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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Bid to manipulate weather data: Maharashtra govt suspects ploy for higher insurance claims

WBCIS provides coverage to horticulture crops and farmers in Maharashtra have enthusiastically enrolled for the scheme.

Written by Parthasarathi Biswas | Pune | Updated: September 13, 2020 11:29:08 am
Pune agriculture dept, Pune crops, Pune weather dept data, pune weather data scam, pune weather data manipulation, pune city newsOnce enrolled in the scheme, farmers can apply for compensation if an 'extreme weather event' destroys their crops. (File)

In an unusual move, the state Agriculture department has filed an FIR against unknown miscreants for tampering with the readings of an automatic weather station (AWS) in Ahmednagar district. Officials of the department suspect that the tampering was done to bolster bogus claims made under the state government’s Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme (WBCIS).

WBCIS provides coverage to horticulture crops and farmers in Maharashtra have enthusiastically enrolled for the scheme. Farmers insure crops such as pomegranate and banana to help them cushion against incidents of crop loss due to extreme climate events. Given the fact the premium paid by farmers is much lower than the compensation received in case of crop loss, most farmers make it a point to insure their crops right at the beginning of the season.

Once enrolled, farmers can apply for compensation if an ‘extreme weather event’ destroys their crops. Before the claims are settled, they are verified by the insurance companies, which also check the local weather data. The data is collected from 2,092 weather stations installed in every revenue circle of the state. Each revenue circle is responsible for collection of weather data for the five to 10 villages under it.

The data is, therefore, important to settle claims of crop loss due to extreme weather events like heavy rain, extreme cold or extreme rise in temperature. Data from the stations are captured every 10 minutes and shared with the central website of the Agriculture department.

That something was amiss this year was detected by meteorologists responsible for observing the data, who found anomalies in the data recorded from the Deodaithan revenue circle in Shrigonda taluka of Ahmednagar district. Between August 28 to September 2, the weather station reported medium to heavy rainfall but the accompanying readings of other parameters did not mention rain.

“For example, we know of a certain behaviour of all five readings in case an area receives rain, but the observed parameters did not match the same. This prompted us to raise the red flag… we thought the measuring instruments had malfunctioned,” said an official.

On August 28, the station recorded only 9 mm of rain, but the quantum of rain recorded by the data was much more. “Red flags were already raised over the anomaly in the readings from this circle, so a close watch was kept on the data generated from this station. On a certain day, the rainfall recorded was 59 mm in a span of just 10 minutes, which almost meant that the station had witnessed a cloud burst like situation,” said the officer.

The Agriculture department even sent engineers to the site to check whether the instruments were malfunctioning, but they were found to be in working condition.

A special team, comprising revenue and agriculture officers, was formed to look into the matter. Local villagers confirmed that there was light rainfall, but no heavy or very heavy rainfall in the area, on that day. “It was clear that someone had tried to manipulate the rainfall data by physically pouring water into the rain gauge. A complaint was filed with the local police station against unknown people for tampering with the measuring device,” said an officer of the Agriculture department.

This is not the first time that the state government has faced attempts to tamper weather station data. Last year, three FIRs were registered in Jalgaon district against unknown people who had tried to influence the temperature measurement in the AWS by placing ice on the measuring instruments.

“Again, the sharp deviation of other parameters had flagged the situation, following which FIRs were lodged,” said the official.

Department officials believe that the latest attempt to manipulate data may be to ensure that the criteria needed for payment of compensation are met in localised areas. But they also warned that in the long run, tampering with the data will compromise its accuracy and value, and this would be detrimental for the sector.

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