In Rural Madhya Pradesh, Women Struggle To Access Govt Schemes Aimed At Them
The Madhya Pradesh government is going all out to woo women with special schemes. But how do the women see this outreach, we ask
The election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the upcoming Madhya Pradesh assembly elections focuses heavily on the state’s women voters. At 48%, women’s votes now wield significant electoral influence in the state.
To assess how the women in rural Madhya Pradesh are responding to the two flagship schemes aimed especially at them – the Ladli Behna Yojana and Ujjwala – Khabar Lahariya travelled across three villages of Panna and Chhatarpur districts situated in the impoverished, drought-prone Bundelkhand region. These villages were Katehari, Raswayyun and Bilehta.
Our interviews showed that only a handful of women voters knew of the schemes. Even those who did told us that the challenges in procuring their benefits, such as poor travel infrastructure and lack of awareness, increased their hesitation in utilising them. Their stories spoke of the partial successes of the scheme but also of the many unmet needs.
Ladli Behna Yojana
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rules in the state as well as the Centre, has promised additional benefits for the 13 million existing beneficiaries of the state’s Ladli Behna Yojana. A scheme launched by the state government in March, it initially promised Rs 1000 for every adult woman beneficiary. The conditions are that she must not be an income Tax payee and her family’s annual income must not exceed Rs 2.50 lakh.
The scheme is considered by some political analysts as a winning factor for the BJP among women voters. The main opposition party, the Congress, has accused the BJP of launching the scheme with an eye on the state election.
The BJP manifesto has promised enhancements to the scheme – raising the monthly financial assistance from Rs 1000 to Rs 1250, granting 35% reservation in government jobs for women (except in the forest department), providing 50% reservation in teaching jobs and ensuring land allocation for women who wish to start small business.
“I’ve got Rs 1000 [under the original Ladli scheme] in my bank. I think the Rs 200 increase is a promise for women [as a] vote-bank,” says a woman from Raswayyun Village in Chattarpur block, who did not wish to be named.
Harbai, 25, points out that the scheme does not benefit her fully because she has to spend Rs 70 to get to the bank to collect the cash transferred to her account by the state government.
Meera Devi from Khabar Lahariya, who reports extensively from the state, says this is a common problem faced by women beneficiaries. “The region is largely disconnected from cities with poor travel infrastructure so women have to travel miles using different modes of transport to collect their own money or depend on others to do it for them.”
The Ladli Behna Yojana, despite its many challenges, has some utility and advantages, per our conversations with women across the state. It is particularly important for women engaged in daily-wage labour, especially in remote tribal areas. Those dependent on activities such as gathering and selling firewood, earning a daily income ranging from Rs. 100-150, find the monthly infusion from Ladli Behna useful in managing their monthly spends, especially a necessary cushioning at the end of the month or any unforeseen expenditures. While women said that they were able to manage their bank accounts judiciously, the decision-making power on funds, savings, and loans continues to be predominantly held by male family members.
Under the Ladli scheme, the BJP manifesto has also promised free education up to post-graduation for girls from economically disadvantaged families and skill development activities for 1.5 million women in villages. Further, every girl child in the state has been promised a total of Rs 2 lakh till she turns 21. This means an allocation that rises with age — Rs 5000 in Class 6, Rs 8000 in Class 9, and so on till she gets Rs 40000 in the first and last year of a professional course.
Lakshmi Kaurav, an ASHA Sahiyogini from Bhind, says that the Ladli scheme’s arrival in the election year shows that it is being used to woo women voters in the short-term. “Our work on the ground shows that the women who are entitled to pensions are no longer being given any because it is now being clubbed together with the Ladli Yojana [benefits],” she says. “Also, the scheme is aimed at luring women who are homemakers but what about the working women who are protesting for wages? Our salaries [as ASHA workers] have not been paid in months because we are not their target audience in the polls.”
She points to the fact that politically-driven schemes lack permanence and if the government changes or even if it comes back with a renewed mandate there is no surety that these will continue to be implemented. “The government calls us ‘behna’ (sisters) but instead of sisterhood we need economic empowerment and recognition of our livelihoods,” she says.
