Petty decision

Published: Saturday 15 March 1997

the newly-elected Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal's move to provide free irrigation water and electricity to farmers will only harm the economy and the environment, without helping those it is meant to. Anything that comes cheap is overused or misused. Farmers must learn to use irrigation water effectively or else they will destroy their lands. Cheap electricity can mean overuse of groundwater. Besides, the lion's share of the benefits of such a measure will be grabbed by those in the middle and the rich farmers, who do not need benefits of this kind in the first place. The only justification, if any, for free power and irrigation water to farmers can be an increase in agricultural output. Surely, such an increase in output must be substantial. Besides emptying the coffers of the Punjab State Electricity Board, the decision may also cause resentment among farmers who do not have power connections, many of whom are poor peasants.

Power is scarce even in Punjab. And, those who can afford to pay more should be made to do so. But the Badal government obviously does not believe in progressive tariffs. It has put all farmers -- the filthy rich and the poor -- in the same bracket. If this is what liberalisation means to petty Indian politicians, it is time we redefined it. Liberalisation does not mean doing away with tariffs on scarce resources. And, it definitely cannot mean wasting meagre state funds by filling the pockets of people who already have been given many subsidies. Unfortunately, the move is not likely to be reversed by those who come to power in Punjab in the future. The move also goes against the Centre's attempt to rationalise farm tariff structures.

Ironically, the very people who ask for more funds for the state are the ones who are squandering away scarce financial resources. The faith reposed in Badal by the voters is surely misplaced. Soon the state government will have no money for programmes that can actually help the people and the state. But can we only blame the politicians? Mollycoddled by fraudulent socialist policies of various hues, over a period of 50 years, the people have forgotten that nothing in life comes for free. If people in one of India's richest states can be so naive, they will only get crooks as politicians who will happily mortgage the future of the country.

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