Nowadays, our prime-time debates on television channels and newspaper headlines tend to move around topics such as meat ban, beef ban, nightlife in Mumbai, Indrani Mukerjea’s life, death of Sheena Bora, Pratyusha Banerjee suicide and the Hrithik-Kangana Ranaut alleged affair. But the real India is dealing with far more pressing issues in their lives, as basic as water and food.
Gautama Buddha was once invited to a village for his discourse. The entire village turned up except one farmer, who was worried about his missing ox. When Buddha waited for this farmer, anxious disciples asked Buddha why he was delaying the discourse. Buddha said that anything he said would not make sense to a man who was pre-occupied with worries about his livelihood.
Many activists and scholars have offered a number of reasons for farmer suicides such as monsoon failure, high debt burden, genetically modified crops, government policies, public mental health, personal issues, family problems and also incorrect data. Suicides by farmers touched a grim high of 3,228 in 2015. Maharashtra recorded 20,504 farmer suicides since 2001.
Maharashtra had 75% deficit in rainfall in the last year. The government had announced Rs 10,512 crore package to the farmers in December 2015. It has launched the PM crop insurance scheme, which covers over 50% of the farmers in the coming three years. Under this scheme, 90% premium money will be paid by the Centre covering the fully grown crop and the stem.
The problem is about the abysmal penetration of insurance among the farmers. Out of the gross cropped area of 195.26 million hectares in the country, only 42.82 million hectares or 22% was covered under crop insurance in 2014. The problem is of inadequacy of coverage, in terms of the sum insured or the maximum amount that insurance would pay during crop damage.
To the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, average sum insured per hectare under the national agricultural insurance scheme was Rs 18,464 in 2013-14. This is much below the gross value of output for most crops. If policy claims can’t cover half of the value of produce when damage happens, farmers aren’t attracted to take insurance cover despite severe drought years.
This explains the poor spread of crop insurance in drought years 2002, 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2015. The cap on the premium was at 8-9% of the sum insured for rabi foodgrains and oilseeds, and at 12-13% for annual commercial and horticulture crops. The present government’s Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) promises a change from the existing crop insurance schemes.
The PMFBY removes any artificial capping of the sum insured, resulting in low claims being paid to farmers. The gap between the actual premiums and the rates payable by farmers would be fully met by the government. There is no upward limit on government subsidy. However it’s not clear whether and how much of the subsidy burden will have to be borne by the states.
The PMFBY can bring about a turnaround. The farmers who toil to feed us should not be forced to take the drastic step of ending own life. With low premiums and the sum insured covering the entire gross value, along with quick claim settlements enabled by mobile and satellite technology, it can turn out to be a game-changer for Indian agriculture as well as for the farmers’ life.