The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, launched in May 2016, is one of the flagship schemes of the Modi government. The scheme aims to safeguard the health of women and children by providing them with clean cooking fuel (LPG) to avoid collection and usage of firewood, a health and safety hazard. The government sells it as a huge success, claiming that within 26 months, five crore families below the poverty line (BPL) were provided LPG connections.
However, a closer look reveals a flip side to the story. The scheme is, in fact, falling short of meeting the objective to provide gas connections to BPL families.
In Aryapuri, a rehabilitation colony for survivors of the Muzaffarnagar riots, residents are disappointed. One resident, Ruksana, said, “It’s a myth that people get free connection. They need to pay Rs 1,600 for a stove and gas cylinder. Most of us are unable to pay this lump sum. We fall prey to the never ending cycle of debt.”
Ruksana applied for a connection a few days after her son’s wedding. “I paid the amount and submitted the documents, but have not received the gas connection. We can’t do much but curse the government for continuing to ignore our community. I have used a chulha (fire stove) my entire life and now my bahu will also have to.”
Behind Ruksana, her bahu was washing utensils. I asked her about her new life. Though initially hesitant, she took me to her room and said, “In my mayaka (parents’ house) we had a gas cylinder. Before marriage, I never used a chulha.”
She is trying to learn to operate a chulha, but will try to convince her husband to get a gas cylinder.
When the women were asked about the Lok Sabha elections and which political party they would vote for, their faces turned towards the men. The women said, “We don’t know anything about politics and neither do we want to. We will vote for whoever the men tell us to.”
The cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved Rs 8,000 crore to the Ujjwala scheme for the financial years 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. To expand its reach, it approved Rs 4,800 crore to enhance the beneficiaries from 5 crore people to 8 crore.
But has the scheme benefitted the deprived? The sheer number of LPG connections that have been granted under the scheme may lead one to believe that it has been a success. According to the Union minister of petroleum and natural gas Dharmendra Pradhan, 80% of households have an active LPG connection.
But a majority of beneficiaries are not refilling their cylinders because of the high cost. Some who have got an LPG connections under the Ujjwala Yojana also say they have not been receiving kerosene at a subsidised rate.
Jerrifer, another resident of the Aryapuri colony, was able to get a connection, but could not refill the gas. An empty cylinder sits in the corner of her front porch. Her son, the sole earner in the family, manages to earn Rs 2,000 a month. “We cannot afford to spend one fourth of our earnings on a cylinder every month,” she said.
Apart from being disappointed about the scheme, Jerrifer said the BJP played a role in the Muzaffarnagar riots. Her husband was killed during the riots. She said, “The government has given us Rs 5 lakh, but nothing can compensate my husband’s death. I will never forgive them. The state has done very little ensure that we will get justice.”
Jerrifer also said that her family feels marginalised under the Modi government. “My family has been displaced and we have no choice but to live with poverty and discrimination. I will vote for the SP, BSP and RLD alliance,” she said.
When asking the reason behind her choice, she said, “Why should the family members of those who were killed, raped and forced to live in a refugee camp vote for a Hindu Jat?” The survivors of the Muzaffarnagar riots, she said, are becoming a forgotten human rights tragedy.
It is also important to remember that as per the current definition of the poverty line in India, a person in rural India who can spend Rs 27 a day is not considered poor. The reported large-scale irregularities in the scheme and the process through which beneficiaries are being identified remain big questions.
As the Modi government and the BJP celebrate the ‘success’ of the scheme by advertising the number of LPG connections it has spurned, harsh ground realities reflect a different scenario. It needs to look into whether the scheme has encouraged beneficiary households to switch to a clean cooking fuel.
Khushi Gupta is a journalism student from the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication.