Unpredictable weather, unreliable insurance, unbelievable profit to companies

Farmers across India suffered heavy losses when the monsoon turned out to be a non-starter. The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, the government's flagship crop insurance scheme, was expected to help them tide over the crisis. It turned out to be a non-starter too

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters Photo: Reuters

Unpredictable weather, unreliable insurance, unbelievable profit to companies

Oficially, the monsoon covered the entire country by July 19. The rain, in fact, was above normal. But it was not of much help to the farmers of Anandgaon, a drought-stricken village in Maharashtra’s Beed district, who had, on July 14, filed an FIR against the India Meteorological Department (IMD), blaming the country’s premier weather forecasting agency for huge financial losses. The FIR was as much a comment on IMD’S prediction capability as it was on the performance of Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), India’s ambitious crop insurance scheme, running into its second year.

Trusting IMD’s April forecast about the monsoon being early, the farmers had sowed their kharif crop. But it later emerged that the early rains were not part of the monsoon; they were just pre-monsoon showers. By mid-July, farmers from across the country reported similar loss of seed, resources and effort because the monsoon took a three-week break. At this juncture, PMFBY should have come to farmers’ rescue. It did not.

That IMD had bungled became clear when a nervous Devendra Fadnavis, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, issued an advisory on July 9, asking farmers to postpone sowing till July 20. But this was a month after farmers in Marathwada, a cultural region in central Maharashtra, had sown cotton, soybean, toor, moong and udid. “What was the point of an advisory when almost 85 per cent kharif sowing in our district was complete,” wonders Sandipan Badgire, a farmer from Latur district’s Sonwati village in Marathawada.

Admitting that there is a crisis and trying to avoid the blame, N Chattopadhyay, deputy director general of meteorology (Agrimet), IMD Pune, says, “There was a communication gap, which is the real problem.” Of more than 13.4 million farmers in the state, only seven million receive weather forecasts through text messages on mobile phones. “The agriculture ministry should set up a portal to provide uninterrupted weather alerts,” he adds. Counters Anil Paulkar, the Latur bureau chief of Marathi daily Divya Marathi, “Mid-June onwards, the rainfall had diminished, but IMD issued no advisory.”

Marathwada receives pre-monsoon showers in early June and the normal date of monsoon’s arrival is June 10. However, this year, Vidarbha and Marathwada received rains around May 29. A look at the Agro Advisory Bulletins of IMD shows the agency’s lackadaisical approach. Though several parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha had not received rain after June 15, and the crops were still under threat, the Latur district Agro Advisory Bulletin for June 20 recommended “sowing of rainfed Bt cotton”, black gram and green gram. The June 30 advisory too recommended spraying potassium nitrate on crops to deal with water stress, and irrigating crops with sprinkler irrigation system. The advisories gave the impression that the monsoon was progressing well.

But how did IMD get its forecasts wrong? Instead of observing and analysing wind patterns, it jumped the gun and declared monsoon’s arrival purely on the basis of precipitation received in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh between May 29 and June 15.

This is how IMD’s blunder unfolded. It issued its first long range forecast (LRF) for the 2017 monsoon in mid-April, predicting the rainfall would be “normal”, 96-104 per cent of the long period average. This was reiterated in its second LRF released June 6. In the second week of June, it declared that the Arabian Sea arm of the Indian monsoon had arrived in Madhya Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha. Heavy showers in the region seemed to validate IMD’s inference; all three regions had received close to double the amount of rain they normally receive in the second week of June.

But there was something strange about the rain patterns. The rain-sparse region of Marathwada received more precipitation than Madhya Maharashtra and North Interior Karnataka, which lie to its west and south respectively. Normally, the situation is reverse. Why?

A look at the wind patterns explains the odd distribution—weak monsoonal winds never reached the interiors of Maharashtra. Instead of winds from the west-southwestern direction, as is required for the monsoon to prevail, winds that drove the heavy rains in Maharashtra in the first three weeks of June were haphazard. The rains were not monsoonal to begin with. Monsoonal conditions took form in inner Maharashtra only in the fourth week of June. Neither Marathwada nor Vidarbha have enjoyed rains since, with both regions registering deficits of over 60 per cent by July 13.

“Strong monsoon depends on strong mon-soonal winds even in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and not just close to the surface. This year, during the initial period of rains, the higher winds did not support the progress of the monsoon and the stormy weather was a result of the friction between different layers of winds flowing in different directions. Subsequently, we have seen a dry period follow this period of rain in Maharashtra. While the rainfall appears normal, the number of rainy days is much less than normal,” explains Rajesh Kapadia, an independent weather forecaster based in Mumbai. Rains have, in fact, dried up all over the southern peninsula; all eight sub-divisions of the region (excluding Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar) have registered deficit rainfall for the first two weeks of July.

Well into the second week of July, monsoonal winds were yet to cover the entire Indian landmass—an event that normally transpires in early July. Despite this, northwestern states, the last part of the country to receive the monsoon, have recorded precipitation levels much above normal. “The June and early-July rains in Punjab and other parts of northwest India were pre-monsoonal showers caused by western disturbances. That is why the rainfall was on the heavier side in this region,” says Sathi Devi, scientist at IMD’s National Weather Forecasting Centre (NWFC).

