The PMUY’s cooking gas refill issue3 min read . Updated: 08 Jan 2020, 10:05 PM IST
The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana has increased LPG coverage in rural households but usage in rural areas remains low because of costly refills
Across India’s cities, billboards advertise the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) success in bringing LPG to the nation’s poorest homes through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY). With a stated target of delivering 80 million free LPG connections to poor women, PMUY has emerged as this government’s marquee scheme for female empowerment and healthy cooking. Yet for all the claims on expanding LPG coverage, new data suggests that rural India is a long way from completely adopting LPG.
According to the government, 80.3 million LPG connections have been released under PMUY since 2016. These new connections have driven a rapid increase in LPG coverage. Estimates from the Petroleum Analysis and Planning Cell (PPAC) suggest that 94% of all households had an LPG connection as of September 2019 - an increase from 56% in 2014-15. But this expansion has yet to fully translate into regular LPG usage. More than half of all rural households still do not use LPG as cooking fuel, according to the recently released 76th National Sample Survey round conducted by the National Statistical Organization. The 76th round specifically asked households what cooking fuel they used and found that 48% of rural households used LPG compared to 15% in the previous NSS round in 2011-12.
Yet despite this improvement, the lack of widespread LPG usage poses a major public health challenge. Instead of LPG, rural households burn solid fuels, such as firewood and dung, in their kitchens. The resulting smoke can prove fatal with women and children especially vulnerable. One study suggests that nearly 500,000 Indians died in 2017 because of indoor air pollution.
Some states face a bigger health threat than others. Vast swathes of North and East India’s still barely use LPG with the eastern states of Jharkhand (21.5% households using LPG), Odisha (23.8%) and West Bengal (24.5%) reporting the lowest usage, according to NSS data. In contrast, the more prosperous southern states reported far higher LPG usage.
Other external studies echo these results and show that even with LPG connections households prefer other fuels. For instance, a 2018 survey in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh by the Research Institute of Compassionate Economics found that 98% of households who had an LPG connection still owned a traditional chulha. And within this, 36% stilled cooked all the meals using solid fuel while 37% used both LPG and solid fuel.
One of the major barriers for greater LPG usage is the cost of refills. Between 2016 and 2018, the market price of the refill of a 14.2 kg cylinder ranged between ₹500-837. And though poor households receive a refill subsidy, they still have to make the full payment upfront before the subsidy amount is transferred into their bank accounts which can be a costly process. A 2016 PPAC study found that 83% of households that did not adopt LPG did so because of high recurring costs.
This cost issue was raised by both a December 2019 Comptroller and Audit General (CAG) audit report on PMUY and a recent Indian Express report. In its audit report, the CAG found that the average refill consumption among all LPG consumers has fallen steadily over the last four years - mirroring the overall consumption slowdown. Within this decline, PMUY beneficiaries refills fell even more sharply.
The lack of refills was just one PMUY issue the CAG highlighted. The CAG report also flagged other implementation issues in PMUY such as delays in receiving a connection, incorrect beneficiaries (many men received PMUY connections) and omission of genuine beneficiaries. To address all this, the CAG has made a series of recommendations for improving PMUY. Broadly, they suggest reexamining how Aadhaar is used to identify beneficiaries, encouraging LPG consumption and conducting third-party audits to identify issues in the scheme.
Others, though, many believe a more holistic approach is needed that looks beyond simply providing more LPG connections. A roadmap for the adoption of clean cooking energy, spearheaded by the NITI Aayog, suggests that instead of aiming to switch directly to LPG, India should take a multi-fuel approach tailored to local contexts. This would mean complementary use of biogas in rural areas with large cattle population, using improved cooking stoves in areas with abundant biomass and generally pushing for more solar and electricity-based cooking.