Don’t give up! ‘Give it up’

Bharat Petroleum Corporation’s Chairman S Varadarajan was among the first five oil companies’ executives to give up LPG subsidy about a year ago. It was the government’s baby step towards something that appeared impossible. By the start of 2015, the voluntary scheme could attract only 21,300 givers. Critics quickly dismissed it as a gimmick. In India, subsidies are birthright.

Some advised the government to force income-tax payers to pay market rates for cooking gas cylinders. Others suggested weeding out rich beneficiaries by using super computers with the help of biometric aadhaar identification. Their cause of concern was ballooning LPG subsidy, which had crossed Rs 46,450 crore in 2013-14. There was near unanimity; rich and affluent lack conscience and they would not give up anything voluntarily even if it is a matter of couple of hundred rupees.

But, the government did not give up. In January, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley opted out of the subsidy scheme.  The scheme got further impetus when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ‘give it up’ movement at the Urja Sangam-2015 on March 27.

For skeptics, it was merely a new version of the ‘opt out of LPG subsidy scheme’. But, ‘give it up’ was not just renaming of an old campaign. The new slogan had an instant mass appeal.  It appeared to be a carefully crafted punchline to link the movement with renunciation, an innate element of Indian culture. It made the movement more acceptable compared to the materialistic overtone in the ‘opt out’.

Secondly, PM skillfully attached a noble motive to the scheme while launching it at Vigyan Bhavan. He did not say that the move would reduce government’s oil subsidy bill. He said, the savings would be redirected to the poor so that they will also enjoy clean fuel. This silenced the cynics. Now, their argument that savings from the scheme would be small compared to total oil subsidy became irrelevant. From a government scheme, it became a movement to provide clean fuel to millions of housewives who are forced to use polluting firewood and dung-cakes.

So far, the ‘opt out of LPG subsidy scheme’ had attracted about 2.8 lakh customers, leading to savings of over Rs 100 crore. The numbers, however, swelled with the repackaging. Donors jumped by over 530% at 17.67 lakh by the first week of August. In monetary terms too, savings swelled eightfold.

This argument gets reinforced further if we compare figures between July 28 and August 8. Over 3.8 lakh new customers have joined the ‘give itup’ club in few days. One of the reasons for this acceleration could be the latest advertisement in television and FM channels. In the advertisement, after hearing PM’s appeal to give up cooking gas subsidy in favour of the poor, the protagonist decided to act on his advice immediately. He remembers how his mother suffered because she could not afford clean fuel. The advertisement catches imagination of affluent middle class people who saw their grandmothers or mothers braving smoke and harmful gases to feed family members.

That’s not all. Credit must be given to the government for making this sacrifice easy and non-bureaucratic, thanks to the use of technology. ‘Giveit up’ is a cake walk now, without physically presenting yourself to the gas agency. Even outcome of your action is visible on the “scroll of honour” section of the website. They also record growing numbers of givers and savings due to that. But, some gas agencies are lagging behind in providing data pertaining to the purpose of this ‘give it up’ movement. They do not give numbers pertaining to beneficiaries. It is only Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL), which gives the number of below poverty line (BPL) family getting the benefit of giving up. According to the company, more than 4,43,500 BPL consumers could get access to the clean fuel because over 5,19,000 HPCL customers decided so. It is for sure that Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd (BPCL) have also awarded these spare connections to the poorest of the poor. But, data is not visible on their respective website. Success of such movements depends on clear vision, sound reason and absolute transparency.

Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan could make this a national movement because he did not give up to criticism. Initially, it seemed impossible because in the modern contest, relinquishing subsidy claims could be equated with the ‘Bhoo daan” movement. Credit to this success goes to the 17.7 lakh common citizens. But this is just the beginning. Now time has come for Members of the Parliament, top bureaucrats, regulators and public sector honchos to lead by example. The government should display their names on their official websites to inspire common citizens.