UPA's mega poll sop for farmers has got bigger. The loan waiver for "small and marginal farmers' will now add up to a staggering Rs 65,000 crore even as the government is preparing to enlist banks as primary agents in identifying the scheme's four crore beneficiaries. The figure for the one-time settlement, which will benefit farmers who are willing to make a payment of loans to get a rebate, is yet to be finalized and discussions at the top echelons of government have seen the total write-off range up to Rs 100,000 crore. As of now, the figure has been revised to Rs 65,000 crore. The other key issue of identifying the beneficiaries, crucial to the waiver's success, will be largely entrusted to the banks. Banks to identify beneficiaries New Delhi: A large part of identifying the beneficiaries, crucial for the success of the Rs 60,000-crore loan waiver to farmers, will be entrusted to banks. It is felt that this would be the best option for the government as banks are expected to have records of persons they have given loans to, and in the case of farmers, would also have the size of their holdings. Having set 2 hectares or 5 acres as the size of holdings for the waiver's beneficiaries, the government has the mammoth task of getting accurate lists ready so as to facilitate a complete rollout by the June 30 deadline. Commercial and rural banks and cooperatives would have an incentive to draw up lists as they would be paid money for loans which had suffered defaults. Official sources pointed out that most of the loans being targeted were anyway "basket cases' for the banks. With little hope of recovery, the banks should be more than willing to divert resources to identify farmers who can benefit from UPA's largesse. In this way, the government would not have to depend on land and revenue records, which were not always well maintained and could be open to manipulation as well. Though payment to the banks will be staggered, in the first year, the banks will be given Rs 40,000 crore. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar told the media that in the next three years, the figure would be Rs 8,800 crore for 2008-09 and 2009-10 while the final amount to be paid in 2010-11 was expected to be Rs 2,400 crore. While the effectiveness of the loan waiver, and its potential political benefit, is being discussed, the Congress leadership is in an upbeat mood. Scenes of farmers celebrating and dancing have helped waiver enthusiasts argue that the Budget announcement was a popular hit. The massive giveaway, along with the pro-middle class decision to raise incometax exemption limits, could deliver a formidable advantage to the ruling combine. Those who feel somewhat differently point out that most of the really distressed farmers were engaged in dry-land farming. In normal circumstances, they were not eligible for high loan amounts and in contrast, farmers in irrigated areas, with holdings of similar size, would get larger loans. Dry-land farmers had to depend on private money lenders and these debts were outside the waiver. On the other hand, farmers in irrigated areas would now benefit from the waiver while also being in a position to raise regular loans from banks.

The 5% reduction in freight rates for motor fuels announced in the Railway Budget is aimed at weaning away petrol and diesel traffic from road transport but will not result in any reduction in pump prices as the oil companies will save a mere Rs 50 crore annually due to the low volumes moved through rail. The new rate will bring down the cost of moving petrol and diesel over a distance of 100 km to Rs 172.40 per tonne from Rs 181. The rate for moving motor fuels over 1,000 km would cost Rs 1,184.40 a tonne against Rs 1,243.60. For a distance of over 2,000 km, the cost would come down to Rs 2,131.80 per tonne from Rs 2,238.40. The oil companies move less than 40% of the petrol and diesel consumed in the country by rail. The price build-up of petrol and diesel factors is a notional 50% of the prevailing rail freight. The 5% cut in rail freight will therefore not have an impact on the price build-up as the new freight charge would continue to be higher than what is accounted for in the price build-up. Following this 5% cut in freight on the two auto fuels, the railways hope to wean the petroleum cargo transport business away from roads. Oil firms move over 40% of the annual consumption of petrol and diesel through pipelines, the cheapest mode, and 20% by road.

