The Story of the National LPG Program of India
Some of us have been arguing that successfully addressing large, old problems requires big, bold efforts, ones well beyond what has been tried before. Household air pollution qualifies as such a problem, still being the largest single environmental health risk in the world and probably affecting more people today than any time in human history.
India has now engaged this problem at a scale and with resources and innovations that represent a first globally – indeed moving it far ahead of any other country. This is appropriate because India has a burden of disease from this risk amounting to 900 thousand premature deaths a year, larger than any other country.
With three major national initiatives in quick order since 2014 – PAHAL, Give it Up, and Ujjwala – India is now well on the way to providing access to LPG to an additional 50 million poor families (~300 million people) by March 2019, as well as more rapidly growing LPG among the non-poor. This dwarfs any previous effort anywhere in the world to accelerate the transition to clean household fuels. It amounts to suddenly near doubling the “natural’ LPG growth rate of 5-6%, which was only keeping up with population, to a rate that can bring India first to the UN goal of clean household fuels for all before 2030.
The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, which is the principal government actor, held a meeting last week that was essentially a “coming out party” to let the country and the world know in detail what it happening. The conference title and the slogan of the national program today is LPG: Catalyst for Social Change. And indeed it is, in far more ways than just transformation of kitchens. See http://energy.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/oil-and-gas/first-international-conference-on-lpg-inaugurated-in-bhubaneswar-today/53963404
I plan to describe the program in more detail later, including the challenges it faces, but first some numbers:
- Well more than one billion USD have been committed directly by the national government to date in addition to the personnel resources of its ministries.
- Middle class LPG users are donating about USD 250 million annually to the effort by voluntarily giving up their LPG subsidy
- Hundreds of millions more are being provided by state governments using various sources.
- The largest Indian company (Indian Oil) and the fifth and sixth largest (Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum) are implementing the program on the ground through their network of 18,000 distributors
- Ten thousand new distributors are being recruited to work in underserved areas including completely new types such as Cooperative Agricultural Societies and women’s self-help groups.
- In addition, the oil companies are doubling the LPG pipeline network, creating at least two new import terminals, and several large new bottling plants.
- The program is being deployed using modern IT technology, what in India is called JAM referring to the combination of electronic bank accounts, Aadhaar digital ID cards, and mobile phones, along with integrated national databases across all actors. First implemented for LPG, the implications of expanded use of JAM are enormous in the country – the Prime Minister’s chief economist stated at the meeting that he thought it would enhance GDP growth by 0.5%.
- Widespread and sophisticated application of social marketing has been deployed successfully, including digital media (Twitter, SMS, interactive websites, etc) and hundreds of educational fairs to promote understanding of the health benefits of LPG.
- There is top to bottom support in every major agency involved including frequent mention in speeches by Prime Minister Modi and firm commitment and, to date, a spirit of strong collaboration among the heads of the oil companies and a directive from them to the rank and file that this is a social development program, not one focused on profit.
Not everything is working everywhere as it should of course and there is much left to understand and to improve. It is happening so fast, however, that it is hard as a researcher even to pin down what is going on enough to design a research effort before things have changed. It is thus posing a challenge to us to come up with new research modalities as well.
Health is the driver of this effort. And the status of women a major factor added in the third phase as now all new connections and subsidies are only going to women.
Much work to be done and issues still to address, but at the moment we can feel that, finally, something is being attempted at the scale appropriate to the problem.
This meeting changes the game. India has reset the bar higher than before for all of us in the field. It poses a challenge to other countries as to what they can do to match such an effort and to us as researchers to figures out innovative ways to evaluate something so large and rapid.