Evaluating the Ujjwala scheme through the lens of women empowerment and gender equality
In traditional patriarchal societies, such as most of rural India, women are assigned the responsibility of household duties, which includes the preparation of meals, and, by extension, procuring the means to do so as well. This exposes them to the health risks of indoor air pollution, and beyond it, to the risks and drudgery of procuring the energy sources that fuel such pollution. In 2015, the greatest number of deaths due to pollution occurred in India, out of which 1.24 lakh premature deaths can be accounted to indoor air pollution1. This worrying statistic is unique to households below the poverty line (BPL), and is particularly true for rural areas of the country due to the usage of traditional energy sources for household needs, particularly for cooking.
In light of this problem, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) was launched under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Government of India, and predominantly aims to prevent the negative health implications due to the exposure of indoor air pollution. It aims to provide five crore LPG connections over three years to BPL households, with a subsidy of Rs. 1,600 per connection. Till date, Rs. 8,000 crore has been allocated for the implementation of this programme, and it has provided 4.5 crore BPL households with LPG connections (PMUY official website). The interesting aspect of this scheme is that it is directed at women, and for good reason. As highlighted earlier, women are the direct, and sometimes, only victims of indoor air pollution, and the drudgery and risks regarding safety of firewood collection. However, the first question that arises from this problematic construct is why do women bear these burdens, and eventually, does the Ujjwala scheme adequately address these problems?
Gender and policy
As of today, no unanimous definition or mechanism to measure ‘empowerment’ in the context of gender has been officially adopted. Nevertheless, we may understand it here as bridging the inequality between genders with respect to rights, access, and control of resources (economic empowerment), and power to influence matters that concern them (political empowerment).2 This inequality is what impacts attitudes towards discriminating gendered norms, employment and fertility rates, division of time (for chores, income generating activities, education), and correlating to all the factors, energy and fuel usage (such as for cooking). Ultimately, these are the aspects that expose women to risks, including those of health and safety. Further, the ability to succeed and advance economically through control over resources is gained by the ability to make or influence such economic decisions.3 This inter-linkage and the aforementioned aspects also emphasize the need for participatory decision-making, and should be considered when directing a policy to empower women.
Even when we keep aside the ethics of gender equality, empowering women, especially politically, both at the institutional and household level, is found to positively contribute to the health of households, efficiency, and due to women’s direct involvement with the household and its energy use, effective policymaking. These impacts of energy access thanks to a well-formed policy increase the time available to women, who are likely to then involve themselves in income generating activities and contribute to the economy. There are exemplary cases that reaffirm the benefits of empowering women. In the energy sector for example, there are various cases where the political empowerment of women led to greater efficacy, efficiency, and success, such as in the cases of the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC)4, and Power to the Poor (P2P)5 scheme in Laos, the Multifunctional Platform (MFP) in Mali, and in the Indian context, Mahila Vidyut Sahayak in Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd and the involvement of women self-help groups as franchisees in energy distribution. Despite its success however, there are very few cases of involvement of women other than the stated examples.
Moreover, identifying and understanding gender roles is pertinent when addressing the issue; under different situations, different concerns impact men and women differently, and vice versa. To understand gender roles, we take an example6 of out-migration in rural India. In the relatively highly male populated Himalaya, a large out-migration of men is observed towards townships and areas with more livelihood opportunities, leading to an increase of available opportunities and resources in the region to the leftover population (now largely women), and, eventually to socio-economic and political empowerment of women through increased access to education, development opportunities, leadership, decision-making power, natural resource management, and the growing market. Herein, the situation can be outlined as a subsistence economy with a large male population where the role of earning livelihood is assigned to male members, leading to a male outmigration. Ultimately, the impact is the socio-economic and political development of women in the region categorized by available opportunities, the opportunities seized and converted to results, and the longer-term impact of opportunities, such as access to higher skilled jobs.
This example illustrates that identifying gender roles helps us quantify the impacts of empowering women and identify the issues affecting women, which play a key role in eradicating said issues and lead to more empowered women. Hence, when we look at energy and its gendered impacts, identifying gender roles becomes relevant in order to answer key questions, such as how access to energy benefits women and the significance of the benefits.
