Launched in 2016, the ₹12,800 crore scheme is increasingly being leveraged to add to the political optics
The government may also bring in an innovative financing scheme for refilling the cylinders
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is banking on its marque schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), which provides free cooking gas connections to poor families, to put it on a home run in the general elections.
Not surprisingly, the political messaging around the scheme hailed as NDA’s version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has gone into an overdrive. From finding a mention in President Ram Nath Kovind’s speech to the joint session of Parliament and finance minister Piyush Goyal’s budget speech to vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu and 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 intent of the government becomes amply clear.
The government may also bring in an innovative financing scheme for refilling the cylinders and make efforts to give consumers the choice to fill as much gas as they want, irrespective of the size of the cylinder, petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan recently said.
This comes in the backdrop of concerns such as PMUY beneficiaries not using their LPG cylinders. The government, on its part, claims that around 80% beneficiaries have been refilling the cylinders, with the average per capita consumption being 3.28.
“Madam Speaker, in our election manifesto, we had promised that we will transform the quality of life of women in rural India by providing cleaner fuel. For securing the health of every homemaker in rural areas and to ensure that she does not have to shed tears for cooking food to nourish her family, our government embarked upon a programme to deliver 8 crore (80 million) free LPG connections under the Ujjwala Yojana," Goyal said in his budget speech.
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. 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 has 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 ₹4,800 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.
Launched from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh—the state that sends the largest number of MPs to Parliament—the ₹12,800 crore scheme is increasingly been leveraged to add to the political optics.
In a case study titled Lighting up Lives through Cooking Gas and Transforming Society, Prof S.K. Barua, a former director and faculty member at Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad, says providing universal access to LPG has transformed the lives of the destitute.
The case study has also raised some pertinent issues such as the impact on consumers if there is a rally in energy prices and solar energy becoming the alternative source of primary energy. It also stressed upon the need to carry out an impact assessment of the programme by a credible third party.
Pradhan, who also holds the skills development and entrepreneurship portfolio, is of the view that with women using gas connections through PMUY now having some spare time, many of them can be trained and equipped to become entrepreneurs. According to Pradhan, the NDA has almost equalled the 130 million connections provided since the LPG launch (in 1955) in India during the last 54 months. Also, the LPG coverage has touched 90% now, with a significant increase in the eastern states and 48% of the beneficiaries being SC/ST.