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Flat in 20 days

Authors: Soma Basu, Aparna Pallavi, Kundan Pandey, Jitendra


Farmers are anguished as officials assess crop damage in Nagpur. Photo: Aparna Pallavi


Raghveer Lal was 22 and full of life. Standing amid the fast ripening crops of peas, pigeon pea and black gram in village Ramgadha in Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh, he would often dream of a bumper harvest and a better life. He was confident he would be able to repay the Rs 1.5 lakh borrowed from a usurious moneylender for taking 4 hectares (ha) on lease and buying seeds and fertilisers. But on the ill-fated night of March 10, it suddenly started raining. The rain was accompanied by hailstorm and gusty winds. His entire crop flattened within a couple of hours. At around 9 pm, as the rain ceased, Raghveer stepped out of the house to take stock of the situation, but did not return. His father Bhajje Lal went out looking for him, only to find his only son hanging from a tree in the farm. Dismayed, he too hanged himself from another tree. Having lost her husband and son, Nanhi Bai is in a state of shock. “Kuchh samajh me nahi aa raha hai (I am unable to understand anything),” is the only sentence she is able to mumble.

The freak weather event that battered the country’s six states—Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh—for an unprecedented 20 days, from February 24 to March 14, has left millions of farmers in a similar state of shock. It came just as farmers were getting ready to harvest rabi crops such as wheat, pulses, potato, sugarcane, maize, groundnut and mustard, and horticultural crops like grapes, papaya, mango, banana, onion and other vegetables. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh had estimated their crop loss and Punjab had done preliminary assessment till the magazine went to press (see ‘Hailstoned’). According to the estimates, 4.65 million ha of standing crops were ravaged in the worst-hit Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh alone. Farmer leaders say about 100 farmers in this arid region have taken their lives in the past one month. The Maharashtra government has registered suicide by 47 farmers. Most of them were tenant farmers and counting on the harvest to repay their loans.


The erratic weather has not spared big farmers either. In Nashik in Maharashtra, 42-year-old Atmaram Pawar from village Daregaon consumed poison after his entire pomegranate crop worth Rs 15 lakh was brought to the ground by hailstorm. Those who have survived are yet to come to terms with the unexpected disaster.

When asked about his losses, the initial, clipped response of the dazed Dilip Padmarao Patil was: “Rs 5-6 lakh.” But once he sat down to calculate his losses under a damaged orange tree in Borgaon village in Nagpur, the list threatened to go on forever. “The Rs 5-6 lakh I mentioned was just for the young orange crop that I lost. Most of the 750 trees in my orchard have also been damaged by the hail. Some have bent over, while others have lost their bark. Not more than 100 trees will survive. They were 10 years old and still had a productive life of 15 years. I had spent Rs 8-10 lakh on their upkeep,” says Dilip. If he plants a new orchard, it will take at least six years and Rs 6-7 lakh worth of upkeep before the trees start yielding fruit. “How much would that be worth in money?” he asks. Then, scratching his head, adds, “Wait, I have not yet calculated the wheat and chickpea crops, and the new cattle shed that blew away.” Then, just as one thinks the list is over, he adds, “All the fodder stored in the shed was spoilt too. But what is the use of getting into details? Will the government compensate for my loss?”

Financial crisis looms

Nandabai Koli, who earns her daily bread through agricultural labour, had invested Rs 50,000, most of it borrowed, to start a banana orchard on her 1 ha in June last year. But days before harvest, hailstones the size of tennis balls descended on her village of Nandra Budruk in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, and laid the orchard waste. “A large number of trees have toppled,” she says. “The ones still holding on to the ground will not yield crop because the immature banana bunches have turned black. Worse, the trees will not survive the summer since their leaves have been ripped to shreds.” But her greatest worry is shattered Mangalore-tiled roof. “If I cannot raise Rs 10,000 to repair it before the monsoons, we will be in the open.”

In the distant DayagadhiJejiyan village in Sungrur district of Punjab, 45-year-old Havinder Singh, who owns 1.6 ha, had taken 4 ha on lease for Rs 4 lakh and borrowed Rs 2 lakh for cultivation. “The entire standing wheat crop was wiped out,” he says with tears filling his eyes. “I won’t get bank loan for the next crop and cannot think of educating my children or holding a marriage in the house for at least two years.”

