Lighting up the Indian kitchens

A ground report on the government’s efforts to make the kitchens of rural India ujjwal

sakshi

Sakshi Kuchroo | November 4, 2016 | Ballia, Uttar Pradesh


#rural India   #Narendra Modi   #UP   #Uttar Pradesh   #Ballia   #India  
Lighting up the Indian kitchens
Lighting up the Indian kitchens

Seema Devi, a 34-year-old woman, is not much different from other homemakers of her village – Takerson in Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh. But ask her about her latest acquisition, and she turns into an ideal candidate for promotional ad on the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY).
As if reading from a script, she says with enviable articulation: “Ujjwala ne zindagi hi palat ke rakh di humari. Ye gas humare jivan ka atoot hissa hai. [Ujjwala has changed our lives completely. The gas connection has become an integral part of our lives].”

Seema is especially upbeat about it, as she was one of the 10 women who received LPG (cooking) gas connection documents from prime minister Narendra Modi on May 1.  “I had never thought I will have my own gas stove. Cooking food on a gas stove is much better than on a chulha. Life is easy now,” says Seema, pointing to the pride of her kitchen. Seema’s husband and his two brothers are construction workers and her father-in-law is a vegetable vendor. The family’s monthly income is not more than Rs 4,000-5,000. “For people like us who have such a meagre income, owning a gas connection feels royal,” she exults.

Seema proceeds to light her gas stove, probably to show us that she  can handle the new gadget. A Hindi pamphlet, hanging on the brick wall of her small kitchen, lists the safety measures for the stove. “People from the gas agency had come to connect the gas [cylinder]. They taught me how to light the gas stove. They told me about the precautionary measures; and in case I forget, I can simply look in the pamphlet,” she says.
Meanwhile, Seema’s father-in-law, dressed in a white shirt and dhoti, enters the kitchen. “Now, there is no smoke from the chulah and I don’t cough anymore. Food is cooked on the gas stove only,” he says.

Seema says that half of the expense of her connection was borne by the government and for the rest she took a loan from the Indian Oil agency. “The first refill was recently done by the gas agency. But for the next I will have to save money. I haven’t really thought how I will do that. But I have vowed to maintain this connection all my life,” she says.

Read interview with Ashutosh Jindal“We have to convince women about benefits of LPG”

As per the PMUY, the price of an LPG gas connection is Rs 3,200, of which Rs 1,600 is borne by the government for below poverty line (BPL) families. The cost includes security deposit for the cylinder, pressure regulator, hose pipe, domestic gas consumer card (DGCC) book – also known as the ‘blue book’ – and one-time installation and administrative charges. The remaining Rs 1,600, which includes the cost of LPG stove and the first refill, is paid by the beneficiary. She also has the option of availing a loan from her gas agency as Seema has done. In case of a loan, the initial cost of the LPG stove and first refill is borne by the distributor, which will be later adjusted by the respective oil marketing company from the subsidy due to the consumer on purchase of each refill.

The scheme has worked just right for Seema. However, many other beneficiaries are not as excited as she is. Indravati, a farmer in her 40s, lives in a village Jira Basti, six km from Takerson. She had received her LPG connection through a Bharat Petroleum gas agency in July. Unlike Seema, Indravati doesn’t have a pucca house and lives in a small, thatched hut with a small kitchen located next to it. It’s dangerous to use a gas stove here as a thatch roof is more likely to catch fire. Indravati has placed her gas stove on a makeshift platform of bricks a few feet above the ground. According to the safety manual, the stove is supposed to be kept six inches above the height of the gas cylinder – something which is not possible in Indravati’s dwelling. Also, it seems, the stove should not be in direct contact with the air. The reason for this is: LPG is heavier than air and in case of a leakage, the gas collects on the floor – in this case under the gas stove – and can cause fire.

Indravati explains, “This connection was set up by the local boys who are trained. Nobody came from the gas agency and no one explained the precautionary measures. The local boys taught me how to operate the gas stove.” When I tell her that the placement of the gas stove is wrong and it risks her life, she says, “We connected the gas according to our convenience. Where else shall we keep it? There is no space.”
Indravati too has taken a loan for the connection and has no idea how  she will pay for the refill. “My husband and I are farmers and we plough a nearby field. We earn Rs 10-20 per day. I don’t use the gas stove much because I don’t have the money for refilling the cylinder. So I mostly cook on chulha,” she says.
Indravati’s limitation to use the chulha for cooking even after owning a gas connection bares the chinks in the PMUY. While the scheme has changed Seema’s life, it hasn’t brought relief to many others like Indravati.
And yet people, especially BPL families, are rushing to get a connection.

