Bengaluru: Karnataka is looking to emulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2015 ‘Give it up’ appeal for the LPG subsidy to tame the state’s expenditure on a scheme guaranteeing free electricity to farmers for irrigation.
Led by minister Sunil Kumar, the Karnataka energy department is all set to announce a campaign where relatively well-off farmers will be asked to give up the free electricity provided for irrigation pumpsets (IP), which is estimated to cost the government upwards of Rs 11,000 crore every year.
“It will be a voluntary exercise. I will lead by example and give up free electricity for the IP set on my farm,” Sunil Kumar told ThePrint Saturday.
Explaining the rationale behind the campaign, he added, “We hope that large landowners, politicians and bureaucrats, rich farmers will respond to the campaign and opt out of free electricity.”
According to Karnataka’s Economic Survey 2019-2020, water-pumping through irrigation pumpsets accounted for the highest share of electricity consumed in the state, at 36.76 per cent.
Estimates shared by the state energy department with ThePrint show that the state has 31,46,713 regularised irrigation pump sets, while 95,639 are unauthorised or yet to be regularised.
Power supply for IP sets was made free with effect from 01.08.2008, the economic survey states.
The energy department provides between four and eight hours of free electricity daily for all IP sets. The estimated cost of providing free electricity to these IP sets is projected at Rs 11,370 crore for 2021-2022, according to data shared by the minister’s office.
The scheme cost the exchequer Rs 11,250 crore in 2020-2021, and Rs 11,245 crore in 2019-2020.
Demand for more connections and an increased number of supply hours are filed with the energy department each day, the minister said, adding that the department is looking to set up 60 substations that can provide seven hours of electricity.
“The electricity that is being provided free of cost to farmers is increasing the debt of ESCOMS (district electricity supply companies). The debt affects the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation (KPTCL) next and then the Karnataka Power Corporation and eventually the government,” Sunil Kumar said.
To reduce the cost of free electricity for irrigation purposes, the Karnataka government has been pushing for solar-powered pump sets. Till November 2019, only about 3,710 solar pump sets were provided to beneficiaries. The department is looking to replace 5 lakh irrigation pump sets with solar variants, according to the economic survey.
Farmers wary of the campaign
While the campaign has been described as voluntary, the announcement has made farmers wary about its potential impact in the long run.
“We have no qualms if the entire exercise is strictly voluntary. But from our experience, the government usually starts identifying farmers with bikes, televisions, mobile phones as ‘well to do’ and forces us to give up subsidies after announcing such campaigns. We are wary about this being the first step towards withdrawing free electricity altogether,” Kurubooru Shantakumar, president of Karnataka’s Sugarcane Growers Association, told ThePrint.
His worry has roots in a controversy going back to February this year, when Karnataka’s former minister for food and civil supplies Umesh Katti said BPL ration cards of those who own bikes, TVs or fridges would be cancelled. The minister withdrew his statement after severe backlash.
Shantakumar said farmers, whether marginal, small, or big, are suffering losses currently.
“We were told that giving up the LPG subsidy would also be voluntary but it has completely stopped now. Farmers are already struggling and the government should not look to burden us more,” added Ashok Meti, a farmer from Uttara Kannada who serves as organising secretary in the Sugarcane Growers Association.
The apprehension comes against the backdrop of the Union government withholding transfers of LPG subsidies to customers who have not opted to give up subsidies. “Voluntary or not, we are sceptical about such campaigns,” Meti said.
The Opposition, meanwhile, believes the campaign is ill-timed.
“This seems like an insidious move by the government to trap innocent farmers. It comes at a time when farmers are in acute distress. Cost of input — from fertilisers to seeds — has increased, cost of production has increased due to hike in fuel prices and so has the cost of transportation,” said Congress MLA Krishna Byregowda, a former agriculture minister of Karnataka.
“Why does the government want to pass on the burden to poor citizens while writing off corporate taxes and helping the super-rich?” he added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)