PM Ujjwala Yojana: Beneficiaries and RTI activists allege irregularities, demand probe - The Probe

PM Ujjwala Yojana: Beneficiaries and RTI activists allege irregularities, demand probe

Apart from poor implementation, one of the major flaws of the scheme was that the government emphasised increasing the Ujjwala coverage without focusing on getting existing families to retain the use of LPG cylinders, reports Neeraj Thakur.
Ujjwala scheme

 

Ujjwala scheme

A woman cooking using firewood | Pic courtesy: @VenkatBalmoor | Twitter

RTI activist Mushtaq Ahmad has been closely following the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) for many years now. Last year, he met Mukhti Begum, a resident of Budgam District in Jammu and Kashmir, who told him that she had not received the LPG connection, but her name figured in the beneficiaries list of the Ujjwala scheme. After verifying the papers, Mushtaq went on social media and narrated Begum’s story, which went viral. Subsequently, within a span of 24 hours, the local LPG dealer in the area met Begum and gave her a free gas cylinder, stove and regulator.

Since then, Mushtaq and his activist friends have met numerous people in Kashmir who have faced similar issues like Begum, if not worse. Mukhti Begum and her family members wanted the local administration to thoroughly probe what they call “the LPG scam”. Several months have passed since the incident, but the government is yet to give clarifications. Mukhti Begum passed away this January.

PM Ujjwala Yojana

Mukhti Begum with RTI activist Mushtaq Ahmed | Pic courtesy: Mushtaq Ahmed

During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Modi government announced that the beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana would get free cooking gas (LPG) cylinders for three months. “We gave gas cylinders to the poor. The poorest of the poor who didn’t have the right to clean cooking medium, we gave them LPG cylinders. We gave it to nearly 8 crore BPL families who had kitchens full of smoke. The Ujjwala scheme benefitted them as they got free gas cylinders for their houses. Now for those Ujjwala scheme women, so that they don’t run short of the cooking medium during this period when there is disruption, for three months, they will be provided free cylinders, and this is expected to benefit 8.3 crore BPL families,” said Finance Minister speaking to the Press in March 2020.

Though this promise was made in 2020, during the course of our investigation, we found that several families could not avail the benefits of this programme. The names of many women were written as beneficiaries of the scheme, but it was limited to paper alone. Several other women were asked to pay for free LPG cylinders by their local gas dealers. We spoke to affected women in various states over the course of our investigation. We also spoke to many RTI activists who have extensively studied the Ujjwala scheme and followed its implementation.

“As part of Covid relief, when the Prime Minister announced that BPL families would be provided free cooking cylinders for three months, we found that many people started getting around 850 rupees in their bank accounts. But they never got the promised free cylinders. Many women went to the bank to enquire why this money was credited to their accounts and the bank authorities informed them that this money was deposited under the Ujjwala scheme. Many other women alleged that there was massive corruption. So, we wrote to the Department of Food and Civil Supplies & Consumer Affairs of J&K. The Lieutenant Governor’s Secretariat also sought a reply on the issue and a report on this was submitted by the State Level Coordinator, Oil Industry, Jammu and Kashmir. The documents that we got related to this reveal that money was charged by the local agencies when they had to give the LPG for free, and action was initiated against some distributors. They were asked to pay a fine,” says Mushtaq Ahmed.

Speaking on Mushtaq Ahmed’s complaint letter on the issue to the J&K Governor’s office, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, in one of his programmes “Awaam ki Awaaz” last November, stated: “Mushtaq Ahmed Lone from Budgam has written a letter to me regarding the PM Ujjwala Yojana programme. He has said that even when gas cylinders were provided to poor women, they were still using the traditional forms of cooking as they have been facing issues regarding refilling these cylinders. They have been facing many other issues as well. This must be probed. Mushtaq Saab, thank you for your recommendations. I will write to oil companies to start a probe into the matter.”

“Even a month after the Governor said this in the show, nothing much happened. I then wrote a letter to which I did not get a reply. Then I filed a first appeal, to which I got a reply saying that the Governor’s office did not have a complaint on the matter in the first place. In response, I attested the Governor’s audio assurance given during the Awaam ki Awaaz programme. I then got a reply stating that the Oil Companies had taken action against some distributors. I saw that around two distributors were acted against, and some other minor actions were taken, but there was no comprehensive inquiry at all. They did not try to get to the root of the problem and take action against the distributors and the Oil Companies,” says Ahmed.

