Capt says no withdrawal of free power, as Montek panel faces flak
Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar has said it would have been more appropriate if the committee giving proposals on farm sector also included representatives from farm organisations or people with farming background.Updated: Aug 14, 2020 22:57 IST
Chandigarh As the recommendations of the group of experts led by economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia evoked sharp reactions from political parties, including the Congress, and farm leaders, chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh on Friday said there is no question of withdrawing free power to farmers in the state.
Amarinder said free power to tubewells will continue as long as he is leading the government. His government will not consider any recommendation on withdrawal of free power by any expert, he added.
The 21-member expert panel, set up by the state government in April to formulate Punjab’s post-covid revival strategy, has proposed wide-ranging changes across sectors for revival of the state’s covid-hit economy, on free power, paddy procurement and increased role of private sector in agriculture.
Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar said he had not seen the interim report, but disagrees with the recommendations based on whatever he has come to know. “This is the problem when people give suggestions on agriculture sitting in air-conditioned rooms. Agriculture is the only sector which has performed across the country even during the covid period with all the restrictions. In Punjab, we had a bumper crop,” he said, without mincing words.
Questioning the lack of representation of the farming community, he said it would have been more appropriate if the committee giving proposals on farm sector also included representatives from farm organisations or people with farming background. “We are already opposing the centre’s ordinances and will not accept anything that hurts the interests of farmers,” he said.
SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, whose party’s government introduced the free power facility, warned the CM of a mass movement if any step was taken to withdraw it. He also rejected the panel’s advice to “slow down the procurement of paddy” in the state.
Leader of opposition from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Harpal Singh Cheema said the views and recommendations of the Montek panel on free power and private sector are on the same lines as the World Bank. “The farming sector is reeling under stress, but the Congress government has no agriculture policy. If implemented, these suggestions will ruin it further,” he said, terming the report as “anti-farmer”.
PANEL MADE WRONG ASSUMPTIONS: FARMERS
The concerns of farm leaders, who have also rejected the recommendations, are more basic. Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal), while panning the panel’s criticism of the free power policy, said their suggestions are based on wrong assumptions as 86% farmers in Punjab have land holding of less than five acre and get only one direct subsidy in free power.
“The farmers are “soft targets” who are blamed for everything from the state’s financial crisis to pollution and depleting water level,” he said, dismissing the suggestion to follow ‘Haryana model’ of cash incentive to reduce area under paddy. He branded the model as “just a declaration with practically zero result”.
Harinder Singh Lakhowal, general secretary, another BKU faction, said the report is a copy of the centre’s script for promoting private sector in agriculture. “They are silent on paying remunerative rates for our produce. If they want to wean us away from paddy, they need to first ensure assured marketing and price of alternative crops,” he said.
The naysayers have also questioned the feasibility of the suggestion to reduce paddy procurement from “extremely water stressed areas”. Of 138 blocks in the state, 109 are in over-exploited category, seven are critical or semi-critical and only 22 are safe as per last year’s official data.
The expert committee has, in its first report, strongly disapproved of the free power policy for its financial and environmental consequences and suggested reduction of paddy procurement from water-stressed areas, incentives for shifting out of paddy and saving water, and opening up agricultural marketing beyond APMCs.
REPORT NOT ANTI-FARMER: MONTEK
However, Montek clarified during a videoconference with the CM that the report was not “anti-farmer” and had suggested diversification as the only hope for Punjab agriculture.
“Diversification implies a reduction in area under rice and modernisation of marketing, which in turn implies a much larger role for the private sector,” he said.
The Montek panel is not the first to voice its concerns over free power and continuous groundwater depletion. The draft farmers’ policy prepared by the Punjab State Farmers and Farm Workers Commission (PSFFWC) more than a year-and-a-half ago had proposed cutting down on agriculture power subsidy to farmers owning more than four hectare of land, direct benefit transfer and cap on paddy crop. The fund-starved government first sat on its own state commission’s report for months and then set up a cabinet sub-committee in July 2019, but there has been little forward movement.
The reasons for this lack of urgency are not hard to fathom. Farmers constitute a powerful bloc in the state and successive governments have been wary of taking steps that may have a political cost. The expert panel, which said its ideas are “skeletal” and will be spelt out in detail after these are accepted “in principle”, will submit its report in December this year and the state polls (due in March 2022) will be just a little more than a year away by that time.