Farmers hit by the calamity are confronted by problems at every step while picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. Arranging fodder is a major problem. “Our crops were spoilt and so was the fodder,” says Singh. “The market cost of fodder is Rs 1,200 per quintal (100 kg). We will either have to sell our cattle to repay agriculture loans taken from banks or approach moneylenders.”

In Maharashtra, which saw the government setting up a large number of fodder camps in drought-prone districts last summer, similar demands this year have not yielded a response. “Due to rain, some grass has revived and we are pulling through somehow,” says Dilip Patil. “The crisis will intensify by mid-April.”

Due to losses, farmers are in a hurry to prepare for the next crop and are selling whatever little they could salvage. This has landed them in more trouble. “Harvesting flattened crops require extra care,” says Gurcharan Singh of Bhainsbagga village in Mansa district of Punjab. “So the cost of harvesting is high but returns are low.” As the damaged crop remnants flood the market, they are being procured at rock bottom prices by touts. “I was offered Rs 100 per quintal for onion, whereas it could have fetched at least Rs 500,” says Suhas Bacchav of Sonaj village in Nashik. On March 27, a disgruntled Bacchav blocked the Mumbai-Agra Highway by dumping onions on it, following which traders at the local wholesale market have raised the procurement price to Rs 200.

Struggling farmers are seeking government help to stay afloat. So far only Maharashtra has announced a special compensation package for affected farmers. In rest of the states, highly placed officials told Down To Earth that farmers will be compensated as per norms. But relief efforts have not gone beyond this.

Compensation or joke?

Going by the Maharashtra government’s ambitious Rs 4,000 crore compensation package, Patil is entitled to Rs 50,000 for his 2 ha orchard. The losses he has incurred amount to over 20 times the compensation amount. However, he would be fortunate to receive even that much. The official who visited his village for crop loss assessment surveyed just one farm. “No one knows what he has recommended,” says Patil. He will be entitled to compensation only if official records say crops have suffered 50 per cent or more damage. Farmers across the state complain that damage assessment has not been transparent. In Parbhani district, MLA Meera Renge has demanded that assessing officials should read out the assessment panchanamas (report) in the gram sabha to ensure transparency in determining eligibility.

In some areas, farmers have resorted to agitations demanding fair damage assessment. In Dhule district, farmers of 23 villages have threatened agitation unless the government does away with the 50 per cent damage norm. “Assessing officials are taking advantage of the norm to record less than 50 per cent crop damage and deny compensation,” alleges Bhagwan Patil, community leader from village Kapadne. “None of the 23 villages figures in the compensation list despite suffering extensive damage.”

In Punjab, where compensation is a meager Rs 5,000 per acre (0.4 ha), farmers are questioning the compensation model. “Farmers are eligible for compensation only when 75 per cent damage has occurred on at least 160 ha in a given area,” says Jagmohan Singh, senior Bharatiya Kisan Union leader. “Anyone can tell you that the norm is flawed. Our demand is that farmers owning a minimum of one acre and suffering at least 25 per cent damage should be compensated.” Balbir Singh of Tojo village in Bathinda district also questions the compensation model. “How did the government arrive at the Rs 5,000 per acre figure? The input cost per acre is at least Rs 9,000,” he says.

Till the magazine went to press not a paisa in compensation had reached farmers in the affected states because election code of conduct was in place.

“The government treats farmers like beggars,” says Karodi Yadav of Sagra village in Sagar. Yadav says this is the third consecutive season Bundelkhand farmers have faced crop losses. The government has conducted two surveys, first in September and then on February 20, to assess crop damage. “But we are yet to receive anything.” All that Yadav has to look forward to is years of struggle to get his shattered life and economy back on track amid increased anxiety as weather conditions grow more erratic with the passing year.

Why the hail?

 Scientists blame changing wind patterns near the Arctic for the freak weather
A farmer couple shows hailstones that collected in their farm in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh (Photo: Govind Sirvya)
A farmer couple shows hailstones that collected in their farm in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh (Photo: Govind Sirvya)

In the seven decades of his life, Kunwarman Patel of Ramgadha village in Madhya Pradesh had never witnessed such bizarre weather events. “It looked as if the rainy season would stretch till summers,” he says.

Bhopal and Gwalior in the state recorded heaviest ever rains in February, with Bhopal receiving 40 mm rainfall and Gwalior 69.9 mm on February 27.

