LPG subsidy can increase uptake, but interventions needed to counter myths and improve access

  • Liquified petroleum gas (LPG) connections under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) scheme crossed Rs. 9.58 crores in 2023, a record high since its launch.
  • This rise hides the barriers that women face in consistently using LPG, such as expensive refills, lack of accessibility, misconceptions, and limited decision-making autonomy, finds a new study.
  • The study found that LPG usage remains uneven despite the success of the PMUY scheme. Many beneficiaries took only one refill or none, falling short of the seven refills required annually for cooking needs.

In 2023, liquified petroleum gas (LPG) connections under the government’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) scheme—a policy aimed at expanding LPG use among low income households—crossed Rs. 9.58 crores since its launch in 2016. This impressive rise, however, conceals the obstacles that women face in using LPG consistently, such as expensive refills, lack of accessibility, misconceptions, and limited decision-making agency, new research from Delhi and Jharkhand shows.

The goal of the PMUY scheme is to promote using cleaner cooking fuels as an alternative to burning wood, coal, cow dung and other forms of biomass that are highly polluting and harmful for health. By doing this is aims to empower rural women and reduce the impact of household air pollution on their health. As per the latest National Family Health Survey, 41 percent of Indian households, most of them rural, use solid fuel for cooking.

The PMUY scheme aims to promote cleaner cooking fuels to stop highly polluting alternatives such as burning wood, coal, or cow dung. Photo by Michael Foley/Flickr.

The rise in LPG use in India over the years—from 28.5 percent in 2011 to around 71 percent in 2020—is largely credited to the PMUY scheme, which provided low income households with free cylinders for an initial connection. While the scheme has achieved considerable reach across the country, the use of LPG has not been uniform.

In 2021-2022, 9.6 percent of beneficiaries took no refills, 11.3 percent took only one refill, while 56.5 percent took four or fewer refills of LPG. This trend continued through all of last year, with one in four PMUY beneficiaries taking either one refill or no refill at all. A typical household would require seven refills a year to meet all its cooking needs, according to an analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

In a bid to increase LPG use, and ahead of the 2024 general elections, the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a subsidy of Rs. 200 per domestic cylinder on August 29, which will apply over and above an existing subsidy of Rs. 200 for PMUY beneficiaries.

A study published in August 2023 aimed “to help understand the use and perceptions around biomass and LPG, and capture the perceptions of household air pollution among low-income households.”

“We expect to see many women, who were hesitant to sign up because of the high cost, to apply for new connections. We’ll also see the return of some of the women who had switched back to biomass after the price of gas went up,” said Neha Saigal, lead of Social Impact Advisor’s climate and gender programme, who contributed to the study. “But before that, the information about this subsidy needs to reach them. In some places, behaviour change is also needed to address misconceptions about LPG use.”

Apart from the high price, the study found that interventions are also needed to address misconceptions about LPG and encourage more decision-making among women.

‘Food cooked with LPG is unhealthy’ and other myths

The study was conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) along with the CEEW and Asar Social Impact Advisors. It was conducted among three groups of women—those in notified settlements (bastis) and non-notified bastis in Delhi (the city with the lowest solid fuel use), and those in the rural, tribal district of Lohardaga in Jharkhand (a state where solid fuel use is high). The women were invited to focus group discussions (FGDs) while in-depth interviews were carried out among community leaders to gauge perceptions around LPG.

Interventions are needed to address misconceptions about LPG and to encourage more decision-making among women. Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari/Wikimedia Commons.

LPG or biomass use in Delhi and Jharkhand depended on what was easily accessible at a given point in time, the study found. For residents in non-notified bastis of Delhi, who were often migrants without documentation and living in “kaccha” houses, biomass was the primary cooking fuel. For those in notified bastis, a mix of LPG and biomass was used since both “are easily available.” In Jharkhand, “women with steady jobs and regular incomes use LPG as a primary fuel,” while in homes without steady incomes, “LPG is the secondary fuel and is used when they are tired or when they must make food quickly… [they] primarily use biomass, which includes firewood and leaves, cow dung, goat dung, and sugarcane.”

A significant deterrent to LPG use, according to the study, was that a 14.2 kg cylinder refill had to be paid for as a lump-sum, whereas the preference was for a smaller quantity that better fit household budgets. Other barriers noted in the study include “lack of documentation (for application process), tedious application process, delays in doorstep delivery and poor grievance redressal.”

Myths about LPG use were also prevalent. The study quotes a woman from a notified basti in Delhi as saying, “People become fat when they eat food cooked in gas.” Other misconceptions are that food cooked using LPG causes acidity, indigestion, and alters the taste of food. Price fluctuation and lack of accurate information also meant several participants didn’t know the actual price of a cylinder, and felt cylinders were dangerous and could lead to blasts.

“There are several social and gender norms operating in these communities which influence the way one eats or cooks. A woman may feel uncomfortable using the chulha (small earthen or brick stove), but ultimately what she does depends on the family she’s in, and the influence that her husband and in-laws have on that decision,” said Saigal.

A 2021 study on LPG use among rural households in the northern states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh found that LPG use was perceived to be in conflict with domestic hierarchies, which facilitate the use of solid fuels. “Animal husbandry is one of the only kinds of economic activities in which women may acceptably engage. This contributes to the use of the chulha in two ways,” the study explains. One is that it prevents women from getting involved in other types of work that may be more profitable, and the second is that animal husbandry itself generates solid fuels that can be used in the chulha (brick stove).

It also finds that patriarchal norms prevent women from communicating the need for an LPG refill from the main earner of the family. “In a joint family household in rural north India, a daughter-in-law, who is often the cook, is expected to behave with respect and deference before her father-in-law and her husband’s elder brothers, who would decide when to refill the cylinder,” it says.

“Since men are the decision-makers, framing LPG use as beneficial for men is a potentially useful avenue to explore. More broadly, policies and campaigns that challenge gender norms within north Indian households may improve LPG use,” the study adds.

The USAID’s study suggests using intimate social networks to inspire this behavioural change, since they are seen to be the most reliable and trusted sources of information.

Improving consistent use of LPG among women

Low awareness about the benefits of LPG use has also meant there is low awareness of the health impacts of using solid fuels for cooking, according to the USAID study. “For the respondents, household air pollution is not associated with any long-term health problems. There is a deep-seated belief among the respondents that hard work will make one impervious to any health shocks.”

These beliefs are embedded across social networks. Another study from southern India found that an increase in peers having LPG increased the likelihood of respondents using LPG. This is because communities surveyed had “a shared identity in terms of cooking behavior,” and that “a ‘domino effect’ either due to peer pressure or peer-led motivation could partly contribute in transitioning to LPG.”

According to Saigal, a big change maker could be effective messaging that reinforces the benefits of LPG. “We have evidence from Rajasthan to show that repeated messages about the health impacts of adopting LPG can actually increase its uptake and consumption,” she said.

The study suggests using platforms like grams sabhas, anganwadi centers, and Self Help Group (SHG) meetings to campaign for LPG use. It also suggests setting up a robust and accessible local grievance redressal mechanism “by either appointing a point of contact in each Panchayat/ward that will improve delivery of LPG cylinders and address delays and discrepancies in cylinder weight.”

At the state level, the study says “Steps should be taken to raise awareness about the smaller 5 kg cylinder especially among members of the lower income households and ensure its adequate supply through gas distribution agencies. At least two 5 kg cylinders per family per month should be made available by the government, at a subsidised rate to low-income households to make it affordable for them.”

Read more: [Commentary] Innovations needed in fossil fuel subsidy to promote clean cooking in India


Banner image: LPG distribution in West Bengal. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons.

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