MP: LPG Hikes Gas Out Ujjwala Cardholders; Only 30% Active, Refills Drop 3 Cylinders/Year
Cylinders at scrapyard in Bhind.
Bhopal: Sitting beside a mud-stove, 50-year-old Ruprani Adivasi, is coughing incessantly while rubbing her watery eyes. A large part of her day is spent collecting firewood from the nearby jungle to cook three square meals for her family of four.
To get rid of this misery, on October 12, 2016, Ruprani took the much-hyped Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) that aims to provide women below the poverty line (BPL) a free gas cylinder and subsidised LPG (cooking gas) in order to move them away from unhealthy cooking fuels, like wood or coal. But, with the constant surge in prices of cooking gas, Ruprani says she could only refill the cylinder once in the year during monsoons, when using damp firewood for cooking becomes a Herculean task.
As per records, Ruprani took her last subsidised LPG cylinder on July 4, 2021 by paying Rs 857 upfront to the vendor, when the monsoons had hit Damoh district. As the rains receded in Ruprani’s village, Gaisabad, in Madhya Pradesh's Damoh district, the family switched back to firewood for daily cooking.
Ruprani says gas prices were already as high as Rs 857/cylinder in Damoh when she refilled her cylinder eight months ago.
"Purchasing a cylinder of Rs 857 was possible only after saving for four months. Now to pay even more for the same cylinder is not possible for us. I refilled the cylinder in monsoon as we struggled to get wood that time," she says.
Located 60-km from Damoh district headquarters, Gaisabad is home to over 4,000 people with 3,000 being voters from all communities. Of these, close to 70% residents belong to the marginalised sections.
At a stone's throw away from Ruprani's house, Raj Pyari (65), another beneficiary of PMUY, says she refilled her last LPG cylinder on October 8, 2021 by paying over Rs 900 to the vendor.
Not just Damoh, 556-km away in Bhagwanpur village of Khargone district, Rukma Bai, a tribal agricultural labourer, says she has never refilled the gas after getting the connection. Her their neighbour, Mohan (40), could only refill it twice after getting the connection.
Poor Refilling Rate
Ruprani and Raj Pyari are among the 52. 43 lakh Ujjwala beneficiaries of Madhya Pradesh who have refilled less than four LPG cylinders in 2020-21 from 71.42 lakh total Ujjwala connections of the state, the Union government informed Parliament.
Over 13,000 PMUY beneficiaries in Madhya Pradesh have never refilled after getting the connection, the Union government informed Parliament in response to a question by Rammohan Naidu, an MP from Andhra Pradesh's Srikakulam district.
In fact, cylinder refills in MP dipped to an average of 2.92 refills in 2021-22 against the national average of 3.66 for the same period. For the same duration, Uttar Pradesh had an average of 4.13 refills, Rajasthan was at 4.10, Bihar had 3.92, Maharashtra at 4.19 while Gujarat had 4.47.
As per the refilling data shared by the Union government in Parliament, Madhya Pradesh is among the worst performing states. In comparison to 2020-21 and 2021-22, the number of first refills jumped to 0.1% (1,000 families) while over 59,000 families did not take the second refill, and 12.99 lakh families gave wide berth to the third refill.
In March 2020, after the countrywide COVID-19 lockdown kicked in, LPG consumption remained low even when the Union government offered Ujjwala beneficiaries "three free refills between April and June 2020". For eight crore Ujjwala beneficiaries, this would add up to a total of 24 crore refills. By June, however, the beneficiaries had availed only 12 crore refills, prompting the government to push the deadline for consumption by another three months. At the end of September, only 14 crore (60%) of the refills were utilised, forcing the government to push the deadline to March 31, 2021.
Various reports and studies suggest that Ujjwala beneficiaries are returning to unclean cooking fuel because of the high cost of refilling cylinders. In 2018, for instance, a survey by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics found that 85% of the scheme’s beneficiaries in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh were still using traditional wood chulhas (stoves) for cooking.
This happened when the price of an LPG cylinder was close to Rs 500, which has now almost doubled.
In Ruprani’s Damoh district, the manager of one of the biggest local cooking gas agencies claimed that out of 22,000 PMUY beneficiaries, over 70% are inactive while the remaining refill less than three cylinders a year.
"Up to three refills are taken by the urban beneficiaries of PMUY, but in rural areas, which constitute around 70% of the connections, the scheme has failed before taking off," said the manager of a cooking gas agency, requesting anonymity.
Another reason for the decline in refilling rate is affordable or free availability of firewood in rural areas, he pointed out.
Spelling the reason for decline in PMUY users, the manager said: "After the doorstep delivery of LPG cylinders became mandatory, we send a lot of 56 LPG cylinders to the rural areas every day in a truck, making three such rounds in one village per week. By the end of the day, we hardly find four to five takers."
He said PMUY beneficiaries take a toll on gas agencies, as users often refuse to take cylinders after hearing the price and after ordering it. As a result, the agencies end up footing the labour costs.
