By Benjamin Lyngdoh
The sudden onslaught of inclement weather adversely impacting upon farm produce is becoming more frequent. Meghalaya experienced it again on November 17, 2023 when cyclone Midhili (meaning huge tree in Maldivian) resulted in a depression lasting for 24 hours. Just as in other instances, this time too social media was filled with concern for the farmers and the damage done to the crops. One media clip that showed paddy being washed away by the rain as the farmer looked on was quite distressing. It is against this backdrop that measures are required to safeguard against crop losses. The most effective intervention available against such uncertainties is crop insurance. However, as ground realities show, a lot of work is required even in the context of awareness.
The flagship crop insurance scheme under Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India (GOI) is Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY). It aims to provide comprehensive insurance cover against crop failure thus helping in stabilizing the income of the farmers. That way it has the features of ‘multiple peril crop insurance scheme’ providing cover against risks arising from weather-related events such as floods, droughts, destructive weather, cyclonic rain, unseasonal rain, hail, pests and diseases. As per guidelines, the scheme is compulsory for loanee farmers obtaining crop loan/Kisan Credit Card account for notified crops. It is voluntary in case of other/non-loanee farmers.
Further, the maximum premium payable by the farmers is 2% for Kharif (summer) crops, 1.5% for Rabi (winter) crops and 5% for annual commercial/horticultural crops. Incidentally, the broad features of Weather-based Crop Insurance Scheme (WBCIS) are similar to PMFBY. The outline of the schemes highlights their potential value towards mitigation of crop losses for the farmers. In Meghalaya the awareness about these schemes is almost non-existent and this reflects on the degree of participation of rural farmers in policy-initiation and decision-making. One of the reasons is the requirement of a valid and authenticated land ownership certificate which most of the farmers do not possess.
In Meghalaya, PMFBY can be availed by the farmers by applying in plain paper through the nearest Community Development Block/Agriculture Circle. Although the process of accessing crop insurance under PMFBY is simple, the number of farmers who avail of it is less. The four years PMFBY data available in Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, GOI for FY 2016-17 till FY 2019-20 shows that the crop insurance coverage in Meghalaya is one of the lowest in India across all parameters. On the two important parameters, namely, sum insured and gross premium the figures were Rs. 47 lakh and Rs. 4 lakh respectively for FY 2016-17. This increased to Rs. 2.31 lakh and Rs. 9 lakh respectively in the FY 2019-20. This might be seen as progressive. However, when computed in terms of linear growth rate (LGR) for the period 2016-17 to 2019-20 it portrays a decline of -13.22% for sum insured and -16.67% for gross premium. The numbers clearly show that the concept of crop insurance has not taken off in Meghalaya. On the contrary, it is on the decline and this is a worrying trend as climate studies warn that extreme climatic events are only going to increase in the years to come.
One of the reasons for poor participation in crop insurance is that the farmers are fearsome of the organised financial system. They are scared of banks and in this case the insurance company listed by Government of Meghalaya to execute the scheme. Just the thought of these institutions and how they operate in terms of collateral/security can be overwhelming for the farmers. This is the thought-barrier that has to be broken for any increased participation in crop insurance. In a recent discussion held at Asian Confluence, Shillong with Self Help Groups (SHGs), a group coordinator narrated how group members were afraid of the term ‘bank loan’. As a result she had to change the nomenclature to ‘ka jingshim/jingai kylliang kaba janai’ (a systematic way of borrowing and repayment) so as to make any headway with the members. Now, crop insurance involves the payment of premium. This thought of paying money for some calamity that may or may not happen can be difficult to process when they are mostly living in poverty and engaged in subsistence farming only. Efforts are needed to educate that premium payments are not an expenditure, but rather an investment which would secure their livelihoods in case of unforeseen events.
In recent conversations with farmers of East Khasi Hills it was found that the majority do not have any awareness about crop insurance. They have not the faintest idea as to what it is and how it benefits in case of calamities. Some farmers were aware of it and this was due to the initiatives taken by the village headman through the Block offices. But again, they were just aware but had no knowledge about the process involved in participation in crop insurance schemes. For many farmers, even writing an application in plain paper was problematic. One farmer pointed towards the cyclonic rain of November 17, 2023 and how it has damaged most of his crops. He laments that this would drastically reduce his seasonal income and thereby adversely impact upon the health and education of his children. Apart from farming the farmers do not see any other alternative modes of employment. A grandmother aged 66 narrates on how she still has to toil every day in the field while also suffering from health problems and that when extreme weather events happen her family is sucked into even deeper levels of poverty. This is the status of farming and crop insurance. It can be said that these stories from the farm resonate with many farmers of Meghalaya.
While looking at solutions to creating awareness, the starting point would be to capture the attention and imagination of the farmers. Unless this happens no headway will be made. Farmers should be able to realize the value of crop insurance and what it can do for them. For this to materialise, massive awareness drives at the localised/unit levels are required. These may be conducted at village/cluster levels. They may be conducted in the late evening hours or night when the farmers are back from the field and more relaxed. What is needed is a sort of a surgical strike on crop insurance – specific, targeted and to the point. Further, skits and short plays on crop insurance can be conducted on market days at different locations. ‘Ka sngi iew’ (market day) is a day when farmers converge at one place for trading of their produce. There can be no better place to create awareness on crop insurance and other agriculture-related matters. In addition, songs and documentaries on crop insurance can be developed in local dialects to really gain traction with the targeted farmers. Even bio-pics of success stories can be screened in the evening/night.
In the end, the current status of farmers and crop insurance in Meghalaya is a matter of grave concern when 67% of the population depends on agriculture for livelihoods. It is time to reverse the trend! (The writer teaches at NEHU. Email – [email protected])