can’t upset the scheme, which is being implemented by the Centre with the help of OMCs. “Technology is being put to full use so that there is seamless communication between top officials in Delhi, including me, and those workers in the field. After all, it is crucial to the success of this noble initiative,” says Pradhan, adding that he spends close to four hours every day of his 14-15-hour work schedule on this scheme.

The Centre is glad the scheme has attracted a lot of interest in trouble-hit Kashmir as well. Across the state, there has been a rush of applications for LPG connections by women from poor households, officials claim. So far, 91,000 homes in the state have asked OMCs for LPG connections under the Ujjwala scheme. This has earned the praise of poverty economists, among others. A senior official tells Open, “A team from Oxford University, where the Union Petroleum Minister recently attended a function, is expected to survey the work so far accomplished by us.”

Pradhan knows exactly how many lives the scheme can uplift in rural parts of the country. It shows in his enthusiasm. “Believe me, this is a movement,” he says.