Cost concerns limit impact of PM Ujjwala Yojana among poor in cities

Women in low income urban communities share why they haven't been able to switch to clean cooking fuel, despite the hype around Ujjwala.

Chanda Pravin Katkari, who lives in Panvel on the outskirts of Mumbai, applied for a free LPG connection under the PM Ujjwala Yojana one-and-half years ago, but has yet to get a response. She still uses the traditional chulha, most of the time.

Chanda and her sister-in-law share the cost and occasionally use their mother-in-law’s Ujjwala LPG cylinder though. “The cylinder lasts only one-and-half months if the three of us, living in separate households, use it regularly. Since we can’t afford this, we use it sparingly so that it lasts us about three months,” she says.

Chanda’s experience outlines the two major issues plaguing the PM Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) – one, that many are still left out of scheme coverage, and second, that a large section of Ujjwala beneficiaries are unable to afford refills.

The Narendra Modi-led government launched the PMUY in 2016, with the aim of enabling women from poor households to transition from traditional cooking fuels (firewood, coal, dung cakes, etc) to LPG. The emissions from traditional cooking fuels can cause health effects like respiratory diseases, heart diseases and cancer.

An estimated six lakh people in India die prematurely every year due to household air pollution from solid fuels, according to the State of Global Air 2020, published by the non-profit Health Effects Institute. The urban poor in India, especially, suffer the double burden of air pollution – first, from unclean cooking fuel, and second, from the ambient air pollution in cities.

Read more: Why the air inside your home could be as toxic as that outside

Chanda is well aware of the need to transition to clean cooking fuel, but she doesn’t know what happened to her application. “It’s difficult to cook in the chulha, especially during the summer. It feels very hot and the smoke is harmful. I also have to collect firewood from the forest somewhat far away,” she says. While her panchayat had distributed application forms for the scheme, the local gas agency is the one that informs people about application status. “I enquired at the agency many times, but they only say that the application will get approved,” she says.

100% coverage, but whom does it cover?

According to a press release by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, LPG coverage in the country was 104% as of January 2022, a huge leap from the 62% coverage in 2016. The ministry credits the Ujjwala scheme for this. As per the PMUY website, 10.3 crore households currently have an Ujjwala connection. Under the scheme, the first cylinder would be given free of cost, and there will be a subsidy for subsequent refills.

While the press release may give the impression that all households in the country now have LPG connections, a senior official at the ministry says the exact percentage of coverage is difficult to estimate in the absence of recent Census figures. The 104% coverage mentioned by the ministry is based on population estimates extrapolated from the 2011 Census. 

“We don’t have the current state wise population figures. Without recent Census figures, it’s difficult to make inferences about LPG coverage. The number of households may have increased and there may have been more migration to certain states,” says the official.

A small section of consumers also have multiple connections, pushing the percentage above 100, he adds. “Many people hold on to their old connections even if they move to a new place.”

The National Family Health Survey-5, conducted in 2019-21, showed that 41% of the Indian population still used biomass as cooking fuel. A recent report from the think tank CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) estimated this would lead to cumulative emission of 340 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is about 13% of India’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A 2021 survey by the think tank CEEW (Council on Energy, Environment and Water) among 656 urban slum households showed that only 55% of them exclusively used LPG cylinders. Another 33% households used a mix of LPG and unclean cooking fuels, using the latter daily or weekly. The remaining 12% households used only unclean fuels. The survey was conducted across six states that had the highest adoption of Ujjwala scheme, namely Bihar, Rajasthan, MP, UP, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh.

The household’s economic status and access to doorstep LPG delivery were the main factors affecting their LPG use. 

Lack of transparency

Like Chanda, Panvel resident Anita Dinesh Patil says she is unaware of the status of her application, submitted three months ago. Since her husband’s death, Anita has been living with her mother-in-law and two children. “I have no job and my parents provide for us currently. My mother currently shares her cylinder with me,” says Anita.

Another applicant Hafisa Begum, who lives in a jhuggi in Andrews Ganj, Delhi, too applied for a cylinder three months ago. The gas agency has informed her that she is ineligible, but didn’t mention the reason for this. 

For years, Hafisa has been buying LPG cylinders from the black market for Rs 1,200. For her six-member family, the cylinder has to be replaced every 40 days. “My family’s monthly income is only Rs 15,000-16,000. Buying the cylinder regularly is costly, but I have no option. When I used the chulha earlier, I used to suffer from breathing difficulties, cough, headache, and burning sensation in the eyes. It stopped only after I switched to LPG,” she says.

Cooking being done in a small makeshift stove outdoors in a Bengaluru slum.
Outdoor cooking underway at Rajendra Nagar slum, Bengaluru. A CEEW survey (2021) showed that only 55% of urban slum households exclusively used LPG cylinders. Pic: Anshul Rai Sharma

Chetan Harsha, a consultant with the non-profit YUVA in Panvel, says, “When there’s a drive for the scheme, the local body distributes forms. But once the application is submitted, only the local gas agency is involved. Some applicants say they don’t get a response or the gas dealer tells them they are ineligible, without giving any clear reasons. Applicants are unable to question this.”

