| Amarinder Singh
Chandigarh, Oct. 16: The Congress government in Punjab has rolled back free power for farmers, overturning an incentive doled out by the previous Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government and stepping on the toes of one of the most powerful political lobbies in the country.
Farmers in the state will now have to pay Rs 60 per horse power (HP) per month for irrigation tubewells. The state power regulatory commission had recommended the rollback.
The government said a grim power situation, combined with the parlous finances of the country’s food basket, has forced it to abandon the free power policy.
“We have accepted the commission’s recommendations in toto. The commission is a judicial body and its directives are binding on us. We had no choice but to take the decision to save the state electricity board from total collapse. We were heading towards a dark Diwali,” chief minister Amarinder Singh said.
The free power policy was introduced by the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government in 1997. Before that farmers were paying Rs 65 per HP. It was reduced to Rs 50 per HP and then abolished in line with the poll promise made by the then ruling combine.
The rollback is expected to open a Pandora’s box with former chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal leader Parkash Singh Badal threatening a “war”, if free power was withdrawn.
“It is a betrayal of the worst kind,” Badal said, “especially as it follows promises made by the Congress during campaigning that the sop would continue”.
The decision is expected to add to the burden of small farmers who have yet to overcome the fallout of the drought in the state. With the acceptance of the tariff regulatory commission’s recommendation, farmers will have to pay arrears from April 1.
The chief minister, however, said his party still stood for free power, “but that can only happen when the fiscal condition of the state improves”.
Singh said the Akalis have left the state in a miserable condition. “Today, it has become difficult for us to even keep coal reserves. Suppliers have asked us to clear Rs 53-crore dues before they continue the coal supplies. We do not know how will we be able to clear their dues,” he said.
The chief minister added that the water level in the Pong and Thien dams is nearly 40 to 60 feet lower than the requirement. “We will have to buy power from other states. But I can assure farmers that they will not have problems for the wheat-sowing season. We will purchase and provide more power than the three hours they are being supplied today,” he said.
Singh also announced the government’s decision to resume irrigation levies in the state. Justifying the decision, he said many canals had been blocked and needed to be desilted.
“The levy is aimed at providing money to the department to clear the canals so that water can reach those for whom it is meant for. Badal did not even release such a small amount when in power,” he said.
After announcing the free power rollback, the government has set out to woo industry. “The Punjab government does not see industry as a milking cow but rather as a partner in progress to take the state forward,” Singh told an industrialists’ meeting organised by the CII.
He said the government would take Punjab out of the “disastrous” financial situation even if it called for tough decisions.
The chief minister said the new industrial policy, expected to be announced in a week, would be industry-friendly, moving away from the inspector raj to liberalisation.