Exclusive-India eyes doubling cash handout for women farmers ahead of vote – sources

By Sarita Chaganti Singh, Nikunj Ohri and Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is considering doubling the annual payout to landowning female farmers to 12,000 rupees ($144), three sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters, a move likely to appeal to women voters ahead of a general election.

The plan is likely to be announced in the budget on Feb. 1 and could cost the government an additional 120 billion rupees ($1.44 billion), said two of the sources, all of whom declined to be named discussing a budget proposal.

It will build on an existing programme that Modi, who will be seeking a third term in elections due by May, announced before the last national election in 2019.

“The expansion of the existing scheme may find more support from women, a key demographic,” Barclays Investment Bank economist Rahul Bajoria said.

Under the “Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi” programme, the government transfers 6,000 rupees annually to both men and women farmers. It had disbursed more than 2.81 trillion rupees to more than 110 million farmers in 15 installments up to last November, according to government estimates.

The plan to double the cash support and target it toward women has not been previously reported. It would be presented as a move to empower women in rural India, one of the sources said.

The agriculture ministry declined to comment and the finance ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.

There are more than 260 million farmers in India and along with their families, they are a massive voting bloc in the country of 1.4 billion people. Women account for 60% of all farmers but fewer than 13% of them own the land they sow, according to government data.

One of the sources said expanding the financial support to women farmers would not have any significant impact on government finances since the amount will be relatively small in what is estimated to be a $550 billion budget.

Women have been a key support base for Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is widely expected to win the next election, according to opinion polls.

The BJP late last year handsomely won elections in three out of four major states.

In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP government ran a cash transfer programme for married women, the party won about 51% of the female vote, compared with 46.2% of the male vote, according to pollster C-Voter.

But Praveen Chakravarty, head of the data analytics unit of the main opposition Congress party, said there was no evidence that programmes announced before elections reap political dividends.

“Voters are aware that these are political gimmicks,” he said. “The budget will be reckless in terms of politically motivated announcements.”

($1 = 83.1476 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Sarita Chaganti Singh & Nikunj Ohri; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew Heavens)