According to Pareenita Dandekar of non-profit South Asia Network for Dam River and People (SANDRP), Madha, a city in Solapur district in the worst-hit Maharashtra, received 208 mm rainfall in March. Dandekar, who has concluded this after comparing district-wise rainfall dataset from 1901-2002 of Indian Meteorological Department with rainfall in March, 2014, also says that this is 771.79 per cent higher than the highest rainfall recorded for the month in Solapur in a hundred years. She adds that the district had recorded 26.95 mm rainfall in March 1915. Ausa taluka in Latur, recorded 146 per cent higher rainfall than the highest March rainfall in the district. Rains were similar in Parbhani, Akola and Wardha districts in the state.

Hailstorm, which is never heard of in Maharashtra in this season, extensively damaged crops. “This rabi season, we experienced at least eight hailstorms,” says Ramdas Damle of Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. February is essentially a dry month. Some rainfall in March can be expected, but hailstorm and rain in February is unusual, says J R Kulkarni, senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) in Pune.

“This must be treated as a rare event,” says Medha Kolhe, deputy director general (weather forecasting), Indian Meteorology Department, Pune. “Nothing even resembling this has ever been reported.” Excessive hailstorm was last reported in 1907 and that, too, was limited to one day and one village in Maharashtra’s Satara district, says Ramchandra Sable, retired head of climate change department at Mahatma Phule Agriculture University in Rahuri, Maharashtra.

The hailstorms were caused because of an unusual movement of cold westerly winds that come from the north and cause snowfall over the Himalayan region in January, says Kulkarni (see ‘Polar fear’).


Western disturbances over India originate either from the Atlantic Ocean or from the Mediterranean Ocean, says Air Vice Marshall (retd) G P Sharma, head of Skymet, a private weather forecasting firm. He was earlier principal director, Directorate of Meteorology, Indian Air Force. “A specific climatic condition in the Atlantic could also influence westerlies in the country,” he says.

“The cold westerlies usually blow around 30 degree latitude, where Kashmir is located. But this year, they came down to about 15 degree latitude, bringing hailstorms. Mumbai falls on 18.9 degree latitude,” says Kulkarni.

The situation intensified when the cold westerlies, after picking up moisture from the Arabian Sea, met the south westerlies, which, too, were moisture-laden. The winds could not move beyond the Bay of Bengal because of the presence of high pressure belt and started blowing clockwise over the central, western and part of northern India. They characteristically moved upwards and precipitated the moisture in the form of hail, says Kulkarni.

Explaining the unusually large size of the hailstones, he says, “Usually, moisture in the atmosphere freezes at 5 km from ground level. But due to the presence of cold westerlies, moisture froze at 4 km. This reduced the hailstones’ travel distance, and hence the melting speed reduced.” (See ‘How the hail was formed’).


But the question is: what caused the cold westerlies to change their path?

Looking for answers

The root of all problems is the weak polar vortex over the Arctic, say many scientists. Polar vortex is low pressure wind formation which blankets the planet’s poles. Below it flows the jet stream, or a pattern of very strong winds, which saves the earth from the freezing cold air of the two poles.

In early January this year, polar vortex in the Arctic weakened and collapsed, allowing cold air to escape down to the mid-latitudes. The disturbed jet stream further pushed down cold air from the Arctic. The US and the UK experienced record breaking cold wave during this time, explains M Rajeevan, senior scientist and adviser to the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

Weak polar vortex and meandering jet stream most likely have a connection with the freak weather India is grappling with, he says. These caused the cold westerlies, which normally flow across the Himalayas, to come down to peninsular India. Rajeevan has analysed the causes of hailstorms and excessive rains in central Asia and India from February to March.

Weakening of the polar vortex is being attributed to reduced snow cover and sea ice on the northern hemisphere of the earth. Less snow and ice means less reflection of sunlight and, therefore, more evaporation and transpiration. These reduce the air pressure and increase temperature of the polar vortex, causing it to weaken.

Farmers salvage wheat (Photo: Kundan Pandey)
Farmers salvage wheat (Photo: Kundan Pandey)

Climate scientists also attribute the weakened polar vortex to El Nino—abnormal warming of surface water in the equatorial Pacific accompanied by atmospheric pressure fluctuations. During El Nino events, polar jet stream diverges from its usual path. According to Rajeevan, when El Nino develops, more mid-latitude westerly troughs move across north India. Its presence could bring major changes in the atmospheric pressure and temperature. This year its frequency has been more, indicating presence of conditions favouring El Nino.

