In the middle of November 2021, I met Leenu Biswal, who is in her early twenties, in Dandasingha gram panchayat of Deogarh district in Odisha. She lives with her in-laws and is pregnant with her second child. Her husband works in another district and visits home once in a few months. They have an Ujjwala connection but it has not been refilled for a long time. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) is ‘a flagship scheme of 2016, with an objective to make clean cooking fuel such as LPG available to the rural and deprived households which were otherwise using traditional cooking fuels such as firewood, coal, cow-dung cakes’.
Health and clean energy
When I ask her whether she likes cooking with gas, she nods with an emphatic yes. She also says that she wants a refill. I ask her if she has the sum of about ₹950 to pay for the refill of the large cylinder. It’s a yes, again. We go through her LPG customer book and call the LPG distributor to make a refill booking. The cylinder is delivered to her in two days.
There is a lesson in this. Kirk Smith, the eminent professor from Berkeley who passed away in 2020, was an expert who worked on indoor air pollution in India for over three decades, who talked about the high returns in terms of health gains by targeting pregnant women to have LPG access.
There is also Dr. Gargi who runs a rural health clinic in Udaipur with a non-governmental organisation, who recommends cooking with gas to tuberculosis patients who consult her. According to the recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5, there was a higher prevalence of TB in households that were using solid fuels when compared to those using clean cooking fuels in most States.
With the number of LPG distributors going up in the five years of Ujjwala, from 17,916 to 25,116, the number of administrative blocks which do not have an LPG distributor has come down drastically. There are hundreds if not thousands of villages where there was not a single LPG connection before the days of Ujjwala; hence the delivery of cylinders at the village level was unheard of.
Use of fuel stacking
In villages, I often see kitchens using multiple types of cooking stoves – LPG, fuelwood, induction or electric heater and even kerosene. An open firewood chulha is often used for bath water, cooking large quantities of parboiled rice and cattle feed. Some of these may not shift to LPG anytime soon.
This fuel stacking is similar to the practice of the poor — of having a basket of livelihood options instead of being reliant on a single source of income. This takes into account factors such as uneven cash flow, seasonal availability of biomass, and ambient heating requirement during winters.
During extreme weather events, LPG cylinders come to the rescue.
Data on LPG use
Over the five years, the average per capita consumption among Ujjwala customers has hovered around three cylinders per year (of 14.2 kg), rising to 4.2 (2020-21) when the full impact of free refills under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana was seen.
A paper in Nature (Kar et al. ) showed that only 45% of non-Ujjwala rural consumers use five or more cylinders per year, while data from oil marketing companies show that from October 2020 to September 2021, 32% of Ujjwala households were using five cylinders or more in a year. Therefore, relatively poorer Ujjwala consumers are reaching the LPG consumption levels of relatively well-off non-Ujjwala rural consumers. LPG has earned its place in the cooking energy basket of the poor. It is also not a greenhouse gas (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), assigned with a global warming potential (GWP) factor of zero. Solar, electric heater, improved biomass chulha and biogas also qualify to be a part of this energy basket.
Factors that helped
After completing the target of enlisting eight crore Ujjwala customers in late 2019, the three oil marketing companies which handle the distribution of LPG through their network of distributors have shifted their focus to reach out to low refill consumers.
A quick recap of what has made it possible for someone like Leenu to have an option to use LPG, is in order. It was the successful implementation of the Direct Benefit Transfer of LPG (DBTL) or PAHAL (Pratyaksh Hanstantrit Labh) scheme of 2014 which freed up the financial resources needed to dream of a large-scale programme for deposit-free LPG connections. Once Ujjwala was conceptualised and launched, enhanced availability of LPG was ensured. The next was to enhance various capacities such as of the ports for handling imports, of tanks for storage of LPG, of pipelines and trucks for transportation of gas, and of bottling plants for filling in more cylinders. Production of cylinders, pressure regulators, hose and affordable LPG stoves was also enhanced. New distributors/dealers were appointed to reach remote pockets.
Comment | Health first, fiscal prudence later
In addition, then Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan also sustained enthusiasm for Ujjwala, creating avenues for local MPs and other elected representatives to support Ujjwala and its implementation.
A challenging phase
The novel coronavirus pandemic has resulted in LPG prices having gone up and governmental support focusing on other challenges. This development could derail the gains made by Ujjwala customers in terms of LPG adoption. It is time to get creative about how to sustain LPG adoption in these challenging times. Ujjwala also has the potential to deliver benefits on many fronts.
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Overall, the push has to be such that every household moves toward adopting a more sustainable cooking energy basket. Improvements in regular and on-demand supplies of LPG, options for refill financing, alternative remunerative uses for cow dung and bio mass — possibly on the pattern of procurement of cow dung as is being done in Chhattisgarh — and a massive boost to women’s incomes through the National Rural Livelihoods Mission all have great potential to nudge women to choosing a more sustainable cooking mix.
Nidhi Prabha Tewari works as a senior social sector specialist on Ujjwala with the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. The views expressed are personal