An excerpt from the action taken report submitted to the government by AA Kachroo, Deputy General Manager, Jammu LPG Region, HPCL (J&K) | Pic source: Special arrangement

An excerpt from the action taken report submitted to the government by Sandeep Kumar Raina, Territory Manager-LPG, Jammu, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited | Pic source: Special arrangement

This year, Ahmed wrote to the Anti Corruption Bureau in J&K to probe the matter. He claims that so far, the authorities are mum on the issue. Whenever there is news of irregularities related to the scheme in newspapers or on social media, free LPGs are provided to the complainants as a cosmetic measure. Like how Mukti Begum was given a free connection after her video went viral, Gulshana Bano also got her free connection after she sought intervention from local activists like Ahmed.

Gulshana Bano from Budgam had also applied for an LPG connection years ago under the PM Ujjwala Scheme, but when she finally got the cylinder last year, she was asked to pay 1700 rupees. Gulshana contacted Ahmed, and after his intervention, she received her free connection.

The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) was launched by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MOPNG) in May 2016 as a flagship scheme with an objective to make Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) available to rural and deprived households which were otherwise using traditional cooking fuels like firewood, coal, cow dung cakes and the likes. In bulk purchasing, the government had set the cost of LPG connection at Rs 3200. The scheme aimed to provide five crores deposit-free LPG connections to women who were devoid of LPG access and belonged to the Below Poverty Line (BPL) categories. This was to be identified from Socio Economic & Caste Census (SECC) 2011 list.

The government provided a one-time grant of Rs 1600 to the BPL families for LPG connections wherein the government bears the cost of the cylinder’s security deposit, pressure regulator, hose and Domestic Gas Consumer Card (DGCC) and inspection cum installation charges while beneficiaries are supposed to only bear the cost of two burners and the first refilling cost.

The target of the scheme was later revised to eight crores. On September 7, 2019, the Prime Minister handed over the 8th crore LPG connection to a family in Aurangabad in Maharashtra. In August last year, the Prime Minister also launched Ujjwala 2.0, under which migrant workers can also avail of a free cooking gas connection based on a self-declaration without any documents or address proof.

Speaking to The Probe, Raja Muzaffar Bhat, another RTI activist, states that he had received a list of the beneficiaries of the Ujjwala scheme through RTI, but when he cross-checked, he found that the information provided by the government was incorrect.

“I got the list of beneficiaries, which means that these people were supposed to get free cylinders under the government’s programme. When we went to the addresses to cross-check, we learned that some of the beneficiaries named in the document had to pay for the cylinders. Many women told me that they were asked to pay hefty sums for gas connections. Many others told me that the government documents suggested that they were already given a connection when they didn’t get one. Others said that despite several applications, they never got a connection. Why have these distributors been charging money for free gas cylinders?” asks Muzaffar Bhat.

While the scheme is mired in corruption in many parts of the country, another problem plaguing it is the inability of the beneficiaries to refill their cylinders.

52-year-old Saritha from Kerala had spent most of her life cooking using firewoods. In 2017, she took a subsidised LPG cylinder to transition from a traditional to a more modern form of cooking. It’s been five years, and she has not yet refilled her cylinder.

“I cannot afford it. When the government made the announcement, I thought I would be getting a free cylinder or some benefit, and I would be able to manage my household. The LPG prices have skyrocketed since. For a few months, I used it, but after that, I could not afford it. Since a couple of years, I have returned to the same old form of cooking using firewood. It’s difficult as I am getting older now, but it is affordable. That’s what matters ultimately,” says Saritha.

The Probe spoke to RTI activist Chandrashekhar Gaur who had filed an RTI petition seeking information from the three oil marketing firms, Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL), Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL). The replies to his RTIs have been thought-provoking. The responses stated that at least 90 lakh beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana had not refilled their cylinders last year, and over one crore people who refilled their cylinders did it only once.

“I had filed three separate RTIs, and the replies that I received are very revealing. I had asked these three firms how many people had not refilled and how many others had done only single refills. Their reply is critical. The data of all the three companies that pertained to 2021 showed that people were unable to do the refills, and this is mind-boggling that even when these people had taken the connection, why were they not doing the refills, and why were they opting to get back to traditional cooking methods,” said Gaur.

