Sameer Khazir Dar
Introduced with the objective of replacing the inefficient and polluting cooking fuels traditionally used in rural India with Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), the NDA’s ‘Pradhan MantriUjjwalaYojana’ could be of immense benefit to remote communities in Jammu Kashmir but only if certain persistent bottlenecks are addressed.
A rough road dotted with potholes, zigzagging through the maze of coniferous trees, takes you to the sleepy village of Babagail, 25 kilometres from the district headquarters of Baramulla. Nestled on the fringes of Kazinag National Park (abode of the world’s largest goat, the endangered Markhor) Babagail comprises 81 dwelling units. Gurgling streams and an overwhelmingly calm ambience soothe the nerves; a sense of serenity and tranquillity prevails.
We came to Babagail to meet 27-year-old Hameeda Begum (name changed), among the first few women to have been linked as a beneficiary under the Pradhan MantriUjjwalaYojana (PMUY) by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI; a Delhi-Based conservation NGO), working in concert with the J&K Department of Wildlife Protection under the banner of the Markhor Conservation Project.
Hameeda Begum’s three-room house was still under construction when our team arrived to assess the impact of the linkage. She disappeared into the kitchen as we pulled off our shoes to enter her home, and minutes later the hot sugar-tea was waiting before us.
We asked how she had prepared the tea so quickly – and she looked above the gas cylinder where a sticker proudly announced that the LPG had been provided under ‘Ujjwala’, as the PMUY scheme is commonly known.
“I have got a new lease of life since the cylinder arrived”, she said, adding, “since cooking, or even making tea, over the traditional chulha (clay stove) would have been taxing for me in my condition” (she is five months pregnant). Lighting a traditional fuelwood chulha takes a few minutes and one can only cook sitting on the floor, and Hameeda Begum has to prepare meals for a family of five, twice a day. This means spending four to five hours every day inhaling the smoke from the fuelwood stove, and exposing her two children to the smoke as well. The gas cylinder has definitely made her life easy, she declared. She was quick to add that this was the first time that she had availed any benefit from a central government-sponsored scheme.
Like Hameeda Begum, Ruksan of Lachipora village (a hamlet located on the fringes of Lachipora Wildlife Sanctuary) is a beneficiary of the Ujjwala scheme. However, Ruksan had availed the loan proffered by the Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) at the time of taking the LPG connection. This loan is to be recovered approximately from seven to eight refilling as the subsidy is treated as an EMI (Equated Monthly Instalment). Struggling with the increasing price of LPG with successive refills, Ruksan has had her gas cylinder refilled only three times in the past year. She says she may return to using a fuel wood stove if the price of LPG keeps rising, as she finds refilling too costly.
People in LachiporaGawaas, an economically backward village, have never seen the office of the LPG distributer appointed to service the village under the Ujjwala scheme. The families get cylinders refilled from a shop selling onions in a market four kilometres away. They receive no receipt for these transactions, which makes it obvious that the cylinders are being provided to them on the black market. It seems clear that most of the women prefer cooking on LPG but refilling remains a challenge for two reasons: affordability and availability.
Need for clean fuel
Looking beyond Improved Cook Stoves (ICS) as a means of reducing fuelwood consumption through ecologically appropriate alternatives, the Prime Minister of India, on May 1, 2016, had launched the ambitious PMUY social welfare scheme. The aim: to replace the unclean cooking fuel mostly used in rural India with the clean and more efficient LPG, by providing LPG connections in the name of women in BPL (Below Poverty Line) households across the country. As per the 2011 census, nearly 121 million households are still using the inefficient and polluting chulhas. Further, as per a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, smoke produced by these cookstoves is equivalent to burning 400 cigarettes an hour – a major health hazard particularly for rural women and children.
A sum of Rs 8,000 crore was allocated for the PMUY scheme to begin with. However, given the success of the scheme under which 3.57 crore LPG connections had already been availed, Union Finance Minister ArunJaitely announced in the latest Annual Budget that an additional Rs 4,800 crore was being allocated, and the scheme’s target increased to 8 crore beneficiaries. This revised target is to be achieved by 2020 and 14 states/UTs having LPG coverage less than the national average, including the hilly states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and all states in the North-East have been identified as priority states.
WTI and the J&K Department of Wildlife Protection recently began the process of linking inhabitants of villages on the fringes of Kazinag National Park under PMUY. Since the extended phase of the scheme has the provision to cover all households falling under the arch of ‘forest dwellers’, WTI has joined hands with the Manager - Ujjwala Branch, Baramulla (a nodal agency responsible for the distribution of subsidised LPG connections) to ensure that villages in and around Kazinag are linked in a sustainable manner. This initiative, besides meeting the underlying objectives of the Ujjwala scheme, will help reduce the local dependence on the Protected Area for fuelwood, which has a deleterious effect on wild habitats.
Lacunae in Implementation
Lack of awareness
Most of the villagers that our team met were not aware about the underlying objectives of the PMUY scheme. Efforts need to be intensified to make remote communities, especially the womenfolk, aware about the benefits of using LPG. Awareness is one of the most important tools through which we can create a positive and a measurable change in people’s perceptions and increase the adoption of energy efficient cooking methods.
Another challenge before Ujjwala is the distribution of LPG in remote villages. The gas agencies entrusted with the job are meant to provide door-to-door service to people. However, most people that our team met in Baramulla district said none of the distributors were delivering cylinders to their homes.
Role of Middlemen
When WTI began the process of linking villages on the fringes of Kazinag with the Ujjwala scheme, most people maintained a distance from us – they had earlier been duped by middlemen who had asked for money in exchange for LPG connections. What are the checks and balances to stop this practice? Has any concerned officer taken the trouble to visit remote hamlets and ask whether any of the beneficiaries has given money in exchange for a connection? I am not painting everyone with the same brush, but things seem to have gone terribly amiss in terms of on-ground realities.
Will this scheme meet the same fate as previous such schemes? Can we afford to allow such a crucial initiative to flounder midstream? With such a shoddy roll-out of services, are we not mutilating subverting the scheme in letter and spirit? Such hard questions must be asked of those responsible for implementing PMUY.
Author is a Field Sociologist with Wildlife Trust of India’s Markhor Conservation Project