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Explained: How free farm power drains Punjab’s coffers and water reserves

While the draft farmer policy proposes no free power to those with over 10 acres land, The Indian Express explains the need for restricting power subsidy.

Written by Kanchan Vasdev | Published: August 2, 2019 1:31:32 am
Punjab farmers free power, farmers in Punjab get free power, punjabs depleting water reserves, punjabs power problems, Indian Express, India News The electricity bill for free power to agriculture sector alone has crossed Rs 6500 crore mark annually. (Source: REUTERS/File)

Free power to farmers in Punjab is considered a drain on underground water and state exchequer both. While the draft farmer policy proposes no free power to those with over 10 acres land, The Indian Express explains the need for restricting power subsidy.

How many agricultural tubewells in Punjab are provided free power?

According to state government’s data, about 14.5 lakh agriculture tubewells are provided free power in the state. The number increased from 2.8 lakh in 1980s to 14.5 lakh last year. The controversy is that not only small and marginal farmers but also big farmers, several political families of the state, income tax payees, MLAs, MPs are known to be taking free power thereby burdening the state exchequer.

How much does the free power cost the state exchequer?

The electricity bill for free power to agriculture sector alone has crossed Rs 6500 crore mark annually. Besides, the state government also pays for power subsidy to Dalits and industry. Last year, total power subsidy bill crossed Rs 10,000 crore and the government was not able to clear a balance of Rs 5,000 crore last fiscal. While Chief Minister Amarinder Singh directed the Finance Department to pay Rs 500 crore immediately last month, an amount of Rs 4500 crore is still pending. In 1997-98, when the power subsidy was introduced, the bill was Rs 693 crore.

How is it held responsible for over-exploitation of groundwater?

When the subsidy was rolled out for the first time a motor of 5 hp (horsepower) would suffice to pump out water in the fields. Over the years, the farmers are now using motors between 25 hp to 35 hp as the underground water has receded and the level gone woefully down. As per an estimate of agriculture department, the farmers have themselves spent Rs 17,500 crore on deepening the borewells and installing bigger motors. Experts blame the free power supply to tubewells responsible for overdrawing of ground water and a deterrent to diversification. The farmers use auto-switch-on devices on their pumpsets. As soon as the power is supplied from the grid, the pumpset is turned on and billows water even if it is not required. This has led to injudicious use. Also, given the free power supply to pull water out, it is blamed to be a deterrent for diversification and the farmers are unable to switch to crops consuming lesser water.

What is the underground water situation?

There is over-exploitation of ground water to meet the agriculture requirement of the state. As per the report of state government, about 79 per cent area of the state is over-exploited. Out of 138 blocks, 109 blocks are “over-exploited”, two blocks are “critical” five blocks are “semi-critical” and only 22 blocks are in “safe” category.

Why the subsidy has now become a political issue?

Former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal started with the free farm power during his 1997-2002 stint as his vote catching freebie. It was scoffed at by experts that time also and considered a drain on the exchequer. When Amarinder Singh took over as CM in 2002, he did away with the subsidy partially. The narrative in the state had then turned against Amarinder. Since then it became a major political issue in Punjab.

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