Punjab’s deepest irrigation tubewell is here in this village, on the border with Himachal Pradesh. It goes down 1,200 feet. Though the boring machine found water at about 700 ft, it continued to drill further down, say villagers, to ensure no digging would be required for another two decades, even if the water level goes down. In nearby villages, they said, 500-ft deep irrigation tubewells are already running out of water.
As the one-year-old Congress government in Punjab plans a cash subsidy offer for farmers instead of free electricity in order to place a check on water consumption and is preparing to roll it out on a pilot basis, the story of this tubewell shows that persuading farmers to accept a new system, in the interest of conserving Punjab’s water and saving power, is not going to be a stroll through the fields.
Binewal’s tubewell, its only one, can extract .75 cusecs of ground water per minute, pumped up by a 120 HP motor. That means 1200 litres per minute (LPM), and 72,000 LPM per hour. Installed in July 2016 by the Punjab Water Resources Development and Corporation Limited at a cost of Rs 72 lakh, with funding from NABARD , the tubewell irrigates 100 acres of land in the village.
Boon on a ‘Beet’
No canal reaches here. Binewal is located on a ‘Beet’ or plateau region, in Garhshankar Tehsil of Hoshiarpur district. The water here is available at 600 to 750 feet while it is at 200 to 300 feet in other places in the state. Most villagers had stopped cultivating altogether, and of the 300 acres land in the village, 200 are still barren, while a 1.5 sq km oasis is spread out around the tubewell.
The 400 square yards of land for the tubewell was donated by a village resident Bhag Singh. In ‘beet’ areas, farmers fall in marginal, small and semi-medium categories. Unlike other places, there is hardly any farmer in these areas who can individually afford to put up his own tube well, and villages have to wait for an agency like NABARD to step forward. “That’s why when the project was approved for our village, I did not think twice before donating the land as some time due to non-availability of land, the projects gets delayed,” says Bhag Sing.
The tubewell, say Binewal residents, has transformed the lives of over 100 farmers from poverty to prosperity.
“We are in heaven ever since we started getting water to irrigate our land,” says Jaspal Singh. The 35-year-old shows off his 2 acres of lush green wheat. “Now, I am more confident of being able to provide a proper education to my two children,” he says. Before the tubewell, he had one cow and struggled to put up two meals daily for his family. He earns around Rs 80,000 to 90,000 from his wheat and maize crops. His four cows earn him Rs 1.50 to 2 lakhs annually after meeting the expenses on the cattle.
Jodh Singh, another farmer in the village, says he has been able to make four good harvests, two each of wheat and maize, from his five acres since 2016. “Before the tubewell, my land had been lying barren for over a decade,” he says. He also owns three milch cattle now, and earns extra from the milk.
Sarabjit Kaur, whose family owns 5 acres, says with rainfall decreasing every passing year, her family had stopped cultivation. “Now, life has changed totally and we are cultivating wheat, maize, green fodder and selling milk too, because we can keep more cows,” she says. “The transformation has taken place only in less than two years ever since we got the irrigation tube well here,” says Kaur.
Around 1,500 metres of underground 6-inch pipelines carry the water from the tubewell to the fields of 135 farmers of the village, says sarpanch Rajni Devi.
The tubewell has a digital meter fixed to it. In recent years, the PSPCL has been installing digital meters on new tubewell connections, but with the assurance that the government will foot the bill. About 20 per cent of Punjab’s tubewells now have meters. According to the records of Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL), Binewal’s tubewell consumes 32,400 units monthly.
“For 120 Horse Power water pump, there is set formula. We assume that this tubewell runs for 12 hours in a day. In one hour, it consumes 90 units and in 12 hours, it consumes 1,080 units, which means 32,400 per month and 3.88 lakh annually. The rate for this unit is now fixed at Rs 5.06 per unit and the annual bill would be 19.67 lakh,” says PSPCL Executive Engineer (XEN) Garhshankar division, Satwinder Singh.
Divide Rs 19.74 lakh among the 135 farmers who use the water, and the cost per head is Rs 14,572 per farmer annually. The government pays the total bill to PSPCL, just as it does for all the 13.5 lakh tubewells in Punjab.
Asked about the DBT scheme that is to be rolled out on a pilot basis in Fategarh Sahib district, Parveen Kumar, a member of the Binewal panchayat, says it was in paddy growing areas that ground water was getting exploited, and that is where the scheme should be implemented.
To pay or not to pay
Asked if farmers in Binewal would accept a cash subsidy instead of free power for their 1,200 ft tubewell, Parveen says, “There is no guarantee that the money will be paid.” Later, he says, farmers would not mind paying bills out of the subsidy if the charges were nominal, but he could not specify what would be acceptable as nominal.
The policy of not charging for electricity used in farm pump sets was started in February 1997 by the then Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) government under Parkash Singh Badal. In 2002, when Captain Amarinder Singh formed the Congress government, he introduced a tariff of Rs 0.57 per unit for new tubewell connections that were fixed with meters, and a flat rate of Rs 60 per BHP for old connections that had no meters.
But there was hardly any recovery from farmers. The subsequent SAD administration, in January 2010, again levied a flat Rs 50-per-BHP tariff for agricultural producers, which was withdrawn the same year in November. A decade ago, when the Congress government began digging 550 ft deep tubewells in ‘beet’ areas, they were charged at Rs 1 per unit here, but that was withdrawn, PSPCL officials said. Parveen was non-committal when asked if the village would accept the Rs 1 per unit formula.