North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) also has an impact on a jet stream. NAO is a climatic phenomenon over the North Atlantic Ocean. It involves oscillation of air pressure from Central North America to Europe. The air pattern over Central North America has a strong low pressure system called positive mode. Air pattern over Europe is negative mode where weak high and low pressure systems are found over the same locations. Negative NAO results in a weak jet stream below the polar vortex. Weather anomalies due to cold winds from the Arctic could accentuate due to NAO. Fluctuations of high and low pressure systems control the strength and direction of Westerly winds and storm tracks across the North Atlantic.

Is this climate change?

Over the last decade, there has been an increase in the phenomenon of Arctic air being pushed down leading to unusual regional climate anomalies across the Northern Hemisphere. In 2010, Pakistan witnessed record floods while Russia suffered intense heat waves and forest fires. The year 2012 witnessed record surface melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, wettest summer ever in England, heat waves in the US and Russia. In 2010 and 2011, there were some enigmatically cold winter spells on both sides of the Atlantic and in eastern Asia. December of 2010 was the coldest December since 1890 in central England records, says German oceanographer and climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf, in his research paper ‘A decade of weather extremes’. Rahmstorf is one of the lead authors of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report.

Garlic damaged by hailstorm
Garlic damaged by hailstorm

“Weather anomalies greatly increase the intensity and frequency of extreme events,” he says. “There are strong indications that some types of extreme event, most notably heat waves and precipitation extremes, will greatly increase in a warming climate, and have already done so,” he says.

Tough road lies ahead for India, says the IPCC report. It warns the country of severe food crisis due to extreme weather events, and estimates countrywide agricultural loss of over US $7 billion in 2030. This will severely affect the income of 10 per cent of the population with increasing weather extremities.

So what can the changes in weather conditions be attributed to? Is this natural variability in climate, or climate change?

Most Indian climate scientists say the unprecedented and untimely weather events were yet another sequence in the chain of freak weather events India has been witnessing in the last few decades. But many shy away from attributing it to climate change.

R Krishnan, executive director, Climate Change Centre, IITM, says it is premature to attribute it to climate change. More samples are required for the attribution, he says. “Temperatures are rising in the world everywhere and every year, so we can say it is a symptom of climate change. But the current event is an isolated one and has not been witnessed in the last 25-30 years. Also, such hailstorms have not occurred worldwide. So it is difficult to link it to climate change. It may be a part of natural variability of weather conditions,” he says.

But J Srinivasan, climatologist with Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, differs. “We may not be able to attribute an isolated event to climate change directly, but a series of unprecedented freak events is certainly due to climate change and global warming.” It is well established that there has been an increase in extreme weather events. Only 20 per cent of these are due to natural causes; 80 per cent are human-induced changes, he says.

B K Bandyopadhyay, deputy director general of meteorology at the India Meteorological Department, says because of absence of good recording systems earlier extreme events may have gone unnoticed. “How can we say that this was the first ever hailstorm in Maharashtra? May be hailstorm occurred but over a small locality, or in an uninhabited area,” he says.

The sheer magnitude of the event merits it a climate change tag, says Sable. “It occurred due to unnatural and drastic fluctuations in temperatures, which are symptomatic of climate change,” he says. Sable, who has been campaigning for a climate change helpline mechanism for farmers, says extreme and unprecedented weather events have to be accepted as climate change phenomenon regardless of their frequency. Denial among the Indian scientific institutions regarding climate change is delaying action that needs to be taken to help farmers and the poor, he says.

IITM has analysed data of more than 1,800 weather stations in central India from 1951 to 2000. It did not find any significant change in the seasonal mean rainfall in the area, comprising well over a million square kilometres. But it found that the number of extreme events—rainfall exceeding 150 mm per day—has doubled since the early 1950s. Heavy rainfall, exceeding 100 mm per day, shows a 10 per cent increase per decade, says Bhupendra Goswami, director, IITM.

