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Withered drought package splits govt

New Delhi, Nov. 29: The Prime Minister’s Rs 6,000-crore relief package for drought-hit farmers has ignited a political controversy with the Union Cabinet riven over whether what has been finally cleared by Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a relief package at all or not.

An official note that was placed before the Cabinet earlier this week was trashed. The note had asked for a waiver of interest on loans to drought-hit farmers, rollback of fertiliser prices by 50 paise a kilo for all farmers at a cost of about Rs 560 crore and input subsidy worth Rs 2,000 crore.

What the Prime Minister finally cleared at the instance of finance minister Jaswant Singh was a plan to defer loan paybacks for a year for farmers in drought-hit states, much to the consternation of many ministers present.

Agriculure minister and north Indian farm lobby leader Ajit Singh, who had drafted the Cabinet note after an in-principle agreement had been worked out at informal meetings with deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and other ministers, was reportedly left fuming.

Jaswant had managed to convince the Prime Minister with an argument based on home truths: the BJP-led government’s financial situation was not good with debts rising and fiscal deficit still not under control. He also implicitly invoked a letter he has written recently to Cabinet colleagues asking them to curb spending.

Cabinet sources said most ministers, including human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi and urban development minister Ananth Kumar, came out in open support of the relief move, arguing that it made political sense.

Implicitly, they too, were pointing to another home truth: the BJP was facing elections in 10 states where farmers were big factors and the move to appease them could help win votes.

However the finance minister would have none of it. The Cabinet agreed after a two-hour “debate” to allow him to place his relief scheme before Parliament.

Ironically, the relief package which intended to grant benefits only to those farmers who had lost more than half of their crop would have benefited Rajasthan, which Jaswant represents, most.

To make matters worse for the finance minister, the home ministry has reports that thousands of farmers from his home state with their cattle are moving into Delhi and surrounding areas “because of an acute shortage of fodder”.

Besides the western desert state, states which have been identified by the government as drought-hit are Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. The spectre of drought has already seen chief ministers competing for central funds to tackle their states' respective problems.

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