How the Ujjwala scheme fares
When we look at Ujjwala and its women-centric approach, it is important to factor in these definitions and thoughts to really assess its impact and sustainability. If we revisit the specifics of the scheme, particularly the support provided, we see that the financial assistance provided is Rs. 1,600 per LPG connection, that is, per household, which covers the security and fitting charges of each connection. Additionally, it allows the household to pay for the stove and the first refill in monthly instalments. The cost of refills thereafter, however, has to be borne by the households themselves. If the cost of the first refill is being included in an instalment scheme, it may not be a completely repulsive idea to consider that the cost of subsequent refills (about Rs. 500 per cylinder, after subsidization) may be unaffordable. With 4.5 crore connections, the scheme has definitely reached a large underserved population, but being doubtful of its sustainability comes as no surprise once these aspects are considered. It has been reported by various publications that households usually do not come back after the first refill7. The direct objective of fuel switching remains unfulfilled when the target population can no longer afford to use the cleaner fuel it was guided towards. The population at a direct loss, however, is women. The time spent by women often goes unaccounted, as it usually does not convert to income-generating activities. These ‘roles’ are usually assigned to male members of the household through social conditioning. Here, the lack of both economic and political empowerment is noticeable and their importance is highlighted. Further, the relevance of participatory decision-making, particularly at the institutional level, becomes more apparent.
It is possible to strengthen the sustainability of the model by taking into account the perspective of women who have a better understanding of expenditure, both monetary and energy, due to their everyday interaction with the operations. On the face of it, PMUY indicates an idea of empowerment by making women the official owners of these LPG connections and by addressing women empowerment as an objective8. However, there still exists a profound need to integrate actions that address the issues of these women, as well as recognize the economic and developmental co-benefits of women empowerment that could highly influence behaviour. All facets of the PMUY programme can be influenced or impacted if looked at through a gendered lens. Take for instance the affordability gap issue, which can be addressed by two broad methods — decreasing the price of cylinders, which usually involves subsidies or increasing the purchasing power of households. Empowering marginalized women can help tap into the latter. The more empowered women are, the lesser their time burden and the more likely they are to engage in income-generating activities, and hence, increase the purchasing power of the household. It is to be noted here that India could boost its gross domestic product (GDP) by $0.7 trillion in 2025 or 16 per cent of the business-as-usual level9, through gender parity. Further, empowered women are healthier and lead healthier households, increasing the likelihood of educated children, which in the long term leads to an even higher generation of income for the household. There are various such avenues that could be tapped by incorporating the potential of women, such as bringing in women to address the missing monitoring mechanism of such a scheme or including women in decision making for a more holistic and far-sighted policy.
The path to women empowerment in a diverse country like India is a gradual process, with degrees of inequality varying from one region to another. Rural India is more hard-hit in this aspect and suffers from the many negatives that it brings. It is, therefore, important to focus on a holistic, well-thought out, and far-sighted policy that focusses not only on the accrued benefits of empowerment to women, but to entire households. Even solely for the sake of holistic development, gender parity needs to become more than a conceptual checklist in such programmes more often than not. It needs to be quantified, its economic and developmental benefits to all recognized, and it must be integrated in decision making at all levels. Without these factors, implementing policies directed at empowering the marginalized will not be able to tap into half of its potential.
1. Watts, Nick et al. 2017. The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change. The Lancet.
2. Tanja Winter. 2016. 'Getting the right gender indicators: observations, challenges and strategies'. EFEWEE
3. Golla, Anne Marie et al. 2011. Understanding and Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment. ICRW.
4.BPC, with support from ENERGIA, included women in the planning and implementation processes of the rural electrification programme, hence benefitting the marginalized, who were mostly women, with electricity access. (Botswana Power Corporation. 2011. Gender Mainstreaming in the Botswana Power Corporation. http://www.energia.org/cm2/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/06.-Case_Study_Botswana.pdf)
5. The programme provided poor households with interest-free loans that enabled them to obtain a connection to the grid and wire their dwellings. Households headed by women were a focus of the program. (Buchhave, Helle et al. 2017. Why Measuring Energy Access for Women Makes Smart Business: The Case of Lao PDR. The World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/547301506533359927/pdf/120104-BRI-PUBLIC-P151262-M-E-Laos-Energy-and-Gender-Note.pdf)
6. Tiwari, Prakash C and Joshi, Bhagwati. 2015. Gender processes in rural out-migration and socio-economic development in the Himalaya. Migration and Development. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21632324.2015.1022970
7. ‘PM’s plan for free gas connections is failing its objective – as government had been warned it would’. https://scroll.in/article/865853/pms-plan-for-free-gas-connections-is-failing-its-objective-as-government-had-been-warned-it-would
8. PMUY website: www.pmujjwalayojana.com
9. Woetzel, Jonathan et al. 2015. The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in India. McKinsey Global Institute.
Originally published in Mitigation Talks, April-June 2018