The state cabinet on Monday revised the starting amount for the Ladli scheme to Rs 10,000 from the existing 5,000 at the birth of a girl child in a family with an annual income of less than Rs 1 lakh. While the move is obviously aimed at wooing Congress's traditional votebank in the slum clusters and unauthorised colonies, the irony is that the rules of the scheme, which is supposed to be effective from January 1, 2008, are yet to be notified three months after the cabinet had given its initial nod to the project. Under the present form of the scheme, every eligible girl child is entitled to Rs 10,000 at the time of birth and then onwards, Rs 5,000 each at the time of admission to classes I, VI, IX, X and XII. The money will be kept as a long term fixed deposit in the name of the child who can encash it when she turns 18 and the money she will thus get in hand will be Rs 1 lakh. Chief minister Sheila Dikshit, after the cabinet meeting said:

Sonia Nudges Manmohan On Package For Farmers, Women And Tax Breaks Setting the agenda for the government, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has asked it to focus on farm loans, women-related schemes and income tax slabs in the Budget. During three rounds of deliberations with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spread over the last week, the UPA chief, sources disclosed, sought to nudge her visitor on what she thinks should be the defining themes of the Budget in an election year. Sonia was keen on a package for farmers and there were already signs to suggest that the PM may have already heeded the advice. Addressing a group of farmers from Punjab asking for debt relief for small and marginal land owners, Singh said, "I would like to assure you that under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, our government will pay attention to the demands listed in the memorandum submitted.' The Congress chief also made no bones of the fact that the package figures on the top of the "to do' list she has framed for the government. "We know farmers are facing difficult times. I hope, I know Manmohan Singh's government will give due attention to your demands,' Sonia said. Sources rated the chances of a waiver, at least on the interest component, for defaulters among small and marginal farmers as a certainty. As reported by TOI on December 31, the package could cover bad and doubtful loans worth at least Rs 30,000 crore. While the PM refused to get into details citing Budget confidentiality, the government's receptivity to suggestions from political leadership should be happy augury for those expecting a relook at income tax slabs. While the government was expected to push up the exemption limit to Rs 1.25 lakh from Rs 1.1 lakh at present, an upward revision in the tax slab was not being hotly pursued by the finance ministry. An increase in the basic slab of 10% from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh would cost the exchequer around Rs 5,000 crore and the tax department brass was not keen on foregoing easy money coming its way. Given the enhanced stakes for the party in wooing urban India, the party leadership is hoping that Sonia's prod might cause them to pull out their calculators once again. Delimitation has increased the number of urban constituencies where tax payers constitute a significant slice of the electorate while Delhi, which boasts of the largest number of salaried tax payers in the country, is scheduled to go to polls later this year. The party expects tax concession to help blunt BJP's attempt to reclaim its constituency among the urban middle class. Apart from the plight of farmers, Sonia has also asked the government to focus on schemes aimed at empowering women. She had made this priority plain while on a visit to her constituency last week, and the preference for "gender justice' was repeated during the interactions with Singh. Sources said that among other things, the Integrated Child Development Scheme was likely to be strengthened. sidhartha.kumar@timesgroup.com diwakar.asthana@timesgroup.com POPULAR TOUCH: Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi with a delegation of farmers from Punjab, in New Delhi on Monday

The 2005 report of the Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India reveals that the forest and tree cover in Delhi now stands at 19.09% of the total geographical area which is an increase of 15 sq km over the 2003 assessment. The survey report attributes this increase in open forest cover of the total forest cover to plantations carried out in the capital. Like all other states, Delhi has to reach the target of expanding the green cover to 33 per cent of the capital's geographical area by 2021 to meet the requirements of the National Forest Policy. Environment secretary JK Dadoo said the assessment of 2005 is information in retropect and a lot of greening action has happened between 2005 and 2007.

Man-Animal Conflict Source Of Rising Infections, Says Study India is a hotspot for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), a study by an international team of scientists which recently published its findings in the journal

With three more cases of meningococcaemia reported in the last 24 hours, taking the total number of cases this year up to 64, the spread of the potentially deadly disease is still far from being checked. The toll so far this year is 10. However, the number of cases reported till date this year is still much lower than the last two years.

A new study has discovered that chimpanzees can fight off malaria by swallowing mouthfuls of dirt and leaves, which act as "selfmedication' for the animals. According to a report in National Geographic News, Clay soils consumed by both chimps and humans in Uganda's Kibale National Park contain high concentrations of the mineral kaolinite, a main ingredient in some anti-diarrheal medications. Experts from Mus

Dhalaos will soon be a thing of the past. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) hopes to begin door-to-door garbage collection in Shahdara (south) in next 45 days. They also plan to float tenders to invite private parties to carry out the collection in Najafgarh and South zone within the next three weeks.

The new MCD commissioner K S Mehra took over charge on Wednesday from A K Nigam. Mehra had served as the principal secretary (Urban development) before this and is a 1978 batch IAS officer.