Statistics are very ambiguous in nature, they have the power to show – thereby attract an individual’s attention or conceal key data. This has been the case with agriculture in India. This sector has seen a dramatic fall from a contribution of 52% of the GDP at the time of independence to less than 15% in recent times. This was an imperative for a developing economy as you needed to pull more people out of economic obsolescence into more productive pursuits in order to make the economy flourish on the global stage. But, this 15% contribution comes from 49% of the country’s workforce practicing agriculture for their bread and butter. Add to it the fact that agriculture-dependent families tend to be large, thereby adding to these figures and making them 55-60% of the overall population. Therefore, when eight states – Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh declare drought it must be a matter of concern for each one of us. We often romanticize villages and farms in our imagination, but agriculture is a serious vocation and a source of livelihood and food security. Movies like Peepli Live may shake our conscience temporarily, but we, the well-to-do urban folk, remain guilty for our apathy.
The year, 2015 also goes in the history sheets of many states as a year of drought influenced distress. Add to this, the havoc spelt by drought in Maharashtra and suddenly, this disaster looms much larger than ever thought of. Owing to the unexpected lower rainfall, the government of Maharashtra declared 14,708 villages under drought. Apart from claiming lives through starvation as a result of decrease in food supplies, droughts brought with them something else too. Especially, until now from January 2015, in the regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada, where drought has been lethal by claiming lives of 1,109 and 695 farmers respectively, through suicides. In the same period in 2016, farmer suicides have been reported by the state to be much higher than the 1,949 cases in 2014 and 1,298 cases in 2013. Similar has been the story of the farmers in the remaining states but for India as a whole drought claiming more than 2.96 lakh lives through suicide in the past two decades goes like a mind-numbing statistic.
Dragged into the vicious cycle of indebtedness by the repeated spell of droughts and accompanied by the continuous badger of money-lenders, endless wait for rain and inability to take care of the basic needs of the family, a farmer’s life ends, but with rat poison! Farmers have not only been the victim of droughts but also of lack of intelligence and careful assessment, adding to their woes.
To explain with an example, western Maharashtra fared well with the harvest of sugarcane, leading to setting up of sugar mills and thereby profit to both consumer and farmers. This led the Vidarbha farmers to sowing sugarcane for reaping higher profits. But, negligence reaped havoc as sugarcane, being a water-intensive crop, demanded a relatively higher supply of irrigation, which added to the the lethal nature of the drought and made the farmers lose their investments. Not only this, suicides have decreased the overall literacy in the region as more children were forced to give up education and start working to aid their devastated family members from the trauma.
Droughts aren’t new in the political ecosystem of this nation with occurrences in both UPA (United Progressive Alliance) and NDA (National Democratic Alliance) regimes. Under UPA, in 2012, El Nino and La Nina became the main reasons for the occurrence of drought in major parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Kerala. Not only the climatic reasons but neglect in water distribution, developing proper systems for irrigation, fixing accountability on the corrupt and an equitable approach which ensures that poor farmers are the basis for any policy were the loopholes deepening the effects of drought.
Immediate measures were taken by the Congress led Centre. At a meeting of the Empowered Group of Ministers (aka EGoM, an autonomous body constituted under the Ministry of Agriculture headed by the Agriculture Minister) on drought, headed by the then Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, funds worth Rs. 2,140 crore were disbursed. Under the Horticulture Mission, the EGoM sanctioned a special scheme of rejuvenation of orchards in the drought-affected regions of Maharashtra. Under this, the Centre bore 50 per cent cost, while the rest came from the farmer. Revising guidelines, the input subsidy for more than 50 per cent crop loss was raised for rain-fed areas from Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 4,500 per hectare; for irrigated area raised from Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 9,000 per hectare and for perennial crops raised from Rs. 8,000 to Rs. 12,000 per hectare in order to subsidize the failed crops and reduce burden on the devastated farmer. This was, all in addition to the National Agriculture Insurance Scheme (NAIS), which insured farmers against crop loss.
Coming to the NDA regime, it witnessed its first drought in 2015 and rated it with much skepticism in the beginning. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called the fears exaggerated and instead suggested that we needed to assess the total volume of the rainfall, not its regularity. But everything went on as the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and CRISIL ratings predicted and monsoon rains were only 88% of the expected. And in severely hit regions of Maharashtra, it even went to only 40% of the expected. Once again we waited for the expected events to unfold and went on with our reactive approach rather than a proactive one.
As for the contingency plans, the state government exempted all the affected farmers from paying school and college fees along with various taxes collected by the state government. The centre also allocated an overall fund of approximately 15,000 crore rupees to the affected states and along with that started many schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) among others. The PMFBY is set to replace the NAIS and Modified NAIS schemes. According to this scheme, the following percentage of premium needs to be paid: 2% (Kharif), 1.5% (Rabi) and 5% (Cotton and Horticulture). Remaining premium for the insurance firm will be paid by Centre and State on a 50:50 ratio basis. Through this, Govt. aims to increase the coverage to 50% agricultural land in 2019 from the existing 27%-29%land.
