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Farm power tariff 'inopportune'

CHENNAI Oct. 3. As expected, the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board proposal that a nominal fee be charged for power supplied to the agricultural sector has generated opposition from both political parties and farmers' organisations.

More than the basic opposition to what the Opposition parties call the ``backdoor scrapping of the free power supply scheme'', the burden of the campaign is that it is an ``inopportune time'' to add to the woes of the farmers, who are reeling under an unprecedented drought and uncertainty over raising even a single crop this year.

The Congress, the DMK, the PMK, the MDMK, the Left parties and others have already condemned the proposal, which has been submitted to the State Electricity Regulatory Commission. Some of the farmers' associations have threatened that they will launch an agitation if free power is scrapped.

The Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam general secretary, K. Balakrishnan, has reminded the Government of the `massive agitation' launched by farmers in 1983, when the then regime proposed to charge a mere 13 paise a unit for farm power. The proposal now is to levy a flat fee of Rs. 600 per annum per hp or 50 paise a unit of power consumed.

However, in her second statement on the issue, the Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, has distanced the Government from the TNEB proposal and said it is entirely under the SERC purview.

Though the proposal is for introducing the revised tariff from December 1, officials concede that it may not be possible to implement it for the agricultural sector right away. ``At present, none of these farm connections is even metered. We have to first meter all connections before thinking of levying a charge. But it is possible to levy the flat fee of Rs. 600 per hp right away'', explains a senior TNEB official.

A consistent charge by the authorities is that in the name of agricultural supply, a substantial amount of electricity is being "siphoned off" to small and medium industries located along the banks of the Cauvery. In the absence of metering, it has not been possible for the Government to even estimate the extent of loss. This is one of the reasons for the Centre insisting on 100 per cent metering of all supplies, as part of power sector reforms. Farmers in the delta districts, however, feel that this is a ``wrong year'' to levy a tariff for agricultural connections.

The farmers usually instal a five-hp, seven-hp or 10-hp pump, depending on the extent of coverage. So, if the flat levy is introduced, it will be impossible for them to even recover their cost, the farmers argue.

According to a rough estimate by a farmer, the cost of production of paddy now is around Rs. 6,000 a tonne, whereas the procurement price ranges from Rs. 5,300 to 5,700. And if power charges are factored into the cost, the losses will increase.

The farmers also argue that even for two crops, the agricultural season may extend to a maximum of seven months. During this period, power consumption may be significant only for three months. The problem will be more complex in the irrigated areas which adopt lift irrigation, for which two motors are used. These farmers can ill-afford to pay for two motors on the hp basis. But the officials say the SERC will hold public hearings and take all views into consideration before taking a final decision.

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