Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

IN JAMMU, litchi was flow­er­ing—much ear­lier and out of sea­son. This is be­cause win­ter had not come and it was warmer than usual. But now as the chill has set in, the flow­ers are fall­ing and there will be no fruit this sum­mer, fear hor­ti­cul­tur­ists. In Bi­har, stand­ing wheat crops were hit last fort­night by un­sea­sonal hail and bit­ter cold that came af­ter days of warmer-thanusual tem­per­a­tures.

I saw this sit­u­a­tion first-hand in the Me­wat district of Haryana, where farm­ers told me they had been suf­fer­ing for the past three crop­ping sea­sons. They were broke as each time they planted crops there was some un­sea­sonal dev­as­ta­tion that took a crip­pling toll. In the sum­mer of 2015, for in­stance, they had planted rice and first rains were de­layed. They begged and bor­rowed to run ex­pen­sive diesel-fu­elled tube wells (elec­tric­ity for agri­cul­ture is sup­pos­edly as­sured but it goes off when farm­ers need it most). Fi­nally, paddy was ready. But then came a night of apoc­a­lyp­tic rain—it rained over 250 mm in five hours. This, in a district where av­er­age an­nual rain­fall is 500-600 mm. When I vis­ited the vil­lage, not even two hours’ drive from Delhi, fields were flooded, crops de­stroyed. There was deep de­spair in the eyes of ev­ery farmer I met.

Let’s leave for the mo­ment the ques­tions—very real and ur­gent—why th­ese ex­treme weather events are hap­pen­ing in our world with greater fre­quency and in­ten­sity. Let’s dis­cuss in­stead what we need to do.

First, we need to know that th­ese events are break­ing our world. To­day, we read more about Snowzilla—the mas­sive snow­storm that has hit the east­ern coast of the US—than the hail­storms and freak rain events that are liveli­hood spoil­ers in our coun­try. Th­ese events have to make news, even if the peo­ple who are dev­as­tated are not the con­sum­ing middle classes. Be­cause if we bury this dis­tress by sim­ply not hear­ing about it, then we will never un­der­stand the mag­ni­tude of the catas­tro­phe that is on us.

Se­cond, we need in­sur­ance for an in­creas­ingly cli­mate-vul­ner­a­ble world. The ques­tion is how in­sur­ance will work for the poor, who have lit­tle col­lat­eral but face the high­est risk. Last week, the Union Cab­i­net cleared a new crop in­sur­ance pol­icy called Prad­han Mantri Fasal Bima Yo­jana ( pmfby), which will re­place the ex­ist­ing na­tional agri­cul­tural in­sur­ance scheme. My col­leagues, who have stud­ied the state of agri­cul­tural in­sur­ance in In­dia in their re­port, “Lived Anom­aly: how to en­able farm­ers in In­dia to cope with ex­treme weather events”, find that it is a step ahead in ad­dress­ing some con­cerns. But there is a long way to go to de­sign a uni­ver­sal in­sur­ance scheme, which can be an ef­fec­tive safety net for farm­ers.

The key prob­lem is es­ti­mat­ing the crop dam­age and then pay­ing for the claim with­out fuss and de­lay. In pmfby the in­sur­ance unit is now a vil­lage, as against the rev­enue ad­min­is­tra­tive unit of a block in the pre­vi­ous scheme. A block cov­ers a large area with subre­gional vari­a­tions in weather events. There­fore, if it rains heav­ily in a few vil­lages but not across the block, then farm­ers would not be able to claim dam­age with­out ev­i­dence to show this anom­aly. This, when weather sta­tions to record such an anom­aly re­main grossly in­ad­e­quate.

The sys­tem of ver­i­fy­ing claims also re­mains a prob­lem. State gov­ern­ments are ex­pected to con­duct crop-cut­ting ex­per­i­ments to es­ti­mate what would be the ac­tual yield and, thus, es­ti­mate the loss. Th­ese ex­per­i­ments are of­ten poorly done and do not give real value of the pro­duce. Then, when the claim is filed, the as­sess­ment is done by the pat­wari, the low­est rev­enue of­fi­cial in the district who is ex­pected to visit and es­ti­mate dam­age. The tales of cor­rup­tion in this process are le­gion, as farm­ers will tell you how the pat­wari did not visit or pro­cessed claims for peo­ple who did not lose crop or sim­ply de­nied the claim.

The an­swer will lie in the use of new tech­nolo­gies—re­mote-sens­ing to mo­bile-based im­age-cap­tur­ing sys­tems. The new in­sur­ance pol­icy talks about the use of mo­bile phone to im­prove yield data and time­li­ness of pro­cess­ing claims. But the ques­tion will be how this can hap­pen and how fast.

The ques­tion also is: who is re­ally the sub­ject of in­sur­ance? Is it the farmer or is it the banker? To­day crop in­sur­ance is manda­tory for all farm­ers who take a bank loan un­der the Kisan Credit Card. The in­sur­ance pol­icy is a pack­age deal, and in most cases farm­ers do not even have the req­ui­site in­for­ma­tion about what it en­tails. Not only is the in­sur­ance pre­mium de­ducted as an ad­di­tional charge to the loan, but even when the claim is pro­cessed and paid, it is the bank that has the first right on it. All this has to be worked out. In­sur­ance cov­er­age has to be uni­ver­sal and pay­outs enough to cover losses.

This is one prod­uct de­sign that should cap­ture our imag­i­na­tion. This is the true chal­lenge be­fore our cli­mate-risked world.

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