New Delhi: The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’ marque scheme—Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), which provides free cooking gas connections to poor families met its target of reaching 80 million poor families, seven months ahead of schedule.

The programme, launched on 1 May 2016, aims to safeguard the health of women and children and lays the basis for a fundamental material transformation at the bottom of the pyramid by covering 715 districts has till date provided 80.33 million connections.

The 80th million connection was given to Ayesha Sheikh Rafique of Aurangabad by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, who said that she planned to first cook ‘biryani’, PTI reported.

This comes at a time when state assembly elections are due in Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand later this year and in Delhi early next year. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power in all of these states except Delhi.

From a 44-minute documentary on the National Geographic channel to finding a mention in President Ram Nath Kovind’s speech to the joint session of Parliament and vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu and former Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan marking the milestones by handing over the gas connections, the optics around the scheme have been carefully crafted. Add to these an Ujjwala Utsav (festival) and an anthem (Ujjwala Bharat Ujjwala by Kailash Kher)—and the government's messaging strategy was made amply clear.

Launched from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh—the state that sends the largest number of MPs to Parliament—the Rs12,800 crore scheme has increasingly been leveraged to add to the political optics and put National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on a home run in the general elections.

“In the first fifty years since the LPG came to the country, only 13 crore connections were provided, while in the last 60 months 14 Crore LPG connections have been provided by OMCs, under the aegis of the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas. The LPG penetration in the country has jumped from 55% in 2014 to over 96% now and almost 86% beneficiaries under the PMUY have been refilling the cylinders," Indian Oil Corporation said in a statement on Saturday.

A cash assistance of 1,600 is given to each beneficiary to get a deposit-free new connection, thereby helping improve energy access. The connections are given in the name of the women heads of households. The scheme gained traction with its ambit being expanded to include 80 million poor families from the earlier target of 50 million families with an additional allocation of Rs4,800 crore. While the clean fuel protects the users from the hazards of smoke inhalation, it also helps the poor from having to go to unsafe areas to collect firewood.

The Ujjwala scheme was hailed as NDA’s version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) remained a mainstay of the BJP's political messaging in the run up to the 17th Lok Sabha.

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