The Government of India launched the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana (PMUY), to give free LPG connections to women living below the poverty line (BPL) in May. With the hope of gaining the lions share in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly come 2017, the launch of the INR 8,000 crore scheme in the State is a strategic masterstroke. The elections due next year are touted as the semi-final to the Lok Sabha in 2019.

What this policy attempts to do is help change the method of the way BPL women cook food at home. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 3 billion people across the world still cook in their homes using solid fuels like wood, charcoal, coal and cow dung. Currently the government provides the poor receive subsidized fuel, kerosene, through the public distribution system (PDS). Studies estimate that 45% of kerosene is lost to leakages, particularly in the adulteration of petrol and diesel. Which is considered as a cleaner and safer source of energy than these unclean and inefficient fuels, which cause high levels of indoor air pollution that cause over 4 million people to die prematurely of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to WHO.

Ujjawala is not only a politically sound welfare scheme; it also deals with a key, and oft-ignored health hazard in the country. Exposure is high amongst women and children, and the same report suggests that more than 50% of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under 5 are caused by soot from indoor air pollution. The government is in the process of using automation and cash transfers to better target the subsidy, with the medium term attempt of phasing it out. This makes sense, as kerosene while considered a cleaner fuel than biomass, wood, and coal is still considered hazardous and poisonous. The LPG subsidy, so far, has been focused for the middle class, urban families who have recently been encouraged to “Give it up” so that families with greater need can receive the benefits.

Ujjawala is not only a politically sound welfare scheme; it also deals with a key, and oft-ignored health hazard in the country. Exposure is high amongst women and children, and the same report suggests that more than 50% of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under 5 are caused by soot from indoor air pollution. 

Every year crores of Indian women and girls are exposed to this pollution. Global Alliance for Clean Cook stoves (GACC) estimates that 64% of the Indian population is still using solid fuels and close to 800 million people are exposed to indoor air pollution, therefore India is responsible for over 25% of the global deaths caused due to this issue. Beyond the loss of life, indoor air pollution also leads to other disease burden. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine conducted a study that found that Indian women who use soli fuel for cooking were 50% more likely to have cataracts that those using clean fuels.

Beyond the large health benefits of introducing LPG in BPL households, this scheme is likely to have long-term benefits on the life of women and the finances of the household. The time women spend on collecting firewood, preparing biofuels and the effort of lighting the stove will be reduced substantially, freeing up hours for leisure, child-care etc. Further, despite popular belief, a majority of rural families spend money to purchase solid fuels and the subsidised LPG would be come as a relief.

On paper the scheme should make a tangible impact on millions of lives, but the devil as always lies in the detail – how will this roll out across the country? The government must ensure that this scheme is implemented effectively, and its benefits do not get mired in political chatter between the centre and the state governments.

On paper the scheme should make a tangible impact on millions of lives, but the devil as always lies in the detail – how will this roll out across the country?

Astha Kapoor is a strategy consultant at MicroSave working on public policy issues. Views are personal. She can be reached @KapoorAstha