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LPG cap cooks up midday meal storm

Ranchi, Feb. 22: The UPA government may have raised the cap on subsidised LPG cylinders from nine to 12, effective April 1, and promised to give one cylinder each in February and March, but it is too less a helping to help school midday meals.

Authorities of many government-run schools in Ranchi, who said 12 subsidised cylinders would not help them much, added they had been forced to switch over to polluting firewood chulhas since 2012 when the LPG cap was first introduced.

Asha Beck, convener of outfit of cooks Mata Samiti at Rajkiya Prathmik Vidyalaya in Ranchi, with 200 students from Classes I and V, said: “We spend Rs 2,500 a month on firewood, but that’s far cheaper than buying LPG cylinders at market rates.”

Strangely, the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas cap on subsidised domestic cylinders — starting with six a year in 2012 and now 12 from fiscal 2014-15 — is applicable for government schools too.

Though cooking for 200 children a day requires much more fuel — and hence cylinders — than for a family of five, a school is treated as an ordinary consumer. The maths simply doesn’t add up.

The government spends Rs 3.51 on a child’s midday meal, including food and fuel. In Ranchi, a subsidised cylinder comes for Rs 442. Once the consumer’s quota is over, he buys it from the open market at Rs 1,341.

Most schools need between 80 and 95 cylinders a year. It means even if 12 are subsidised, at least 68 cylinders have to be bought at market rates, entailing each school to spend at least Rs 90,000 extra on fuel. No one has that kind of money.

To ensure the midday meal wasn’t affected, the Union finance and HRD ministries did work out a cost-sharing formula, but states did not like it.

Under this, the cost for extra cylinders was to be shared in a 75:25 ratio between Centre and respective states, but the Union HRD ministry would have reimbursed the state later. As this forced states to bear the full cost of extra cylinders and wait for 75 per cent central reimbursement, the system was unpopular across India.

Now, the Union HRD ministry is mulling an advance payment system, which it will send its finance counterpart for approval.

But, till a cost-sharing system is in place and clear directives on this come from the Centre, oil and gas companies as well as LPG distributors can’t do much.

“So far, we have not got any instruction to treat schools differently. Thus, schools will get the same number of cylinders as a domestic consumer,” Ranchi-based Indian Oil Corporation area manager Uday Kumar said.

General secretary of Jharkhand LPG Dealers’ Association and owner of Indraprastha Gas Agency Ravi Kumar sided with schools but said he was helpless.

Ranchi deputy commissioner Vinay Kumar Choubey was clueless, saying the government had not sent them any directives.

For now, firewood chulhas are the only option for cash-strapped schools, never mind the smoke, danger to children and environment hazards.

Asha Kumari, principal-in-charge of Rajkiyakrit Madhya Vidyalaya in Karam Toli, which has 400 students from Classes I and VIII, added that smoke from firewood stung the eyes of children and teachers alike.

A Class VIII boy said, “Hum dhuaan khate hain (they eat smoke)”.

“Thanks to chulhas, our classrooms get filled with smoke and it becomes tough to breathe,” he said.

Rupa Verma, Mata Samiti convener of Rajkiyakrit Madhya Vidyalaya, a Tharpakhana middle school, said they had taken a brave decision. “We stopped preparing the meal in chulhas due to smoke. Yes, we are forced to buy non-subsidised cylinders at market rates. But I don’t know how long we can afford it,” she said.


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