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Agrarian crisis: Many problems, few solutions

In the past week, ready-to-harvest Rabi crops have reportedly been damaged due to unseasonal rainfall coupled with strong winds and hailstorm in eight states across north and central India. The news has not come as a surprise to many, considering the weather pattern that has emerged over the past three years. At the start of 2013, many regions witnessed large-scale crop damage due to unseasonal rainfall in the Rabi season. It was soon followed by the destruction of Kharif crops due to extreme weather conditions. The following two years witnessed a similar pattern of unseasonal rainfall and drought. It was reported late last year that a deficient northeast monsoon and lack of soil moisture had affected the sowing of wheat and pulses in the Rabi season. Moreover, these crops have been left at the mercy of higher temperatures than what is considered normal during the winter season. Such conditions affect the productivity and maturity of especially the wheat crop—a food staple among vast sections of the Indian populace. Weather experts have attributed the cause of unseasonal rainfall at this time of the year largely to the western disturbance. Thousand of standing crops across Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra have been destroyed. Regions most affected by the crop damage are the Vidarbha and Marathwada areas of Maharashtra, western UP, eastern Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana. Crop loss, according to primary estimates, has been approximately 10-15 percent until last week. In the past two and half months, more than 200 farmers across eight districts in Maharashtra have committed suicide. Moreover, late last year, Telangana declared drought in 231 sub-districts spread across 10 districts. After Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, Telangana became the ninth state in India to declare a drought. 

Among others, there are three key elements to the current agrarian crisis that this column would like to address—weather forecasting, crop insurance and irrigation systems. Freak weather events have become the norm, causing massive losses to India’s agrarian economy. Even though the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in Pune had issued a notice warning farmers of unusual weather events in northern states for the current Rabi season, experts are of the opinion that the information shared was neither timely nor disseminated properly. Unable to receive the information on time, they often fail to take the necessary steps required to save their crops. But forecasting these weather events is a daunting task and the IMD usually does a good job. In response to the growing agrarian crisis, the Centre, earlier this year, approved a new crop insurance scheme for farmers that will replace two existing agricultural insurance schemes. At the heart of the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bhima Yojana lies the promise of lower premiums and early claim settlements. Another key element to the crop insurance is the use of high-resolution imagery gathered through drones to arrive at crop damage figures. “The feed sent by drone will reportedly be collated with satellite imaging and remote sensing technology to assist insurance companies inadequate disbursals calculated on the basis of actual damage to crops in a particular area,” according to a Times of India report. However, certain experts have argued that farmers will not be able to avail of the Centre’s new crop insurance scheme for the current Rabi season since it will be implemented only from the upcoming Kharif season. Despite the use of technology, experts are also of the opinion that early claim settlements can only be addressed after basic structural changes are introduced to the process of crop damage assessment. On the question of irrigation systems, it is important to understand a few facts. The July-September monsoon accounts for about 80 percent of India’s total rainfall and affects both summer and winter sowing and approximately 2/3rd cultivated land in India is dependent on monsoons, leaving it susceptible to the vagaries of weather.

In his Budget speech, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that the Centre would spend Rs 86,500 crore—quadrupling annual spending—over the next five years to irrigate 80 million hectares of cultivated land. The government has its work cut out. Suffice to say, the government is promising to irrigate more land in five years than it has in the 69 years since Independence. But according to a recent IndiaSpend analysis, Finance Minister Jaitley is wasting the government’s money by spending Rs 86,500 crore on the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP), which has yielded below par results. According to the 2015-16 Economic Survey, of the irrigation capacity created by the AIBP during 2007-11, only a third of farmland actually got water. Even the Comptroller Auditor General has marked the inadequacies of the AIBP. “The Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme has failed to achieve its targeted objective of accelerating completion of large irrigation projects and delivery of benefits of irrigation water to farmers,” the CAG report said. Suffice to say, the crisis afflicting India’s agrarian sector is immense. It will require multiple solutions. Although, the Centre has acknowledged the crisis, the solutions it has presented may not suffice. Until then, the average Indian farmer will continue to suffer.
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