Farmers must get coverage for lost crops

2014-03-29 , Issue 13 Volume 11

At nature’s mercy Farmers’ losses are compounded by government apathyAt nature’s mercy Farmers’ losses are compounded by government apathy. Photo: Vijay Pandey

There is nothing more gruesome for any farmer than to see before his own eyes his lush green standing crop flattened by the vagaries of nature. All his hopes and aspirations from a bountiful harvest are grounded in a matter of few minutes. Not only the crop, but his life too is flattened.

As many as 24 lakh hectares of land in Madhya Pradesh and another 18 lakh hectares in Maharashtra have been hit by a series of frequent hailstorms in the past three weeks or so. Extensive damage has also been reported from parts of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

It is easy to call this a natural calamity. It is easy for Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar to say crop losses from excessive rain and hailstorm are not unusual, and, therefore, appeal to farmers to show courage. But for millions of small farmers who toil endlessly to tend the crops in the hope that the harvest will feed their families for a few months, all is lost. For those who didn’t commit suicide, such natural disasters push back their household economy by at least three years. Already reeling under debt, life becomes as tall as a mountain for them. They know they have no one to curse except their own fate. This is an agricultural emergency.

With 43 farmers committing suicide in the Bundelkhand region and another 37 taking their own lives in Maharashtra (and still counting) ever since the freak hailstorms with a severe magnitude lashed central India in the past three weeks, the extent of damage caused to the standing crops is all evident. Such has been the severity of the storm that as many as 900 cattle have also reportedly perished.

While Agriculture Minister Pawar says unusual rains and hailstorms are not uncommon and wants farmers to demonstrate courage, he appears more concerned with the damage done to sugarcane. Even before the expert teams have been formed to assess the damage, he has already announced that 15 percent of the standing cane crop has been damaged and has even worked out the loss to the sugar mills. But for the rest of the affected farming community, his advice is to brave this grave loss collectively. A Group of Ministers has been constituted, which is expected to meet next week.

Although both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh each have demanded a Rs 5,000 crore relief package to be provided immediately, the loss estimates will swell by the time estimates flow in from other states. But if past experience is any indication, crop loss compensation is hardly going to be any relief. We have had in the past examples of Rs 1 to Rs 20; Rs 95 to Rs 1,470; and Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 being provided as relief. After months of waiting, when the farmers get a cheque that is not even worth presenting before a bank, it only shows the contempt and cruelty by which the farming class is treated. I am not expecting the situation to be any different this season. It is a matter of few days before the first phase of polling begins on 10 April and farmers will disappear from the political radar once the election campaigns peak.

It was in 2007 that the world’s largest weather-based crop insurance programme was launched. By 2012-13, it had expanded to 15 states, covering some 12 million farmers. Prior to this, a number of crop insurance schemes were launched beginning 1972. While all these schemes remained almost at the pilot project stage, these crop insurance schemes do not eliminate risk, but only manage to spread risk over time and space. These schemes only provide compensation based on an index rather than the actual damage, and are also based on an average over a demarcated area, often a block, rather than compensate for the actual loss.

I don’t know what utility these crop insurance projects are serving. Way back in 1920, agriculture expert JS Chakravarti had written: “No insurance authority could ever maintain a supervising agency, which would be able to watch and enforce that every insured field receives the required amount of care and attention at the hands of the cultivar. Unless some method is devised by which this great difficulty is minimised, a system of crop insurance would indeed be impossible.” Isn’t it a reflection of our lost priorities that even after 100 years of knowing this, crop insurance continues to be riddled with the same problems and the same level of inefficiency?

I have never understood why crop insurance agencies or companies can’t be made to assess the actual loss a farmer suffers. If every individual can be insured for his life, and that includes people living in remote villages, why isn’t the same system extended to cover crops as well? If an individual house can be insured against theft or fire or a natural disaster, why can’t a crop field be insured in the same manner? Why should the insurance agency be allowed to follow an area approach in the case of crops?

Well, the answer is very simple. The governments are not keen.

Imagine, if the 18 lakh hectares that has been hit by hailstorm in Maharashtra was insured? Farmers wouldn’t have been a worried and harried lot. No farmer would have opted to kill himself. I have a few suggestions on how to achieve this.

First, the government must make it mandatory for the insurance companies to insure all farmers for their standing crops. This can begin especially by making it compulsory for the foreign insurance companies that are lobbying to raise the cap from the existing 26 to 49 percent. These companies should only be allowed to invest, provided they give an undertaking that they would provide individual crop insurance. If they can’t, don’t allow them in.

At the same time, all existing crop insurance schemes should be reworked to achieve the goal of providing compensation based on individual loss.

Secondly, the government must step in to provide at least two-third of the insurance premium. Even in the US, it is the government that provides the bulk of the premium share as specified under the provisions announced under the Farm Bill 2014, which is applicable for another 10 years. In India too, state governments actually end up paying a higher compensation year after year for crop losses than what could have been the premium outgo. At the same time, it will be helpful to seek farmers’ suggestions to make the crop insurance schemes really effective. The State Farmers’ Commissions should be entrusted with the task to come out with models in wider consultations withfarmers, civil society and experts.

Somehow we have come to believe that crop insurance based on individual approach is totally impracticable. Unless this feeling is rectified, I don’t see any glimmer of hope for the farmers. It is easy to tell farmers to pick up courage at times of natural calamities but just imagine if ever your own house or company is destroyed in a fire or an unforeseen disaster, would you have the courage to stand the loss suffered? It is difficult to rebuild affected livelihoods unless, of course, the loss is covered through insurance. Farming is no exception.

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(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 )

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