PMUY yet to be acknowledged as efficient strategy to reduce air pollution

Updated: August 21, 2019 7:22:19 AM

An enlightened government would focus even more on universal access to cleaner fuels like LPG, while encouraging increased usage by emphasising health benefits, thus making it a signature programme that promotes not only social justice, but also environmental justice.

Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, PMUY , efficient strategy, air pollution, reduce air pollution, LPGDespite its success, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana is yet to be acknowledged as an efficient strategy to reduce air pollution

By Jyoti Pande Lavakare

One of the most effective and under-acknowledged schemes of the government that has the potential to significantly reduce air pollution is the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which provides clean LPG cooking gas to first-time users to in an attempt to replace chulhas that use traditional fuels and biomass for cooking. By next month, Ujjwala will have met its revised target of providing 8 crore deposit-free LPG connections to women whose family income falls below the poverty line, up from the initial 5 crore—bringing 95% of households across 715 districts under its coverage.

This is an extraordinary achievement. But the government has made one big mistake in the most basic of premises while implementing Ujjwala. By making this about providing cooking gas to those who don’t have it, without strongly focusing on the health benefit of cooking with clean fuel in a targeted way, it has not only lost a big opportunity for long-terms gains in increasing LPG use through uptake of refill cylinders, but has also lost the political advantage of positive publicity it could have harvested in highlighting how it is tackling air pollution at a national level.

By focusing on increasing access versus increased use by new beneficiaries, the government is missing out on key benefits of such a programme. The data shows that although 7.75 crore new connections have been given to first-time users at subsidised rates until August 2019, the actual uptake of LPG hasn’t risen concomitantly. This means that people are accepting new LPG connections, but not using, or not refilling.

This data divergence can be explained by the fact that while the first cylinder is free, subsequent cylinders need to be paid for, which BPL users are likely to find challenging, especially if the alternative remains free biomass like wood or cow dung. To understand this is fairly simple. The cost of anything when you compare it to ‘free’ is always higher. Unless a direct benefit of using higher-cost fuel is demonstrated—like better health for family—people may switch to a free LPG connection on paper, but will continue to use free or low-cost biomass to burn for heating and cooking purposes when they have to pay out of pocket for a refill.

If the government had emphasised health benefits of using clean cooking gas while giving out free connections, it would have been easier to drive behavioural change. If it had especially focused on improved health of women, the government would have been able to claim the credit for improved health of an entire voting demographic, while ensuring better re-uptake of cylinders. This could easily have been done if the health ministry had been co-opted to collaborate with Ujjwala’s nodal petroleum ministry and the messaging targeted towards health benefits of cooking with clean fuel.

Strategically, this is important since as many as seven independent studies have shown household sources to be the largest single source of ambient air pollution. The Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre states that burning of solid fuels for cooking and heating contributes anywhere between 22% and 52% to the PM 2.5 load of ambient outdoor air pollution. Even taking a median value of 30%, this is much higher than any of the other sources contributing to particulate air pollution, including the much-maligned vehicular pollution from transportation, or micro-particulates from power plants or industries.

Household biomass burning first affects its immediate users, usually women in rural kitchens (just as stubble burning first impacts the health of farmers). By adding to the overall pollution load of PM 2.5, it also affects the health of the rest of us who use clean fuel for indoor energy use. Exposure to household air pollutants at source is estimated to result in about 8 lakh premature deaths in India. By adding a 30% pollution load to outdoor air, indoor household pollutants result in roughly 3 lakh additional premature deaths. As the CCAPC recommends, it “should be one of the pillars of India’s pollution control efforts.”

An enlightened government would focus even more on universal access to cleaner fuels like LPG, while encouraging increased usage by emphasising health benefits, thus making it a signature programme that promotes not only social justice, but also environmental justice.
However, all is not lost.

By making this more about better health and less about free/subsidised connections, the PMO can still claim credit for tackling air pollution at a national level, especially since it increasingly being recognised as a public health emergency. And what better time to do this than on the Independence Day?

For that, the government must make new LPG beneficiaries aware that cooking with clean fuel directly benefits their health, not just increasing productivity, but also bringing down medical bills. This will encourage those who have been given subsidised connections to continue using LPG even as the cost of replenishing LPG cylinders remains higher than cow dung cakes or wood. This won’t be hard to do if the government is able to co-opt the health ministry into this strategy. Its rural health and ASHA workers can demonstrate the connection between the nagging cough a woman keeps coming back with and the fuel she is using at home. Also, signages at rural LPG stations can make this connection between smoke and ill-health more direct. Together, this will lead to an actual increase in the use of LPG and drive behavioural change.

Ujjwala is an excellent policy for reducing national air pollution levels and bringing down premature deaths. However, it is essential to not just bring the last 5% of the households into the clean cooking and heating fuel net, but also to ensure existing users don’t fall back into biomass use.

The author is co-founder, Care for Air (careforair.org)

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