New Delhi: Even if a beneficiary of the government’s free-LPG (liquefied petroleum gas, or cooking gas) cylinder programme Ujjwala has the same socioeconomic and demographic status as a general LPG customer, they are about half as likely to use LPG as their primary or exclusive cooking fuel, said an April 27, 2020 paper in the scientific journal Nature.

Ujjwala beneficiary households receive the connection either at subsidised rates or at no upfront cost at all. On the other hand, the decision and effort to procure an LPG connection means greater preparedness on the part of paying customers--behaviourally and financially, Sunil Mani, programme associate at the Delhi-based think-tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water, and a co-author of the paper, told IndiaSpend.

This could be the reason for Ujjwala households’ lower likelihood of using LPG for primary and exclusive cooking needs than general customers, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences, he added.

But, India’s relief approach during COVID-19 lockdown might hold a solution for this. To encourage LPG as the primary or sole cooking fuel among Ujjwala beneficiaries, authors of the paper suggest that the government will have to consider targeted steps to promote its use. The steps could be similar to the government’s current approach during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown: providing three free refill cylinders to Ujjwala connections for the next three months.

"These unprecedented times need unconventional support measures,” said Abhishek Jain, senior programme lead and a co-author of the paper. “But even beyond such special circumstances, our recent paper highlights the need to specifically target PMUY [Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana] beneficiaries to enable higher use of LPG in these households."

The Indian government launched its flagship cooking energy programme, Ujjwala, in 2016 to alleviate the public health burden of household air pollution by providing a subsidy and loan for the upfront cost of adopting an LPG connection. Since the launch, over 80 million connections have been issued so far.

Still, having a free connection is not enough, experience has shown. “Steep recurring expenses and the poor availability of LPG in rural areas continue to hinder the extent to which households use LPG for all cooking needs,” the paper said.

The policy focus in India now needs to shift from initial adoption to sustained use of LPG. Without the energy transition, meaningful reductions in household air pollution among the Ujjwala households will probably remain out of reach, said the paper.

What hinders LPG’s exclusive use

Households with irregular and uncertain cash flows--those dependent on agriculture or on daily wages--are less likely to use LPG as their main cooking fuel, perhaps because of the recurring and inflexible cost of LPG refills, the paper said.

Cattle ownership--which facilitates access to dung cakes in rural areas--and easy access to firewood are also major hindrances to increased LPG use.

This suggests that only increasing subsidy on LPG for the poor is not the solution unless an opportunity cost for this easily available biomass is created--for example, creating opportunities for households to sell the biomass for commercial purposes, the paper said.

Households in villages with a greater proportion of LPG-primary users had a higher likelihood of increased LPG use, suggesting a possible peer-effect or influence of other village-specific factors such as access to biomass and LPG availability, said the paper, adding that this suggests that village- and community-level targeting of LPG promotion could promote sustained use.

Awareness about positive health impacts of using LPG does not significantly increase the LPG use, the study found. Only when households start using LPG for the majority of cooking do they realise its positive health impact, showing a confirmation bias.

How to fix it

There is no ‘silver bullet’ to ensure the transition to cleaner LPG and its sustained use, said the paper, adding that India needs multipronged approaches to accelerate its sustained use over time. For this, the government will have to look beyond cooking fuel policies, and start “interlacing them with overall rural development priorities”.

Targeted policies to further improve the affordability of LPG refills for poor households, promoting its use at the community-level, reducing the distance travelled to procure LPG and ensuring predictable and regular cash flow to the poor would facilitate sustained use of clean cooking fuels.

(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)