The centre’s efforts of disbursing funds have been well supplemented by the state of Maharashtra by introducing Prakalp Prerna Project and Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan. In September, Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers were sent out in 14 districts of Vidarbha and Marathwada for conducting psycho-analytic questionnaires which identified 2,222 depressed individuals. They were counseled by medical counselors on mental helpline numbers and serious cases were referred to district hospital for treatment. Apart from this, governments in all states took the shelter of MGNREGS and increased the workdays by 50 days in their territory.
But the ground reality is something else. All these schemes seem to be roseate versions of the NDA government. It’s the same stale recipe, full of promises of hollowness prepared by a New Chef. Insurance schemes have been there in the past without any observable results. The much hyped low premium rates offered in the PMKBY were existing previously also as the existing NAIS, which has fairly low premiums of 1.5-3.5% for food-grains and oilseeds crops and actuarial rates for horticultural and cash crops, is already run in 14 states. The Modified NAIS (MNAIS) with higher premium rates is run in only six states. States where NAIS runs with lower premium rates than MNAIS still have very low coverage of farmers and area under crop insurance. Thus the problems related to insurance run far deeper than premium rates.
State policy is deeply influenced by the corporates and ‘industry lobby’ of the country that contributes 52% of the GDP and has a significantly large influence in the country’s economy. The government had allegedly banned exports of cotton under the pressure of textile industry at a time when cotton prices could have brought farmers out of the distress.
Another concern is the mode of damage assessment, the new scheme, as most of the existing ones, is a yield-based insurance scheme that depends critically on “Crop-Cutting Experiment” [CCE] methodology. This method is limited to mono-crop farms and needs much technical improvement in its sampling. It is unclear whether the new scheme has made any such improvement. Combined with the age old system under the leadership of an 11th century patwari, government has once again failed to address the damage assessment issue. The policy also fails to win on another front, as indicated by Punjab CM Mr. Parkash Singh Badal, that insurance companies still continue assessment of loss on the basis of average loss incurred in a block, circle or tehsil. There might be cases in which a farmer was exposed to more losses than the overall average. But they are forced to accept the meagre compensations that the government offers. Thus, we need to have individualistic insurance schemes rather than taking whole block as the base-line for assessment.
In Maharashta, an NDA-ruled state, runs an ambitious scheme – Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, which aims to make the state drought free by 2019. JSA aims to widen and deepen the streams but with limited success as it only improves a part of the system rather than going for origin of the problem. This scheme only addresses the farmers who own the land. But, tenants and landless farmers who are also the victims of droughts continue to search for answers. Caught in the web of money-lenders who tax 10% a month, amounting to 120% a year, we find our nation’s farmer choking himself to death as the last method of respite, and we’ve had a BJP politician in Haryana calling farmers committing suicide “cowards” and “criminals”!
So, we can see that the government has allocated funds and remodeled insurance schemes but has continuously failed to address various issues that continue to paralyse the overall agro-infrastructure of the nation. The best we can do to address the problem is recommend certain changes which, if implemented can stop farmers from hanging themselves to death.
Firstly, the lack of education among farmers needs to be eliminated with a proactive approach and they need to be taught well to assess the type of crop suited in line with the topography, soil and climatic conditions of the region. Also, they must be made adept at new technologies so that in situations of contingency such as these they have a back-up plan.
Secondly, the linkage of water bodies at the local level and then the state level needs to be carried out to ensure that irrigation channels never run dry during droughts if the state can suffer from both floods and droughts and floods, as was the case with Bihar in 2013. This is a controversial topic but needs to be examined for regular irrigation and even water distribution.
Thirdly, the policies announced by the government should be transparent, easy to implement, technologically advanced, feasible to farmers and there should be weather-based insurance with separate accounts for compensation so that banks cannot take their outstanding credit from accounts and lastly, they should be conducive to encourage the rural people to work in it. Without this, the newly launched crop insurance scheme announced by the central government is doomed to fail.
Fourthly, we need to have a proactive approach to counter such emergencies using Satellite Imagery, Pixel Allocation and a more effective Weather Prediction System.
Fifthly, the government needs to stop succumbing to pressures of the corporates and help rural farmers, if it plans to have a sound economic base for the rapidly rising economy.
Sixthly, to reduce forgery in insurance schemes, compensation should be delinked from credit issued by banks with increased coverage which can console the demised souls of 2,96,324 farmers.
For all this to happen we need effective governance with all ministries on the same page aided by comprehensive education drives and an implementation plan with a monitoring body to ensure that everything leads to a much safer and more reliable climate for farmers. Let the future unfold…
(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)