An important cooking gas outlet in Bageshwar, Uttarakhand lies abandoned.
A little over five years ago, the people of Janpath, a small town in Bageshwar district, Uttarakhand successfully pressurized the authorities into licensing and building an Indian Oil outlet in their neighbourhood. They had been tired of travelling over 20 kilometres to the nearest town each time their stock of cooking gas needed to be replenished. Repeated requests were made to various authorities, from elected representatives to local leaders before the permission was passed. The construction of the outlet started immediately and the building was completed before the year was over. Four years have passed since. The facade of the outlet has weathered in the sun and hail. The garden is overgrown. The door hinges have rusted. The huge metal lock guarding the gate has never been opened. People of Janpath are still travelling 20 kilometres for their fuel.
“Come elections and the Indian Oil outlet has become the stock-in-trade promise that every hopeful representative can make to my community,” says Community Correspondent Vipin Joshi. “Just a few months ago we had every politician-of-the-people worth his salt blaring through the microphone, swearing on his integrity that he’ll get the outlet opened for business.”
The 500 families of Janpath have been left with three options. Take an expensive taxi ride to the nearest town. Buy it off the expensive black market, or wait three long months for the gas truck to arrive from the neighboring town, join the long queue and quietly wait for your turn. As usual it is the poor in Janpath who are hit the hardest. They either switch to kerosene which is available cheap but burns out faster and gives out a dirty fume or they cut down the trees in the neighborhood to make firewood.
“Even if the fuel truck would arrive once a month, the problem would be far less severe,” says Vipin. “But in spite of our repeated requests to various parties there has been no improvement in the situation.”
Asked why the Indian Oil outlet remains shut Vipin says that no straight answer is forthcoming. “They mumble something about regulations, requirements and licences and always end by saying that it is a 'complicated situation'.”
Around 20% of the Indian families use Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) as cooking fuel. In urban India, as much as 80% of households rely on LPG. Red canisters of the fuel are sold at subsidised rates of Rs. 395/- across the country. It is considered a relatively clean fuel that burns completely and emits very few particles into the atmosphere. Not only that, but since it is an effective and cheap substitute for firewood, LPG has had a marked effect in slowing down deforestation.
But since the regulation of LPG is governed by the center the distribution system is mired in red tape, bureaucracy and corruption. Getting registered at an LPG outlet is a long-drawn, complicated and slow process. Bribes are openly solicited for an LPG ‘connection’ and families would rather pay than be mired in the tedious process that may take years to materialize. For the unregistered there is a thriving black market where the gas is sold at 40 to 50% higher than the subsidised rate. With the high aspiration and demand around the cooking gas, LPG is considered an important component in trying to entice the all-important middle class vote bank. When the prices tend to nosedive around election time, it is usually a sign that the ruling party is planning on how to stick around in power for another five years.
Vipin sees the wasted outlet in his community as axiomatic of the Uttarakhand government’s apathy towards infrastructure in the state. His previous videos have chronicled newly built roads which deteriorated in a matter of months and government schools being built at the banks of a flooding river.
“The rot has set in. It’s like we’re stuck in time.” he says, “And unless we do anything about it soon, the community and the state are bound to go in decline.”
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