Amitesh, a local Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) LPG distributor, says that while a few are enjoying the benefits, others are struggling to maintain the connection. He explains the scheme: “The list of beneficiaries was prepared on the basis of Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), 2011. Though the survey is five-year-old it is also the most recent one. Many [beneficiaries]have been left out. We receive thousands of applications from people but we can do nothing about it. There is no update from the government on what should be done. So we have put their names in the waiting list,” he says. 
Rajesh Kumar Singh, another IOCL distributor in Ballia, says that thousands of applications are rejected daily. “Forget about those who are on the waiting list. There are people who are on the list and still not able to get the connection. Reason being, their names in the SECC list don’t match with the names in their documents, and we are very particular about these little details,” he says.

Singh says that many applicants face rejection as their AHL TIN numbers are missing. [AHL TIN Number stands for Abridged Household List-Temporary Identification Number, which is a 29-digit number given under the SECC 2011].
He also spoke of yet another major problem faced by BPL card holders for getting LPG connection: “We tell them that they can’t have the connection unless their name is on the SECC survey list. But BPL women come and ask us if the scheme is for them then why they can’t get the connection now. They also ask us how long they have to wait. Frankly we don’t have answers. We send them to the agency so that at least their information is forwarded to the National Informatics Centre [NIC].” He explains that the NIC is the nodal agency for matching data of BPL women [entitled beneficiary] collected on the field with that of SECC 2011 to avoid duplication of the LPG connection in a family. “But since the NIC does not send an authority letter, we have no idea how long it will take for them to get the connection,” he says.

Amitesh and Rajesh feel that there is urgent need of another survey. “Many things went wrong in the 2011 survey. It was not done properly and it is also old. There are many people in the waiting list. There is an urgent need to hold another survey,” says Amitesh.
Six kilometres from Jira Basti is Dharampura village. Village pradhan Vakeel Rajbhar vents his frustration over the chaos in allotment of LPG connections: “There is so much confusion. People from the gas agency told me that if anyone in my village is entitled to a gas connection, they will first inform me through a text message. Then it will be my responsibility to inform the concerned person. But when I do so the people who still haven’t got a connection get offended and accuse me of favouritism.”

He underlines his point with an anecdote. “Two brothers who were living in one house had received the connection under the Ujjwala scheme. Later they separated their households and when one brother wanted a separate connection, the agency refused saying that one family could only get one connection. This has led to a major fight between them. And such fights are common.”
A visit to the kitchen in Vakeel’s house brings forth a startling revelation about the usage of LPG gas stoves. There, the gas stove lay covered with a neat cotton cloth while a chulha was being used for cooking. Vakeel’s wife, Sursati, explains, “I am used to cooking on the chulha. I use the gas stove as well. It’s just that I am not able to let go of the chulha.”
Anil Kumar Choubey, proprietor of an IOCL agency, gives more insights into the realities of PMUY. “Sometimes there is political pressure from the local MLA for giving preference to his favourites. But we strictly move according to the list. The pressure is more from people claiming to be friends with the MLA. As the elections are approaching, they are creating more problems for us.”
Choubey too admits that the SECC 2011 is outdated and full of errors. “But we have no other option. We have been instructed to distribute the connection according to the list. The rules are being followed but the mistakes made in the survey create problems for us.”
As per the SECC 2011 data, a total of 2,22,020 connections were to be distributed in the first year in Ballia district. As of now, the LPG agencies have distributed only 16,234 connections. “We are trying our best. Agencies of three companies – the IOCL, Bharat Gas and Hindustan Petroleum – are operating in Ballia. IOCL is the nodal company. We all work in collaboration through the OMC (oil marketing company) web portal where all the data is uploaded and saved,” he says.

Explaining the process of selection, Choubey says that a customer first has to fill a KYC (Know Your Customer) form. If her details match the SECC 2011 data, she is asked to submit her Aadhaar and bank account details. The OMC portal undertakes the exercise to electronically detect any multiple connections in her household. If no multiple connection is detected the new one is released to the beneficiary.
Choubey shows a huge stack of rejected forms. In most of these either the TIN was missing or the name didn’t match with the one in the SECC list.