The state of affairs related to the refills in 2022 is no different. According to a written statement in the Parliament by Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Rameshwar Teli, out of 3095 million LPG customers, 21.1 million customers did not refill their cylinders even once during the financial year 2022. Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of people (29.34 lakh) who had not taken a single refill during the financial year 2021-22. This was followed by West Bengal (17.50 lakh), Madhya Pradesh (16.40 lakh) and Maharashtra (15.78 lakh).

Worried over the poor LPG usage pattern of the beneficiaries, the government recently introduced many steps to encourage the consumption of LPG, such as a subsidy of Rs 200 per 14.2 kg refill up to 12 refills per year for FY 22-23. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that the Rs 200 subsidy itself would cost the government a whopping Rs 6100 crore. But despite these steps, not many people are availing of the scheme and opting for refills.

The Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG) report on the performance audit of the Ujjwala scheme tabled in the Parliament in December 2019 states that in many instances, the LPG connections were provided in deviation from the PMUY guidelines. In many other cases, the audit found that the LPG connections were provided to minors.

The audit report states: “These LPG connections were issued by projecting a minor applicant as an adult by entering a wrong DOB (Date of Birth) under the relevant field of the LPG database, in contravention of the LPG control order 2000. HPCL also detected 1809 connections issued to minor beneficiaries by two distributors after being pointed out by the audit, which indicates the possibility of the existence of such cases in other distributors also. Hence, there is a requirement of detailed verification of similar cases at all LPG distributors of OMCs.”

An extract from the CAG report of 2019 on the Performance Audit of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) | Pic source: cag.gov.in

The audit also found that in multiple cases, LPG connections were provided to beneficiaries who were more than 100 years old. There were also numerous cases where there was a mismatch in the names of the beneficiaries between the Socio Economic & Caste Census (SECC) 2011 database and the PMUY consumer database of Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs).

There were also cases where multiple connections were given under PMUY to the same individual or the same family. The audit found that many of the linked bank accounts in the database were not related to the PMUY beneficiary. “100 instances were noticed where bank accounts of others were linked with PMUY beneficiaries which led to the transfer of the subsidy in the bank accounts of others, thereby depriving the genuine beneficiaries of their subsidy,” notes the report.

The CAG report also mentioned that unsafe LPG usage was noticed by PMUY beneficiaries which is also one of the reasons why there has been an increasing number of LPG-related accidents in the country. The report mentions that Oil Marketing Companies have been advised to conduct more number of safety clinics to educate on the safe use of LPG.

A photo from the CAG report of 2019 on the Performance Audit of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY). The photo is related to the unsafe LPG usage by PMUY beneficiaries | Pic courtesy: Cag.gov.in

The report found that while the all India LPG coverage had grown from April 2014 to March 2019, the number of people who had availed of the annual refill had fallen significantly. The report notes: “However, it was observed that the increase in the number of LPG connections during this period is not commensurate with the average refill consumption. The above indicates that though PMUY has been able to give a significant push to increase LPG coverage, average refill consumption is showing a downward trend which indicates that the OMCs have to go a long way to ensure sustainable usage of LPG.”

A photo from the CAG report related to the growth in LPG coverage as compared to the annual average refill consumption | Pic source: Cag.gov.in

There have been numerous cases of fraudsters duping the poor and marginalised sections of society in the name of providing LPG cylinders under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. On Friday, in Ludhiana, the police arrested a man for duping poor labourers on the pretext of helping them get a gas cylinder under the Ujjwala scheme. The man had charged 300 to 500 rupees and duped nearly 600 people until his arrest, according to the police.

Ujjwala is a novel scheme started by the government to safeguard the health of women and children by providing them with a clean cooking fuel alternative. Apart from poor implementation, one of the major flaws of the scheme was that the government gave a larger emphasis on increasing the Ujjwala coverage without focusing on getting families to retain the use of LPG cylinders. Rigorous monitoring of the functioning of the Oil Companies and the local distributors must be carried out to check malpractices. While LPG prices have hit the ceiling, the government must find a way to get existing consumers to refill their cylinders at affordable rates. Until this is done, as the coverage of beneficiaries keeps increasing, there will be a corresponding increase in the number of people giving up LPG for traditional cooking forms, which defeats the main purpose of the Ujjwala scheme.

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