Farm distress resulting from back-to-back monsoon failures and falling price realisations in most crops has arguably posed the biggest challenge, economically and politically, for the BJP-led Centre. It has prompted initiatives that may not have received official priority in the normal course — which is always the case with agriculture. On Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the operational guidelines for a new crop insurance scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), at a farmers’ rally in Madhya Pradesh. He also announced the creation of a National Agriculture Market (NAM), a digital platform for farmers to sell their produce to buyers anywhere in India, from April 14. Whatever may be the political calculations behind their launch and timing, both are potentially game-changing.
Currently, insurance penetration extends to hardly a fifth of the country’s cropped area. This is only to be expected when policy claims cannot cover even half of the value of produce in the event of crop failure. The PMFBY not only keeps the premiums low at 1.5-2 per cent for seasonal and 5 per cent for annual horticultural crops, but also removes any artificial capping of the sums insured that result in low claims being paid to farmers. That makes it more attractive for farmers to take insurance protection. True, such low premiums and allowing farmers to claim the full value of a crop linked to its normal threshold yields and MSP could entail additional fiscal costs. But subsidy on crop insurance is any day preferable to that on electricity, water or fertiliser. The former encourages farmers to invest in productivity improvements and new technologies; the latter promotes inefficient resource use. Also, with more farmers joining in, the actuarial premiums would come down through increased spreading of risks, thereby helping to contain the government’s subsidy burden.
Equally welcome is the move to expand the farmer’s universe of buyers beyond traders/ commission agents licensed to operate in the designated mandis of his area. Giving farmers the choice to accept the bids of local traders or those of online buyers can lead to higher price realisations, just as a robust crop insurance system is the best way to deal with weather and disease risks that are intrinsic to agriculture. India’s farmers need more such long-term solutions, as opposed to populist loan waivers and distortionary subsidies.