Missing safety net

Current crop insurance schemes have failed to gain the confidence of farmers because of limited outreach and poor remuneration mechanism

A road in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, soon after hailstorm (Photo: Govind Sirvya)
A road in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, soon after hailstorm (Photo: Govind Sirvya)

Freak weather events will become a part of an ever-warming world. The warning of Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about a fickle weather system is becoming louder with every report since the first one in 1990. The latest one, released in two parts—in September 2013 and March 2014—says that without adaptation millions in Asia will be affected by droughts, melting of glaciers, cyclones and coastal flooding by 2021. For India, IPCC forecasts loss of agricultural productivity to the tune of US $7 billion by 2030. Climate change will also erode food security and make poverty reduction more difficult.

The recent events of rainfall and hailstorms in late February and early March and extensive crop damage have exposed India’s vulnerability to climate change. It has also exposed another aspect: India has no mechanism to safeguard farmers against the economic shock from these events. Current crop insurance schemes have failed to gain the confidence of farmers because of limited outreach and poor remuneration mechanism.

Insured yet not safe

Karodi Yadav, a 55-year-old farmer of Sagra village in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district, lost his entire two hectares (ha) of gram wheat and garlic yield when hail struck his state on February 20. Picking up a handful of gram that looks smaller and darker than usual, he rues that it was his third consecutive crop failure. Yadav, who is yet to receive insurance compensation for the last two crop failures, is clueless when he will get the com-pensation for the recent crop failure.

Yadav lost his rabi crop of green gram in 2012 and his kharif crop of soy in 2013 because of excessive rains. He says he lost Rs 55,000 in the two crop seasons. “Despite having insurance, I have not received anyÔÇêmoney. The village patwari (revenue officer) has surveyed my land thrice after the crop failures,” says Yadav.

Farmers talk to an insurance agent (Photo: Aparna Pallavi)
Farmers talk to an insurance agent (Photo: Aparna Pallavi)

Ask him about his insurance details, a clueless Yadav says he does not know the name or the type of insurance he bought. “I was told that every time I took a loan, the premium for my insurance was deducted from the money that I got form the bank. I was told Rs 700 per acre (0.4 ha) was deducted as insurance premium,” he says.

Similarly, Nandkishor Padolia, a farmer from Karla village in Nagpur, says he is not sure if he has crop insurance. “I think my crop was insured. I had applied for a loan of Rs 1 lakh, but received Rs 4,000 less, which I think was the insurance premium,” says an unsure Padolia. His orchard of 200-odd lime tress was left barren during the hail showers that battered parts of Maharashtra in March this year. “I had invested Rs 1.5 lakh for the cultivation. Now the lime trees have no flowers on them, which means they will not yield anything,” says Padolia, who was expecting a profit of Rs 50,000 from his lime trees.

Yadav, Padolia and a handful others that Down To Earth spoke to had insurance. Most other farmers affected by weather events in February and March say they either do not know about crop insurance or do not have one. Crop insurance was introduced in India in the 1970s, but has yet not become popular.

Poor options

Over the years, insurance schemes have evolved into two common models in India—one protects farmers from poor yield (Modified National Agriculture Insurance Scheme or MNAIS) and the other protects them from weather changes (Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme or WBCIS).

The pilot project of MNAIS was introduced in 2010 as an improvement to the National Agriculture Insurance Scheme (NAIS). NAIS was launched in 2003 as a farm income protection scheme that gave farmers compensation for loss of yield. Insurance settlement under NAIS was done mostly on loss of crop yield in a particular area also called Reference Unit Area (RUA). States decided the RUA at the start of every harvesting season. According to Agricultural Insurance Company of India Limited (AIC), the implementing body, RUA could not be smaller than a panchayat and larger than a tehsil. The average yield of a crop in a particular RUA was determined using previous 10 years’ data and information gathered through crop cutting experiments (CCE). Under NAIS, about 65 different crops sown in the rabi and kharif were identified, which included cereals, millets, pulses, horticulture and commercial crops.

Bengal gram destroyed during hailstorm (Photo: Kundan Pandey)
Bengal gram destroyed during hailstorm (Photo: Kundan Pandey)

Compensation was paid on the difference between the actual yield of a particular season and average yield determined using previous years’ data and CCE. The payback to the farmer was calculated by multiplying the sum insured with the loss in production in a particular RUA. Individual losses were also entertained, if the insured farmer reported within 48 hours. The insurance was mandatory for farmers who took loans, and banks usually deducted the insurance premium from the loan capital. A farmer could avail insurance up to 150 per cent of the average yield predetermined by the local agriculture office of the state government. Also, premium paid by farmers differed from crop to crop under the scheme. For example in the case of bajra (pearl millet), a kharif crop, the premium that a farmer had to pay is 3.5 per cent of the sum insured, while rabi crops like wheat drew a premium of 1.5 per cent. The government gave a 10 per cent discount to small and marginal farmers on NAIS premiums.

