Narendra Modi government’s Ujjwala scheme has been a game-changer for millions of women across India.
The life of 40-year-old Pramila Devi changed drastically for the better six months ago. She is an Ujjwala beneficiary, one of the flagship programmes of the Narendra Modi government.
“Cooking used to be a chore,” Pramila said in her distinctive East Uttar Pradesh accent. A mother of three teens and a resident of Salarpur village in Varanasi tehsil, her husband is a construction labourer.
“I had to get up early in the morning by 4 am and venture out alone to collect firewood or make cow dung cakes. Fearing lecherous men who would make passes at me, stray dogs, and braving harsh weather had been my daily routine for decades. Despite this hard work, I was unable to put food on the plates of my husband and children by 8.30 am when they would leave for work or school. This caused so much domestic discord in the family and my whole day would go in just managing the chulha and cooking food, yet satisfying none.”
While cooking for her family for the last 20-25 years, Pramila Devi’s health had taken a beating too. One day of cooking over these wretched brick stoves is medically equivalent to inhaling 400 cigarettes. “I still have trouble breathing and end up coughing all night. My eyes would water endlessly and there was scorching pain that simply refused to go away,” she tells me in a choked voice.
Then 23-year-old Sukhu Yadav, one of the few young literate men in the village, educated Pramila Devi and several others like her about the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) scheme, which provides free gas connection to people below the poverty line. He took Pramila Devi to the Rajghat Gas Service Centre where she had to submit basic identification documents such as her Aadhaar card and fill up a form.
In less than a month, the security-free LPG connection was there right at her house. “I never dreamt that I would get a gas connection; I always believed it was a privilege only for the elite and we had to pay bribe. We needed recommendations from legislators or Members of Parliament or some local politician to avail of a gas connection. Where would illiterate, poor people like us have these networks?” she rued. Pramila Devi now finishes her cooking by 7 am, much before the family sets out for their daily routine. “My family is so much more happy now, and so am I,” she said.
Journeying through the Indian hinterland and speaking to several beneficiaries of various popular and much-advertised central government schemes have been an eye-opener. They bring alive the stories of real people with real problems in “Bharat” that had gone unaddressed for long – people who are not just statistics in government files or propaganda advertisements.
Still, while evaluating any government policy, numbers are inevitable. Till 2014, gas connection coverage across India was just about 55 per cent with 13 crore families having LPG cylinders. By May 2018, a staggering 10 crore families such as Pramila Devi’s were provided connections, bringing the domestic gas coverage to an unbelievable 90 per cent. The Prime Minister said that seventy per cent of the villages in India now have total gas connection, while 81 per cent of them have a coverage of 75 per cent. Of the 10 crore new households brought under the LPG cover, four crore households were given free connection under the BPL category. And, 45 per cent of these were Dalit and Adivasi homes.
While the first gas cylinder is free, Sukhu Yadav explains to me, subsequent refills cost Rs 870. Of this, cash back of Rs 370 is credited into their accounts. These direct cash transfers to the poor have come courtesy the ‘Give It Up’ call that Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave to the privileged. While earlier these subsidies, intended for the poor, would get siphoned away by middlemen, they now directly reach the accounts of the poor every month when they refill their cylinders.
But do women like Pramila Devi have bank accounts, I quiz him.
“Well, I helped them get accounts opened under the Jan Dhan scheme,” he says. A whopping budget of Rs 12,800 crore has been allocated to the PMUY, but it seems well worth the money given the last-mile delivery. An ambitious target of eight crore BPL household coverage by 2020 has been set up by the central government. By then, every household in India is expected to be free from the scourge of the chulha and the transition to clean, efficient and healthy fuel is likely to be complete.
In southern Bihar’s Jamui district, in the little village of Pipradih, I spoke to Nutan Devi, another beneficiary of this scheme. Unlike Pramila Devi, she is literate but bore the brunt of the chulha that affected her lungs. Pointing at her roof and walls, she tells me: “All of this would be covered with soot and the house felt like a gas-chamber. The kids, my husband and I would end up coughing all the time and rubbing our eyes. What was the use of education, if this was how my life turned out to be?”
She came across the PMUY advertisements in the newspapers and promptly landed up at the local distribution centre. Following a similar process, she procured her first treasured cylinder in March 2017 and has had nearly 15 refills since. She just has to call the distribution centre and quote her ID and the cylinder comes home within a few days. “Cooking with ease gives me a sense of self-worth and confidence. I got a lot of respect even at the distribution centre. The process was seamless and not one person ever asked for bribe. That in itself is an achievement!” she chuckled.
Until recently, her entire day was spent in managing the kitchen and the smoke emanating from the oven. Making good use of the time Nutan Devi saves now, she has stopped sending her two children, aged 10 and 13, to tuition and has started teaching them herself.
Availing of a Mudra loan, she even manages a part-time shop that sells provisions. “Despite all this, I don’t feel exhausted. This is productive work and I am earning for my family now, not just blowing into that wretched fireplace and killing my lungs!”
Without the tyranny of middlemen, women like her also attend periodic LPG panchayats where new and old consumers gather to educate themselves about the scheme and gas cylinders. It is a great forum for distributors as well to understand the pulse of the customer and her expectations.
From clean fuel and healthy cooking to women empowerment and increased productivity, Modi government’s Ujjwala scheme has truly been a game-changer for millions of women across India. The wonderful manner in which a scheme like Ujjwala enmeshes with Jan Dhan and Mudra loans for women is also noteworthy. Significantly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has lauded the scheme in its 2018 report for positive environmental impact and fighting household air pollution. The region comprising India, the report says, accounts for 39 per cent (or 15 lakh) of the total 38 lakh annual deaths caused globally by household air pollution.
Sukhu Yadav in UP’s Salarpur tells me that barring a handful, almost everyone (nearly 150 families) in the village has an LPG connection. Good Samaritans like him are feted in the village.
“The minute the villagers see me, they ask me to help them fill various forms and explain these schemes to them. They also offer me the delicacies they have cooked with their new LPG connection,” he says.
“I come from a very poor family of labourers and have worked hard to finish my graduation. I have seen my mother suffer because of the chulha. We would be fast asleep by the time my mother managed to finish preparing dinner. Guests could never be entertained properly. We availed of the Ujjwala scheme, and that’s when I decided to help other women like my mother. I was initially sceptical and was not sure whether my efforts would yield any results or not. But when I get such love from people and see the joy on their faces, it is so satisfying.”
When I asked him if the scheme was one reason why the BJP won such a thumping majority in Uttar Pradesh assembly election, he tells me: “Sir, I have no interest in politics and have no idea about the tricks politicians employ. I know that this scheme is helping people widely and their welfare is all that matters. But yes, all the women in the village keep blessing Modi ji as they know it is he who has brought this change in their lives, so many years after Independence. That is all that matters to most of us!”
Hundreds and thousands of such stories of real people, far away from the air-conditioned television studios where these stories are never talked about, but where angry, noisy debates are a diurnal affair, is what the real “Bharat” is all about. These silent voters are the ones who will determine who gets to control the reins of power in Delhi in 2019.
The author is a Bengaluru-based author/historian and political analyst.
This is the first part of a series on the author’s conversations with beneficiaries of schemes launched by the Narendra Modi government.