In 2020, the Federation of LPG Distributors in India claimed that since the start of the scheme, 22% of the did not refill their cylinders, and 5-7% did not receive the subsidy amount for the first refill
Another LPG distributor in Damoh, who did not wish to be named, said one of the reasons for such low LPG consumption was that some beneficiaries used the money they received for free cylinders for their daily needs during the lockdown.
“The beneficiaries of PMUY are BPL cardholders. A majority of them lost their livelihood during the lockdown. Hence, they used the money for their daily needs. Wood and cowdung are easily available in villages for use as fuel," he added.
Price hike drops sales
In December 1, 2016, the year when the PMUY was launched, the price of a 14.2 kg LPG cylinder was Rs 584, which surged to Rs 949.5 in March 2022, a 62% jump, according to the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. This forced thousands of poor families to drop out of the much-hyped Ujjwala Yojana.
Despite having eight crore PMUY cardholders when the refilling rate of the 14.2 kg LPG cylinder did not meet the expectations of the oil companies, the Ministry came up with 5 kg cylinders in December 2020 to increase sales. But, this too failed to increase the sales, as only 7.75 lakh cylinders were refilled in Madhya Pradesh from a total 71 lakh PMUY cardholders a year after the launch.
A 5 kg LPG cylinder is being refilled at a cost of Rs 351.50 in Bhopal on April 5, 2022. The rate fluctuates along with the price of a 14.2 kg cylinder.
The skyrocketing price of LPG is the Achilles' heel of the PMUY scheme, said a senior oil company official, requesting anonymity.
For instance, in September 2021, when the Narendra Modi-led Union government hiked LPG rates twice taking it to Rs 884 per cylinder from Rs 834, out of the total 17.70 lakh PMUY users of Hindustan Petroleum in Madhya Pradesh, only 29.80% (5.2 lakh) users refilled the gas, the company said in a reply to an RTI filed by Newsclick.
In another RTI (Right to Information), filed by Newsclick, Bharat Petroleum stated that between August to October 2021 in MP, when the Union government hiked Rs 40 per cylinder, out of total 19,32,837 PMUY users, only 26.73% (5.16 lakh per month) refilled the gas.
The spiralling LPG rates in the midst of a global pandemic that has derailed livelihoods and incomes across the country, these prices are a strain for Indians across the board. But, for millions living below the poverty line — such as Ruprani's family of agricultural labourers — the recent LPG price hike makes access to clean cooking fuel a pipedream.
RK Gupta, Madhya Pradesh president of All India LPG Dealers Federation, pointed out that the ambitious scheme was launched to benefit the marginalised sectios and after a lot of efforts and after six years, it has reached over 79 lakh families of Madhya Pradesh, giving edge to the ruling BJP government in the elections. "But the price hike is adversely affecting the scheme, making cylinders unaffordable for PMUY beneficiaries who belong to the marginalised sections," he added.
"The price hike is adding fuel to the fire for beneficiaries of PMUY, as their livelihood is already threatened by the two COVID19-induced lockdowns," he added.
Cylinders sold to scrapyards
Almost a month after Union Home Minister Amit Shah kicked off Ujjwala 2.0 on September 18 last year in Madhya Pradesh's Jabalpur by distributing five lakh LPG connections, videos surfaced from Bhind district where dozens of beneficiaries sold their empty LPG cylinders to scrapyards for a meagre Rs 20 a kg. Bhind has over 1.33 lakh Ujjwala beneficiaries.
Taking a dig at BJP after the video went viral, former chief minister and Congress leader Kamal Nath tweeted: "Visuals of cylinders at a scrapyard in Bhind speak volumes about the much-hyped PMUY. This is the condition of the state where Home Minister (Amit Shah) kicked off the second phase of Ujjwala at a grand event in Jabalpur."
"Uncontrolled inflation is forcing the beneficiaries to switch to firewood," he added.
According to an NDTV report, several beneficiaries said they had stopped refilling cylinders owing to steep prices. "We are daily wage labourers. I have four children. We are short of money on days I don't get work. How can we get LPG cylinders refilled? We stopped getting them refilled after prices crossed the Rs 600 mark," said a labourer.
A gas agency employee supplying refilled cylinders in Bhind district said: "Beneficiaries of the scheme book refilled cylinders, but when we go to deliver them, they don't take the cylinders as they are unable to pay the high price."
According to Ministry of Petroleum records, Ruprani, Raj Pyari, Rukma Bai and Mohan are among the eight crore Indians to have benefited from the Ujjwala Yojana since its launch in 2016. To achieve this target, the scheme was initially allotted Rs 8,000 crore, followed by an additional Rs 3,200 crore in 2018-19, Rs 3,724 crore in 2019-20, and Rs 1,118 crore in 2020-21.
By successfully hitting its eight crore target, the Centre claims that PMUY has helped bring LPG connections to 95% of the Indian population. To reach 100%, the Ministry has launched Ujjawala 2.0 and distributed over one crore connections adding over seven lakh new beneficiaries in Madhya Pradesh, taking total PMUY cardholders in Madhya Pradesh to 79.38 lakh by March 2022.
But the stories of Ruprani, Raj Pyari, Rukma Bai and Mohan show, these figures do not reflect the reality on the ground.
(Data mining by Peeyush Sharma).
Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.