Lean, intense and troubled, pea-and-wheat farmer Ramlal is not supposed to be in crisis.
From satellites, from the ground—the estimation problem
Ramlal did not lose all his wheat. He estimated that 10% of the crop could be saved. A government estimate put that figure at 30%
It is hard to assess what the remnant might fetch. Ramlal said the harvested kernels were blackened and stunted, which means lower rates.
Like 80% of Indian farmers, Ramlal does not have crop insurance, an agricultural dysfunction that leaves governments liable—not by law but by political necessity. At least 600 million Indians still depend on farming, although the share of agriculture in India’s gross domestic farmers is declining.
Farmers are an electoral constituency that cannot be ignored and could, as this Livemint report warned, imperil the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised an increase in compensation and dispatched senior ministers to visit farms in 14 states. One of those, Nitin Gadkari, recently advised farmers against relying on “God or government”.
“You, yourselves, are the architect of your lives,” said Gadkari.
Currently, Ramlal’s only concern is how the government assesses his crop losses.
There are two ways of establishing such losses, said Sudhir Panwar, a member of UP’s Planning Commission:
—One, by satellites that pass over an area and use special sensors and cameras to determine damage in fields. Remote sensing , as the technique is called, is reasonably accurate but only offers a block- or taluk-level view.
—Two, a subjective assessment by the local Lekhpal, the local revenue officer. These assessments may be an easier method of reaching individual farmers, but they are greatly inaccurate.
UP and 13 other states hit by the recent crisis largely depend on the lekhpal.
“Obviously, this involves huge amounts of guesswork,” said Himanshu (he uses only one name), an agricultural economist from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Revenue officials are hardly equipped to assess the damage and there are very few of them to take care of large geographical areas.”
The result is “guesstimates”, said Himanshu. “That is why there are so many flip-flops (sic), as far as these estimates are concerned.”
In Delhi, on March 24, 2015, the agriculture ministry estimated that crops on 18 million hectares—about 30% of the rabi crop—were damaged. Two days later, this was reduced to nearly 11 million hectares.
Joo’s only solution is to work as a labourer, a situation that millions of farmers are forced into, something that he is preparing himself for.
As the livelihoods of more than half of all Indians living on farm incomes decline, government data show that about 9 million people quit cultivation between 2001 and 2011, and the number of agricultural labourers grew by 38 million.
“Mazdoori karke poora karenge, aur kya karen? (I will do manual labour and repay my debts, what else to do?),” said Joo. But such labour does not pay more than Rs 150 per day, and there aren’t that many opportunities in Lalitpur.
As for Ramlal, becoming a labourer is not something he would like to contemplate.
(Tripathi is Senior Reporter at Gaon Connection, a rural newspaper published in Hindi from Lucknow. Tewari is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)
This story was first published in IndiaSpend , a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit initiative.