Modi's free cooking gas scheme leaves bitter taste

Project marred by corruption and poor households cannot afford gas refills

Madam Reena Devi preparing food using a stove connected to a gas cylinder in Nisarpura village. She says her life changed when she got a cooking gas connection. But the "free" kit came at a price.
Madam Reena Devi preparing food using a stove connected to a gas cylinder in Nisarpura village. She says her life changed when she got a cooking gas connection. But the "free" kit came at a price. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NAUBATPUR (India) • Madam Reena Devi says her life changed when she got a cooking gas connection under a billion-dollar programme championed by India's Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi. She said she no longer has to cook with wood or coal and breathe in smelly, toxic fumes.

But the programme to connect millions of homes to gas, empower women and cut pollution - designed as a key vote-winning policy for Mr Modi - is beset by allegations of corruption and misuse.

Madam Devi says she had to pay 3,000 rupees (S$59) for the "free" kit - the equivalent of a month's wages for most people in her village of Nisarpura, in India's poorest state, Bihar.

"I pleaded with the officials that this is supposed to be free but they gave me two options - pay and take the kit, or forget it," she said.

Critics say the programme has been marred by bribes and corruption and that the poor households targeted by the scheme cannot afford to pay for gas refills, pushing those who have received new stoves back to traditional fuels.

But Mr Modi, seeking a second term in India's marathon national election, has touted the cooking gas scheme a success as he campaigns around the country.

Batting away criticism, Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party government says more than 70 million poor households across India now have gas stoves.

Mr Modi launched his "Ujjwala Yojana" (bright scheme) in May 2016 and is aiming to connect 80 million rural households to gas by 2022.

Household pollution is a serious health hazard in India, with a World Health Organisation (WHO) report saying smoke inhaled by women from unclean fuel is a major cause of cancer, heart disease and strokes.

In a bid to move India towards clean energy, the scheme offers recipients a loan of 1,600 rupees that covers the cost of the stove, connection pipes, regulator and a gas canister. The loan is supposed to be paid back through the purchase of subsidised gas refills.

In Nisarpura, Madam Jamintra Devi applied for a connection but officials would not give it unless she paid a bribe. "We come back from work at midnight or 1am and then we have to cook on wood," she said.

Some recipients say their kits have been repossessed.

Madam Shahjahan Khatoon, from an impoverished neighbourhood of the state capital, Patna, enrolled in the scheme in January last year. Two months later, officials distributing gas canisters came to her home looking for money.

She had already paid them 700 rupees to get the connection, but they demanded 4,000 rupees more - far beyond her means.

"I told them I don't have money. They removed the gas cylinder and stove and left," she said. "I was in the middle of cooking lunch and they didn't even let me finish."

A senior member of Mr Modi's ruling party drew online ridicule this month after posting a video of himself with a family in eastern India which showed them burning firewood under a traditional earth stove.

The government set aside 80 billion rupees when the scheme was launched to fund the gas connections which it said would empower women, and have since extended that to 120 billion rupees.

The gas canisters are emblazoned with the slogan "respecting the dignity of women" and only women can qualify for the project.

In Bihar state alone, eight million people have received cooking gas connections, but a study by the Indian non-profit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics this month said 36 per cent of households in four of India's largest states, including Bihar, still use traditional fuel.

The WHO last year praised the scheme, saying that in two years, it had helped 37 million women living below the poverty line to move to clean energy.

But the pressure of fluctuating gas prices could force many poor Indians back to using wood, coal or cow dung instead.

"Our country is still poor," said Mr Sanjay Kumar, a gas canister distributor in Patna, who has around 5,000 customers with gas connections from Mr Modi's programme.

At least half of them, he said, could stop buying refills and return to traditional fuel if prices rise even slightly, he said. "Families in rural India still can't afford refills when the rates are high."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2019, with the headline Modi's free cooking gas scheme leaves bitter taste. Subscribe