This, in fact, seems to be true for most of the country. A week-by-week analysis of rainfall shows that 19 of India’s 28 meteorological sub-divisions deemed to have received “normal” rainfall by July 13 have done so mainly by the virtue of short spells of extreme rain rather than sustained and uniform rain characteristic of a strong monsoon. Despite 80-90 per cent of the country having received rains, about a fourth of the districts (mainly from eastern, central and southern India) have reported a rainfall deficit of over 20 per cent in mid-July. In the east and the northeast, distribution of rain was disrupted first by cyclone Mora in the end of May and then by the formation of upper air cyclonic circulation in June which interfered with the progress of the monsoon. Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha have already faced uncharacteristic long dry spells.

Damage across states

“Because of the long gap between rains, crops faced water stress. Short-term crops, like moong, udid and soybean, were stunted. Their vegetative phase would be cut short and they will go into early flowering, leading to a drop in yield,” says Mohan Gojamgunde, agriculture officer of Latur. Depending on if, and when, rains resume, there may be a 15-50 per cent loss in kharif yield in Latur. The situation may not be much different in other parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha.

In the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Shubham Patidar, 25, of Dhamnour village in Ratlam district, is staking all his saving into replanting the crops. Encouraged by the early rain, he sowed soybean in his 5-hectare (ha) farmland. But a three-week dry spell in June-July had a devastating effect. “I had to remove crops in at least 2 ha and sow again,” says Patidar. “There are many like me who are replanting,” he adds.

There are reports from western Odisha that the first sowing has been completely damaged, although no government assessment was issued till the magazine went to print. Gurbaru Jued of Mudosil village in Nuapada district had sown paddy in 1.2 ha, but over 60 per cent of the seeds did not germinate. “There was no rain for over 10 days after mid-June,” says Jued. More than 50 per cent of the farmers in the block have suffered losses. In the first week of June, it rained so much that farmers followed the IMD advisory to sow early. But till July 18 (one-and-a-half month into the monsoon), the district was 36 per cent rain deficit.

“Transplantation has been done in only 45-50 ha of 66,505 ha farms under paddy,” says Umesh Chandra Dash, deputy director, agriculture, Nuapada. As it emerges, farmers have been skipping transplant due to such frequent dry spells. “Uncertain rain has forced farmers to go for direct seed sowing because dry spell causes delay in transplantation,” adds Dash. Last year, 70 per cent of farms in the district adopted direct seeding. This year in Khariar and Boden blocks, the figure has gone up to 83 per cent.

The focus has now shifted to whether the farmers will be compensated for the crop loss. PMFBY has provisions to compensate those who fail to sow crops and those whose sown crops get affected. But the procedure and technicalities make the scheme cumbersome. In Madhya Pradesh, farmers are making frenetic trips to banks to gather information about compensation. “Bank officials say our premium would be deducted after August 15. It means we are not covered for the current losses,” claims Patidar.

According to the PMFBY rules, if 75 per cent of crop sowing has been impacted in a notified crop area, or if sowing has failed, then insured farmers would get 25 per cent of the total insured sum immediately. The remaining losses would be paid post loss assessment. But it is up to the state government to decide the types of crops covered under the scheme and to notify crop areas. According to an official of the Agriculture Insurance Company of India Limited, who did not want to be named, in the last rabi season, farmers in only two districts of Tamil Nadu got 25 per cent of the insured sum after their sowing failed. To benefit from PMFBY, a farmer has to first buy an insurance policy. But it appears that insurance companies are not too inclined to sell policies to farmers. In Harda district of Madhya Pradesh, the UCO Bank has not deducted insurance premium from farmers since the sowing of soybean started on June 1. The last date of premium deduction was 31 July, but it was extended to August 15 in the wake of deficit rain. “Without deducting premium, how can a company compensate?” asks Ram Inania, a Harda-based farmer.

Mallika Arjun Rao, manager, UCO Bank, Harda, says farmers insure an expensive crop and then cultivate a cheaper one to later claim insurance and make profits. This is the real technical issue, not deduction of premium, she adds. “It is true that we didn’t deduct premium. But we will do by August 15,” says Rao. This means farmers who have lost crops due to the three-week dry spell would not get insurance coverage.

V M Singh, a farmer leader and convener of Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sanghthan, says, “In 2015, the Allahabad High Court ordered government to compensate farmers, irrespective of whether the premium has been deducted or not.” Singh had filed the case in 2015 with regard to the government’s earlier crop insurance schemes.

Similarly, the Odisha government has yet not declared the date of insurance coverage. “Payment of premium for insurance was started on July 15 last year. This year, it is yet to start. We don’t know why it is delayed,” says Jued.

For farmers such as him, the future remains uncertain. They have no option, but to invest again and replant. With the weather getting increasingly unpredictable, the importance of a farmer-friendly crop insurance scheme cannot be overemphasised.

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