In 2010, the government modified the NAIS to make it more farmer-friendly. The improved MNAIS was introduced as a pilot in 50 districts of the country during the rabi season of 2010 covering close to 350,000 farmers. “The modifications include bringing down RUA to village level, using the average crop yield of the past seven years instead of 10 years, introducing pre and post harvest loss and increasing the minimum level of compensation to farmers,” says an AIC official. The scheme also insures farmers against localised events such as hailstorms and landslides. In November 2013, the government decided to extend MNAIS to the rest of the country.

About the same time when NAIS was started, India’s largest private insurance company ICICI Lombard began a pilot project in Andhra Pradesh, which became the foundation for WBCIS a few years later. ICICI in 2003 tied up with micro- financier BASIX to start the pilot project that involved 154 groundnut and 76 castor farmers in Mahbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh, which was facing drought for the previous three years.

The insurance introduced by ICICI was weather-based, unlike NAIS, which was based on yield. The compensation to the farmers was divided into three phases— sowing, flowering or podding and harvest, each having their own parameters and paybacks. Under the ICICI scheme, in 2004, normal rainfall for growing castor in Narayanpet, a sub-district in Mahbubnagar was calculated at 60 mm for the sowing season (June 10 to July 14). For the flowering season (July 15 to August 28), the rainfall was calculated at 100 mm and during harvest (set from August 27 to October 28), it was 75mm. For every millimetre deficit during sowing season, farmers were to get Rs 10 per 0.4 acre as compensation. If the rainfall was below 25 mm, a lump sum of Rs 1,500 per 0.4 ha would be given to the farmer in the period. For the flowering season, Rs 15 was to be paid to farmers per millimetre of deficit rainfall. If the precipitation in this season went below 5 mm, the farmer would be paid Rs 2,000 per 0.4 ha. Similarly for harvest, Rs 15 per millimetre was to be paid for up to 30 mm, after which Rs 2,500 was to be given. That year during the sowing and flowering seasons, the mandal received 12 mm and 84 mm of rainfall respectively, giving the farmers Rs 1,500 and Rs 240 per acre respectively. Each farmer had spent about Rs 200 as premium for the insurance. The threshold rainfall levels were calculated using 25 years of data from the weather station at the mandal.

The hailstorm that hit Punjab in early March this year left wheat crops flattened (Photo: Jitendra)
The hailstorm that hit Punjab in early March this year left wheat crops flattened (Photo: Jitendra)

In 2007, the Centre introduced WBCIS, which was similar to the ICICI model, except that it would not only take into account precipitation, but other aspects like pest infestation and floods. Hailstorm is not included under WBCIS because weather stations do not have past 25 years’ data on the weather event, which is a prerequisite for it to be included under the scheme. The Union agriculture ministry felt that state-owned AIC did not have enough outreach and decided to rope in private players. Till 2007, the three major players were AIC, ICICI Lombard and fertilizer cooperative IFFCO-Tokio. HDFC ERGO and Chola M S joined them in 2011. In 2013, five more private general insurance companies—Tata AIG, Royal Sundaram Alliance, Future Generali India, L & T and Reliance General Insurance Company Ltd—were given permission to join WBCIS. HDFC ERGO is the second biggest insurer reaching about 2.2 million farmers while IFFCO Tokio had close to 1.42 million cultivators in 2012.

Not many takers

There is no composite data to show the growth of crop insurance schemes in India. In 2012, according to documents of India Brand Equity foundation, a trust set up by the Union Ministry of Commerce, crop insurance constituted about five per cent of the non-life insurance market, which was close to about US $12.7 billon. According to the National Sample Survey Office report of 2011, India had close to 119 million farmers. The insurance schemes could cover only 30 million farmers or just 25 per cent of the farmer population. The insurance schemes, for example, have virtually no penetration in Punjab with only 67 farmers insured in the state. Sukhpal Singh, senior economist at Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana, explains the phenomenon by saying most farmers do not think insurance is a safe investment.

