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Opinion | Why the govt’s Ujjwala plan is a glass half full

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While critics argue that those availing the domestic cooking gas scheme are staying away from going in for refills, government data suggests that that isn’t really the case

Celebrating milestones is important. More so if you are the ruling dispensation in the world's largest democracy. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Narendra Modi government has been highlighting the success of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), which provides free cooking gas connections to poor families. The optics around the scheme has been consistent. In August last year, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan handed over the 50-millionth LPG connection in Parliament. On Wednesday, vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu was called on to hand over the 60-millionth connection. It has electoral potential. The scheme contributed to the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in March 2017. Launched from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh-the state that sends the largest number of MPs to Parliament-the ₹12,800-crore scheme has increasingly been leveraged by Modi to amplify the political messaging. Also, National Geographic channel aired a 44-minute documentary on this (bit.ly/2HRUGgi) and the BJP leadership has asked its public representatives to explain initiatives like PMUY to Dalits and other socially backward communities. The programme, launched on 1 May 2016, has gained traction and its ambit expanded to include 80 million poor families from the earlier target of 50 million families with an additional allocation of ₹4,800 crore. The clean fuel protects users from inhaling smoke and also helps the poor avoid going to unsafe areas to collect firewood.

However, there have been concerns, such as PMUY beneficiaries not using their LPG cylinders. Also, during Mint's coverage of the recent Assembly elections, reporters found there were implementation issues with the scheme in Madhya Pradesh, for instance. The government claims that around 80% of the beneficiaries have been refilling cylinders, with average per capita consumption being 3.28 cylinders. While critics argue that one swallow does not a summer make, the data set presents a compelling picture. According to oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan, the government has during the past 54 months almost equalled the 130 million connections provided since cooking gas was introduced (in 1955) in India. Also, LPG coverage has touched 90%, with a significant increase in eastern states. With 48% of the beneficiaries being SC/STs, the playbook is for all to see in the backdrop of the BJP losing elections in the key Hindi heartland.

The government has been quick to learn during the scheme's implementation. A case in point being state-run fuel retailers introducing a 5kg refill option to make purchases affordable. Also, these public sector undertakings deferred loan recovery up to six refills as many people (around three-fourths of beneficiaries) availing an equated monthly instalment facility to meet the cost of a stove and first refill were paying market price for refills till the loan repayment was made. This led to some consumers not going in for such refills. The scheme has also been instrumental in helping India burnish its clean energy credentials. This assumes significance in a country that is now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China. With four months remaining in the current government's term, the Ujjwala scheme presents itself as a big part of the BJP's election manifesto. If only the Indian voter agrees with the mandarins at the Shastri Bhavan building where the petroleum ministry is housed, the scheme may actually turn out to be a game changer as the election jamboree begins.