Farmers in Tamil Nadu are unhappy with the Union Government's decision to collect caste details for fertiliser subsidies. On February 21, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers introduced a mandatory 'caste category' in the Point of Sale (PoS) machines, where farmers purchase fertilisers at subsidised rates.

As per the new software update for the PoS machines, under the 'sale to farmer' entry in the machine, caste details of the buyers or farmers must be recorded. The caste options available are General, OBC, SC and ST.

According to N. Ambigapathi, State Secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, “asking for Aadhaar itself is not necessary. Asking for caste is very wrong. We don't know what the basis for this is. Even the people from the ‘lower castes’ are wondering what could be the intention behind this. Nobody is happy about it.”

He said that most farmers, being illiterate, found it difficult to enter the Aadhaar details on the PoS machine. Entering the caste details would be an extra burden. Ambigapathi, a farmer himself, who has about 15 acres of farmland in Keelvalur added how the price of fertilisers have gone up over the years and why the subsidies were crucial.

“Earlier, we used to get fertilisers for a very low cost. There's a fertiliser called Potash which we used to get for Rs 240, now it is Rs 1700. After 2014, after Modi's government came into power, there's a rise of more than 400 per cent in fertiliser costs.

“Without increasing the price of crops, they just increase the price of petrol and diesel. Machinery cost has also increased a lot. At a time like this, subsidies for fertilisers are crucial," he said.

The most common fertilisers used in India are DAP, Urea and Potash. There are about 2.60 lakh PoS devices installed in retail outlets across the country, through which farmers can get subsidised fertilisers through the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme.

So far, beneficiaries were required to enter their Aadhaar card details. Now they also have to enter their caste details. P Shanmugham, State Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Farmers Association said, "What is the connection between fertilisers and caste? People of all castes are involved in farming. Why do they need to know about caste? We are worried that in the future, they will only give subsidies only to members of a certain caste”.

The Tamil Farmers Association on Friday put out a statement asking the central government to withdraw this order and the Tamil Nadu government to put pressure on the central government to do so. "There is no need to ask for caste information," Shanmugham added.

The software used in the PoS machines have already been updated and only operate once the buyer enters the caste details. Shanmugham said that if in the future, these subsidies are made available only to people from certain castes, it would really affect farmers from other castes. He also added that even for those from the underprivileged castes, it may not really be beneficial as most of them work on lands owned by landlords of other castes. They don't have their own lands. So these caste-based subsidies may affect them too.

Ponraj, a farmer from Pudukottai said, "I've been farming for 20 years. I have paddy and plantains near Pudukottai. We need about 10 tons of fertiliser a month for my plantation. Currently, we have a subsidy for urea which has really been helpful. If this stops, things are going to be very difficult to manage."

Thavamani, another farmer from Kavayur said, "Since the new update came into effect, the shopkeepers don't even ask us for our details. They themselves enter the caste, assuming what it is. I am from the Scheduled Caste and I feel bad that everywhere we go, we are asked for our caste.

“We don't know why they are asking for it and frankly, I don't know if it will be of any use to us." Thavamani has about three acres of farmland and needs at least 50 kgs of fertilisers every month including urea, DAP and potash.

According to a report in The Hindu, Anbumani Ramadoss, President of the Pattali Makkal Katchi also condemned the move. Questioning the need for collecting caste categories when the subsidy on fertilisers was not provided based on caste, he said that such a move had raised doubts among farmers as to whether the Union government was planning to provide subsidy based on caste.

Farmers in the Cauvery belt depend heavily on fertilisers as they say organic farming is close to impossible in the delta. Shanmugham said, "The water source doesn't have enough nutrients that will make organic farming easy. There will be low productivity. Also, there is no assurance that we will have better marketability of organic produce."