District administration not in loop

District administration officials claimed they have no role to play in implementation of the scheme as it is between the government and the oil marketing companies. The officials in fact appeared upset at being kept out of the scheme.
“We cannot be held responsible for any of the issues concerning Ujjwala. Be it the safety aspect or selection of the beneficiary. We have no information whatsoever,” said Rakesh Kumar, who was then district magistrate (DM), Ballia, but has since been suspended pending an inquiry against him for allegedly ordering firing on BJP supporters.

Kumar said that despite this he has to face people’s wrath on not-so-fair  gas distribution. “Many people come to me asking for connections but I have to send them to the agencies. Others come with the problems they have with their claims and applications, but we can’t do anything because we are not formally updated about this scheme. It is a big problem as the scheme is not executed through us,” he rued.
Kumar had no access to the database of SECC 2011 survey or the number of connections distributed. “We had to dig out the figures about the number of connections distributed for you, otherwise we have no formal update on this scheme,” he says.

Kumar also mentioned that the survey was done by the ministry of rural development and it has been shared only with the agencies. He therefore had no clue about the problems surfacing from the survey.
Chetan Patwari, IOCL area manager, Gorakhpur, says that the Ujjwala scheme is different from other schemes and doesn’t require the involvement of the district administration. “Why should we unnecessarily complicate the scheme? It is better if we keep the work between the government and the OMCs. Because, frankly speaking, there is no need to involve the district administration here,” says Patwari, who also covers the distribution of LPG connections in Ballia.

On distribution of connections in unsafe kutcha houses, he says, “We take full care while distributing the connections. Our distributors brief all the ladies of the household. We give them pamphlets written in Hindi. If elders don’t know how to read then at least their children are able to tell them.” When I tell him about Indravati’s unsafe thatched kitchen, Patwari replies, “You can give me the specific names and we will look into the matter. Otherwise, it is not like we don’t take care. We also hold safety education programmes where we call all the beneficiaries at one particular place and give them instructions on how to operate their gas connections.”

Patwari does not want to share his opinion on the SECC 2011 survey with us and claims the government and OMCs are doing their best to reach out to as many BPL families as possible.
Anil Kumar, district supply officer, Ballia, dismisses the claims of LPG distributors about missing names, documents or TIN number. “Who told you all this? We take care of the missing documents. We also make Aadhaar cards for them if they don’t have one,” he says.
Kumar claims that the gas agencies also hold new connection melas (NCMs) where beneficiaries are provided with the LPG connection by an MP. “So far, we have held about 100 NCMs and it is all going great,” he says.

I also met people who have been waiting for connections for long. “It’s been three months since I applied for the connection and I have been repeatedly visiting the agency. We have submitted all our documents and our name is also on the SECC list. I don’t understand why it is taking so long,” says Suresh of Jira Basti, who I met while he  was waiting outside the office of  Bharat Gas agency with his wife Geeta Devi. He says, “We are tired of running around. People who filled the form after us have received the connection but we are still waiting. We were told that we will get the gas stove today but it’s been three hours and the gates of their office remain locked. How much more a poor family can handle?” asks a visibly distressed Suresh.
At the same place I met Rajan and his wife Baby Devi, who too have been waiting for their connection for two months now. “We have repeatedly asked them if there is any problem with the form but they say everything is fine, just wait for it, we will call you. But they never call. Today they did and now again they have disappeared,” says Baby Devi.

When I tell Patwari about their cases, he promises to look into these. “Normally this is not the case. They get the connection within days. But if there are people who have been waiting for such a long time, I will look into it personally,” he said.
The preamble of the PMUY says that the poor in India have limited access to LPG cooking gas. Lack of access to clean fuel is affecting the health of particularly women and children in the rural households. The government is thus committed to provide clean fuel to as many poor households as possible. PMUY aims to empower women and make them free of all health hazards that are caused by unclean cooking fuel. The target is to reach out to five crore BPL households with the LPG connection over a period of three years.

However, on the ground in Ballia, some beneficiaries have put the gas aside and returned to the chulha, some are waiting for a connection, LPG distributors are blaming the SECC 2011 survey, people are cursing the agencies while the district administration is unhappy at being kept out. If Ujjwala has to achieve its aims, it will have to untangle the web of mismanagement and blame game. 

sakshi@governancenow.com

(The article appears in November 1-15, 2016 edition of Governance Now)

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