The other critical scheme on which we interviewed women voters is the Ujjwala Yojana, the Centre’s flagship scheme to provide LPG connections to the underprivileged. Data from the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas indicate that over 80 million LPG connections have been distributed under the scheme nationwide.
In its manifesto, the BJP has announced that LPG gas cylinders would be provided to the beneficiaries of the Ladli Behna Yojana at Rs 450 (the market price is Rs 1200-2000).
Shyama, a casual worker from Katehari village in Panna district, says she is disappointed she has not yet managed to get a Ujjwala connection. “I did everything right. I got the scheme card, and filled out the registration form, but I still didn’t receive a gas connection. I don’t really know why,” she says.
Her experience is not isolated, as many of our interviews with women suggest that many eligible beneficiaries in rural areas remain without connections for multiple reasons.
Launched in 2016, the Prime Minister Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), popularly known as Ujjwala, is meant to promote clean cooking by enabling poor women to get gas connections. The common perception is that this scheme provides “free” gas cylinders to the poor but the reality is that the LPG connections are “given” to poor households in terms of cash assistance.
As Behanbox reported in February this year, a rise in the price of LPG cylinders has pushed women back to traditional cooking fuels like coal and wood. Interviews with six women, mostly Dalit and migrant workers, living in three of Delhi’s low-income neighbourhoods showed that a 51.7% rise in the price of LPG refills between January 2021 and July 2022 (from Rs 694 to Rs 1053) has forced all to return, fully or partially, to traditional stoves. Gas stoves, the women said, are being used minimally for quick cooking – brewing tea, cooking rice or chapatis, for instance.
The most common complaint was that the subsidy-as-cash-transfer system was not reaching their bank accounts. The India Residential Energy Consumption Survey (IRES) 2020 stated that one-third of Indian households did not receive the subsidy for their last LPG refill or said they did not know if they had received it or not.
“The cylinder cost me Rs 1700. I have no idea about the subsidy. No one told me,” says Ratibai, a daily wage worker from Katehari village. Some women who spoke to KL are aware of the subsidy but found that using LPG as cooking fuel is a huge deterrent due to hidden costs.
“We have to spend Rs 50-70 to reach the office, which is 3-4 kms away, and that’s an added cost,” says Shyamarani, 40, from Katehari village.
In 2019, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report on the scheme revealed that while the scheme successfully distributed a significant number of LPG connections, there were notable shortcomings in the implementation – irregularities in the identification of beneficiaries, delays in the installation of LPG connections, and inadequate consumer awareness leading to low refill consumption.
Shantibai, a farmer from Katehari, says only two of the 50 houses in her village have benefitted so far from the scheme. “The scheme is good, but there are other needs of ours we have been talking about for years, such as having access to basic facilities like roads and water. Without good roads, how can we refill the cylinder?” she asks.
This sentiment is reflected in an article in the journal Sustainability, titled “Dissemination Challenges of Liquefied Petroleum Gas in Rural India: Perspectives from the Field”. It concludes that for effective LPG supply the government needs to ensure adequate infrastructure and greater awareness.
Paanrani, 40, from Katehari, has never had an LPG connection in her kitchen. “I never registered for the scheme. I don’t know how to but it would save me a trip to the neighbouring forest every 2-3 days to collect wood for fuel,” she says.
Her neighbour, Ashokrani, 50, also still relies on wood for fuel. “My son went to fill the form, and the petrol cost of the trip was Rs 100,” she says. “But we haven’t heard back from them till now. I get the wood from the nearby forest that is 3-4 km away. The forest guards stop us if they see us so we collect the wood surreptitiously. The heat from the stove makes me sweat and the smoke gets into my eyes. But what can I do?”
[This report is a collaboration between Khabar Lahariya and Behanbox.]
Reporting: Geeta Devi and Meera Devi
Geeta Devi is the Chief Reporter at Khabar Lahariya. Her in-depth investigative reports on environmental issues, climate justice, resilience, and migration have garnered widespread acclaim.
Meera Devi is the Managing Editor of Khabar Lahariya. With 15+ years of reporting on rural issues, Meera specialises in investigative journalism and policy reporting.
Written by Hameeda Syed
Hameeda is a freelance journalist and gender consultant based in New Delhi. She’s currently a part-time writer for Khabar Lahariya.
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