“Close to 90 per cent of the two million farmers in Punjab are in debt. They are scared that insurance premiums will only add to their debts,” Singh says.

Prabhakar Chandane, president of Solapur-based Pomegranate Growers’ Association of India, says farmers in Maharashtra are not interested in insurance because it has never paid back. “Whether it is the old crop insurance scheme or the new one, companies never conduct surveys within the requisite 48 hours after a calamity and damage always gets either downplayed or denied altogether. Due to this bitter experience, farmers have never opted for insurance in any significant numbers,” Chandane says.image

A senior official in the Union agriculture ministry says NAIS had inherent weaknesses. “Because it was an area-based scheme, good performing farmers got the same compensation as the poor performing farmers who lost more,” he says. “Also the turnaround time for processing the premiums was very high. A farmer would have to wait till the end of the cropping season to assess the loss and get compensation. If the compensation could be delivered quickly, the farmer could perhaps buy seeds for a short duration crop and replant his fields to minimise damage,” he adds. The 2012 annual report of HDFC ERGO shows the average claim-processing time could be as long as 100 days.

Scientists say WBCIS cannot be extended across the country because of limited infrastructure. In 2012, ICICI Lombard operated its WBCIS scheme using a network of 700-odd weather stations. India currently has about 5,300-odd weather stations, run by India Meteorology Department, ISRO and private forecasters. To extend WBCIS to each and every sub-district or taluka would require setting up 5,564 weather stations. If one weather station was to be set up to cover a radius of 20 sq km of area, twice the current capacity would be required. Even then, localised weather events that affect individual villages might be missed.


In a bid to strengthen crop insurance in the country, the Centre in November 2013 notified the National Crop Insurance Programme that clubbed three schemes WBCIS, MNAIS and coconut palminsurance scheme. Interestingly, the letter sent from the Ministry of Agriculture to all the state departments says that the scheme should not be publicised as the model code of conduct forÔÇêthe 2014 elections has been enforced. The new scheme envisages that a farmer would buy both WBCIS and MNAIS insurances.

The state governments have not reacted positively to the new proposal. In a letter to the prime minister, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has alleged that the new scheme has been brought in a “hasty manner” without consulting the states or the farmers. Given that Tamil Nadu is already facing a drought-like situation,ÔÇêpaying extra for the twin scheme will only worsen farmers’ condition, she wrote in the letter.

No attempts to adapt

After the release of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008, the Centre directed state governments to prepare their own climate change action plans in sync with NAPCC. Only 12 states have prepared their plans so far. Among the states that faced this rare calamity this year only two, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have prepared the State Action Plans on Climate Change. Maharashtra, the worst affected state, has been preparing an action plan since 2009, but no document is out yet.

Aditi Kapoor, director of Alternative Futures, says that most of the state plans have not gone beyond the usual development initiatives with no focus on adaptation to build resilience to climate. Sustainable agriculture is heavily biased towards biotechnology (including genetic engineering) for raising farm productivity and soil carbon content, and concentrates less on promoting low input farming practices that would help the predominantly small and marginal farmers increase soil fertility and soil moisture.

Changing crop pattern?

A senior official of the Ministry of Agriculture, requesting anonymity, says that a crop plan prepared by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) has been given to the state departments of agriculture to follow.

“The contingency crop plan advises and assists farmers struck by calamity or crop loss to go for short duration crops such as black/green gram, maize or fodder as per feasibility of land and time,” he says.

A crop diversification programme has also been developed to deal with such contingencies and is now being practised in Punjab Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the official says.

Bhanuprakash Dubey, an official of the District Poverty Initiative Programme in Sagar, says his department is promoting turmeric as way of crop diversification. “Last year, turmeric was grown only in 12.14 ha in Sagar. No loss was reported in turmeric farming. This has prompted more farmers to grow turmeric, taking the total acreage to about 68 ha in the district. These turmeric farmers did not suffer losses in the recent calamity,” Dubey says.

So does India have a concrete strategy to adapt to climate change? It seems that it does not. “The intention behind having a national plan on climate change was good, but we do not know what happened to it. In the present scenario, crop insurance is the only way to safeguard farmers and agricultural loss,” says J Srinivasan, climatologist with Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

Soma Basu

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