Realising the Ujjwala dream

Realising the Ujjwala dream

IN PERSPECTIVE

Representative Image

Over the last three years, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) has captured global attention owing to its ambition and pace of implementation. Under the scheme, almost 75 million subsidised LPG connections have been provided as of July 18, 2019.

However, the typical rural Indian household still continues to stack LPG with biomass for its cooking needs. Indoor air pollution due to continued biomass use negates the health benefits of using LPG for households.

In 2018, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), in collaboration with the National University of Singapore and the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy, conducted a panel survey (ACCESS) of more than 9,000 rural households across India’s six major energy-access-deprived states.

The survey findings highlighted the change in access to clean cooking energy among households in the last three years. We found that while the proportion of rural households with an LPG connection increased two-fold, from 22% to 58% in 2018, 81% households continued to use biomass for cooking.

The PMUY scheme now needs to focus on three frontiers to enable sustained and exclusive use of LPG: addressing affordability of use, ensuring home delivery of LPG cylinders, and navigating the intra-household gender dynamics impacting the use of LPG.

Affordability remains one of the biggest barriers to the sustained use of LPG, especially among the PMUY households which are socio-economically marginalised. Our research found that PMUY households used four cylinders per year (median) while non-PMUY households with an LPG connection used six cylinders during the same period.

Also, while comparing the monthly median spending on cooking fuel, PMUY households spent Rs 204 per month whereas non-PMUY households spent Rs 325. Almost 56% of PMUY beneficiaries are below the poverty line against 37% in the case of non-PMUY households. This indicates that PMUY households require greater financial assistance than non-PMUY households.

A differential subsidy mechanism that weans away well-to-do households from the subsidy net and provides greater support to low-income households would be essential to support the sustained use of LPG.

It would, therefore, be a good time to design and conduct a set of pilots to determine the threshold level of subsidy at which various households are able to use LPG exclusively.

The other dimension of affordability is cash flow, which is an equally strong barrier for many PMUY households. To address this, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG) is allowing households to use 5 kg and 14.2 kg cylinders interchangeably.

In addition, extending support through staggered payments and direct debit of subsidised refill amount from the linked bank account of the customers could be ways to address the challenge of cash flows.

Our research also shows that the reduction in the distance travelled to procure the cylinders increases the consumption of LPG among households. However, despite the improvement in the number of households receiving home deliveries since 2015, it remained at 41% in 2018, and the median distance to procure LPG stands at 4km, one-way.

The number of distributors has also increased in the last three years. However, rural distributors need higher incentives or margins to be economically viable due to factors such as the low density of customers, lower refills rates, and higher transport costs.

In addition, more cost-effective and decentralised distribution models through partnerships with self-help groups, farmer cooperatives, and grassroots-level civil society organisations, must be explored to improve LPG availability.

Decision-makers

Though PMUY provides connections in the name of the adult women of the household, only in one-third of the surveyed households women decided when to order an LPG cylinder.

Only in 14% of households, women placed the order for the cylinder. Sustained use of LPG still remains strongly influenced by the decision-making authority in the household and the one who prioritises household expenses.

Hence, to increase LPG usage, it would be prudent to sensitise elder members and spouses of PMUY beneficiaries - often the primary decision-makers or the influencers in the households - through platforms such as LPG Panchayat.

Soon enough, the LPG penetration in India would be at 100%. The goalpost must now shift towards sustained use of the cleaner fuel, with requisite monitoring. Only targeted efforts for different customer segments at the institutional, community, and household-level would lead to a smoke-free kitchen in every household.

(The writers are researchers at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, an independent, not-for-profit policy research institution)