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It pays to pay farmers to fix free power problem

Punjab’s novel ‘Save water, Earn money’ solution for its Rs 6,000-crore annual subsidy bill.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | Published: July 18, 2019 12:39:33 am
punjab, punjab water subsidy, punjab water subsidy to farmers, Save water Earn money, Save water Earn money scheme, pspcl Farmer Ram Kishan stands next to his metered electric tubewell in Muradpur Jattan village of Hoshiarpur, Punjab. (Express photo by Anju Agnihotri Chaba)

Karamjit Singh Rai is a rare Punjab farmer who has a digital electricity meter installed on his tubewell — and is unhappy his consumption didn’t get billed during the last rabi wheat season from October 20 to June 19. “The meter developed some technical staff. I had made repeat complaints to the PSPCL (Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd) field staff. But they replaced it only 15 days back, when my current kharif paddy crop had been transplanted,” says the 75-year-old from Khusropur village in Jalandhar district.

During the 2018 kharif season, Rai earned Rs 12,904 from “saving” 3,226 units (kilowatt-hours) of electricity as per the meter reading on his 10-horsepower motor tubewell. Between June 20 to October 19 — the period from transplantation to harvesting of paddy — it consumed only 4,774 units, as against the 8,000 units that he was entitled to under the Punjab government’s ‘Paani Bachao, Paisa Kamao’ (Save water, earn money) or PBPK scheme.

“This is a great programme, where we get paid for saving electricity and water. Also, I could significantly reduce water use and still comfortably irrigate the paddy on my seven-acre holding”, states Rai, who is disappointed for not being able to earn during the last wheat season as well.

PBPK was launched in kharif 2018 as a pilot project, covering six out of Punjab’s 5,700-odd agricultural power feeders. Under it, farmers, instead of being supplied free power for their tubewells, were given the option of installing meters and not paying anything for up to 200 units of consumption per HP per month during kharif. While they had to pay for beyond 200 units — this limit was lower, at 50 units, for rabi, since the water requirement of wheat is roughly a fourth of paddy’s — the scheme’s uniqueness, though, was in their also being rewarded for consuming below the maximum free quota. Thus, for the 3,226 units less electricity that Rai’s 10-HP tubewell consumed during the four-month kharif season, PSPCL made a direct benefit transfer of Rs 12,904 (@Rs 4/unit) to his bank account.

In all, 173 farmers participated in the PBPK scheme during kharif 2018 and saved 176,247 units of electricity worth Rs 704,988. In the rabi season, the number of farmers went up to 273 and they together earned Rs 868,932 from saving 217,233 units.

“I am now using water and electricity very carefully, as there is money to be made from it. Moreover, my paddy or wheat yields haven’t fallen either,” notes Ram Kishan from Muradpur Jattan village in Hoshiarpur district’s Mukerian tehsil. This two-acre farmer with a 5-HP motor tubewell consumed 1,734 units during last kharif, as against his entitlement of 3,200 units for the four months (the maximum monthly limit per HP was set at 160 units in the Mukerian feeder, due to the area’s higher water table that requires less power to draw). He could, thus, earn Rs 5,864, apart from another Rs 4,500 or so during the rabi season.

Encouraged by the farmer response, the Punjab government has extended the programme to 250 feeders in the current kharif season. A. Venu Prasad, principal secretary of Punjab’s power department, expects at least a quarter of the 20,000-25,000 consumers connected to these feeders to sign up this year.

While there’s no lack of prospective applicants, a major stumbling block that PSPCL has encountered in the course of implementation is tubewell ownership: In many cases, the connections are not the names of the actual users. Joginder Singh cultivates 10 acres that includes land belonging to his brother. “I am keen to apply. But the 10-HP tubewell I have is in his name and he wants an equal share of the payments under PBPK,” complains this farmer from Dhanoya village of Mukerian.

The above problem is seemingly not unique to him. Punjab has over 14 lakh agricultural tubewells with electricity connections, many of them several years old. In quite a few cases, the owners aren’t even alive or happen to be non-resident Indians who have given out their land, with the tubewells, on lease. Installing meters requires owners’ permission or transfer of connection to the actual cultivators. The latter may be possible from one generation to another within the same family, but not many are willing if the land has been leased out to outsiders.

“We are working out a solution, based on certification of cultivation (of the particular holding with the tubewell) by the patwari (land record officer) and nambardar (village headman). In the meantime, our effort is to enlist as many farmers, especially those with clear connections in their name.”, a top PSPCL official tells The Indian Express.

The Punjab State Electricity Regulatory Commission, in its latest tariff order passed on May 27, has estimated the state’s agricultural power consumption at 11,849.96 million units in 2017-18, 11,110.63 million units in 2018-19 and 11,521 million units in 2019-20. The farm sector accounted for nearly 23 per cent of the total energy sales of 48,806 million units in Punjab last year. The Commission also worked out the total subsidy on farm power consumption payable by the state government at Rs 6,084.17 crore in 2017-18, Rs 5,733.28 crore in 2018-19 and Rs 6,060.27 crore for 2019-20.

In addition to fiscal costs, free farm power has had huge environmental implications. With the state’s average subsoil water levels falling by more than 50 cm every year, a recent Central Ground Water Board report has warned about Punjab turning into a “desert” within the next 25 years. Besides seeking to address the problem through an incentivisation approach, PBPK is expected to provide a clearer picture of the actual power consumption by farmers.

“Right now, what we have are estimates based on the energy pumped into feeders and not at the point of consumption. Nobody knows how much of this so-called free agricultural power is being diverted to other users, who are benefiting from subsidy given in the name of the farmer. That’s why we need metering in the first place,” concedes a PSPCL official. And that itself is a good beginning.

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