“Jehda meter laan ayu, dande kha ke jau (Whoever comes to install meters will be beaten back),” is the common refrain among farmers in villages where the Punjab government is planning a pilot study for an initiative to wean agriculturists off free electricity for ground-water depleting tubewells in exchange for cash subsidies.
Approved by the Cabinet in January, the initiative, the Amarinder Singh government’s most courageous in the one year that it has been in power, is to begin as a pilot project in villages in this district that get their electricity supply from three power feeders – Chaurwala, Bhamarasi and Bhagrana.
The State government is in collaboration with the World Bank for the scheme, called Direct Benefit Transfer of Electricity (DBTE). The plan is to meter the electricity, make direct cash transfers of a fixed amount to the farmers, and get them to pay for the power their tubewells consume. The less their bill, the more money they get to keep for themselves from the cash that the government will transfer to their accounts.
The biggest challenge, however, would be to get farmers to accept the scheme. The government has outsourced the pilot project to MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) South Asia. Meters for the study are to be Amarinder tests waters with his boldest move yet installed on the tubewells of 990 agriculture pumpset connections. But changing habits, even for a pilot project, is not going to be easy. Just a question about the scheme makes farmers angry.
“We will not allow anyone to install meters. If they do, we will set them on fire. We had burned them during Captain’s last regime also,” says Jasbir Singh, a member of the Haripur village panchayat, which is supplied power by the Bhagrana feeder. Amarinder had, during his last stint in power, installed meters on a few tubewells when he had tried to rationalise the subsidy.
Jasbir Singh, a 72-year-old farmer who cultivates 25 acres of land, is firm on allowing meters. So is the village Sarpanch Inderjit Singh. “Lokan diyan jaana jangian je zabardasti kiti (People will lose lives if this move is forced on us),” he says.
Haripur is a small hamlet having 150 votes. Most of the farmers have over 20 acres of land. The village is known for its massive houses, reflecting the prosperity of the farmers here, who are fully dependent on tubewells for irrigation. Each tubewell goes down about 250 to 300 feet.
“Urre jehra aa gaya ohde vajjan ge dande (whoever comes here will get beaten up),” says Nirbhai Singh (70), a resident. The farmers do not want to hear about the depleting ground water, not even about how future generations of their own families would have to struggle without water if it all got sucked up by tubewells.
“Tell us what the farmer is going to do now. Give us the real price for the crops we grow. We will pay for power. This is not free. We get peanuts for grains. Think of the free electricity as adjusted with the MSP, which is so low,” says Nirbhai Singh. “Subsidy in cash? We do not want it. We want free power,” says 60-year-old Bikramjit Singh, adding that there is no guarantee that the government would make a cash transfer into his account. “Tell the King,” he says for Amarinder, “ to come till our land and see what the profits and losses are.”
In Chaurwala, another village on Sirhind-Patiala road where there about 1,500 people and 50 tubewells, the sentiment is no different. Village Sarpanch Harbhajan Singh says he has no land of his own, but will “oppose any such move tooth and nail.” He admits that farmers have installed automatic switches with sensors on tubewells so that they got switched on the moment power came in from the feeders. Agriculture experts frown at these switches as the farmers leave the tubewells to run on their own, leading to both power and water wastage.
But there are some voices in favour of the government’s scheme also. Brinder Singh Babbal, a farmer of Bhamarasi Zer on Patiala-Bhadson road, says, “People have a closed mind. They waste a lot of water. We have to do something to shake and wake them up. This is a good scheme.”
Prof Pramod Kumar, director of Institute for Development and Communication, says it would be best for the government to first engage with the farmers before beginning the pilot project. “The government should hold negotiations with farmers, hold meetings with their unions and make them understand the issue. As of now, farmers have a trust deficit vis-a-vis government. First, they have to convince them that the government intends to compensate them with cash. Only then, the farmers will stop resisting the scheme. Otherwise it would be very difficult to get the desired results,” he says.