Hema Chari Madabhushi, core member of Warrior Moms, an organisation working for clean air, says many slum residents in Pune have been left out of the scheme. In a survey she conducted in 2022, Hema found that the Ujjwala scheme was fairly popular, but that some slums were completely left out. 

“Slums that are somewhat active or located near high-income localities had more beneficiaries, as ASHAs and councillors had distributed application forms there. But there were also slums where none had Ujjwala connections,” says Hema.

Bhavreen Kandhari, co-founder of Warrior Moms, says no officials have approached many women in Delhi, especially those living in kutcha houses. “For example, families living near Bhalswa landfill have not availed the scheme.”

In some rural and peri-urban areas, gas agencies don’t exist in the vicinity of many households as well.

The ministry official says it’s difficult to estimate the number of women left out of the scheme.

Many unable to afford refills

Sana Devidas Katkari of Panvel uses her chulha for most of her cooking, despite having an Ujjwala cylinder in her household. Her five-member family collectively earns only Rs 3,000 monthly, from her husband’s work as an agricultural labourer. Sana uses her cylinder only on certain occasions, for instance, when she has guests over, so that she can make the cylinder last for about three months instead of one month.

Another Panvel resident Sai Kavita Patil also finds the LPG cylinder refill too costly, given her monthly income of just Rs 3,000-4,000.

Hema of Warrior Moms says this is quite commonly seen in Pune slums too. “In many cases, women just stop LPG use after the first free cylinder, as they can’t afford the refill. Or they would use both the cylinder and chulha, or reserve the cylinder’s use for special occasions.” So, despite its good intentions, the scheme couldn’t tackle indoor air pollution in poorly-ventilated urban slum dwellings, she says. “We even see months-old babies or pregnant women exposed to smoke from chulhas in slums.”

Hema says that women employed in cities, such as those working as domestic help, tend to have better LPG use. But the more vulnerable women, such as those living and working in construction workers’ settlements, are worse off.

Read more: The cost of high LPG prices: Environmental and health hazards in slums

A section of Ujjwala beneficiaries do buy cylinders regularly. For example, in Perumbakkam resettlement colony in Chennai, over a thousand women have availed Ujjwala scheme and usually replace cylinders every couple of months, says Beula, a community worker from the NGO IRCDUC. But these are also households with a minimum income of Rs 10,000 per month.  

Several studies have also found that most Ujjwala beneficiaries use a combination of LPG and traditional fuel due to high costs.

As per government data, on average, PMUY customers buy only half as many cylinders as general category LPG consumers. In 2022-23, one-fourth of PMUY beneficiaries either took zero or only one refill, The Hindu reported. 

A man transporting LPG cylinders by bicycle
In May 2022, with a subsidy of Rs 200 per refill, Ujjwala beneficiaries still had to pay a steep sum of around Rs 800 per cylinder. Representational image. Pic: Adrian Hands/CC BY-SA 3.0

The cost of Ujjwala cylinders have fluctuated over the years. When the government first announced the scheme in 2016, the full cost of a 14.2-kg cylinder was around Rs 500 and the subsidy for Ujjwala beneficiaries was Rs 94. The subsidy remained at Rs 100-200 over the next few years while the price of cylinders rocketed. During COVID in 2020, the government stopped all subsidies for LPG cylinders, including for Ujjwala beneficiaries.

The scheme was relaunched in May 2022, with a subsidy of Rs 200 per refill. At the time, the cost of a cylinder was around Rs 1,000, which meant Ujjwala beneficiaries had to pay a steep sum of around Rs 800 per cylinder.

It has to be remembered that even as LPG prices were rising, the real wages of urban workers were in fact declining. According to the India Employment Report 2024, jointly prepared by the International Labour Organisation and the Institute for Human Development, the average monthly earnings of regular salaried workers (including guards, domestic workers, etc) has declined by 1% each year in the decade between 2012 and 2022. The wage decline was faster in urban areas. The wages of self-employed people also declined by 0.8% annually. Only in the case of casual workers did the wages increase annually by 2.4%.

In the run-up to the elections, the government reduced the cost of LPG cylinders for all consumers by Rs 200 in August 2023, and by another Rs 100 this March. They also increased the subsidy for Ujjwala beneficiaries to Rs 300 last October. With this, the cost of an LPG cylinder refill now comes to around Rs 500 for Ujjwala beneficiaries.

But many beneficiaries still find the cost high, and many had already stopped cylinder use owing to the sharp price hikes earlier. And thus, government’s promotions on PMUY notwithstanding, these experiences show that permanent transition to clean cooking fuel remains a goal unachieved in low income urban communities.

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