In the beginning of November, Dheerpal Yadav had finished the harvest of his paddy crop and was preparing to sell at the mandi in town. Thanks to timely monsoon rains this year, his 10 bighas of land in Sainjhani village in Uttar Pradesh’s Budaun district had yielded a bumper crop.
Then the rug was pulled from under his feet.
On the evening of November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation of large currency notes. Over the next few days, there was chaos in the mandis, where all transactions between farmers and traders take place in cash.
“If we took the old notes, they [traders] would give us Rs 1,200 for a quintal. If it is the new notes you want, then just Rs 1,000,” said Yadav, standing in his fields outside the village. “Why would I take the old ones? I took the new notes. I wasn’t getting any from the banks.” Sainjhani has one bank branch, which also services residents from six surrounding villages.
Dheerpal’s larger problem was the sowing season for wheat that loomed ahead. He needed Rs 5,000-6,000 to buy seeds, fertilisers and hire a tractor to plough his little plot. The money he had earned from selling paddy was running out after he paid for the expenses of his household of six and settled his debts. Dheerpal borrowed about Rs 3,000 from a moneylender – at 5% monthly interest – but it was not enough to hire labour. In December, by the time he planted his crop with the help of his old tai and tau (aunt and uncle), he had lost two weeks.
Across villages in Budaun and Bareilly – two districts in Western Uttar Pradesh that Scroll.in visited – farmers said only about 70% of sowing was complete. Not only was sowing delayed, many farmers had not been able to purchase new seeds and had fallen back on the grain they had saved for the household. Many chose to forgo the use of fertiliser.
But officials in the agricultural department denied demonetisation had dampened rabi sowing. “Sowing has been completed on 2.2 lakh hectares of the 2.57 lakh hectares target we had set. That is about 85%,” said Vinod Kumar, the district agricultural officer of Budaun. “The rest should be done by the end of December.”
The Union Ministry of Agriculture’s weekly crop statistics since November have consistently painted a similar picture of normalcy for the country: steadily rising estimates of the sown area of wheat, with the difference between this year’s acreage and the five-year average narrowing down to just one percentage point.
But the ministry’s releases contain a rider: these are “eye estimates”.
How reliable is the data, then?
‘Haven’t started survey, how can I give data?’
In Uttar Pradesh, which contributes a quarter of India’s wheat production, the largest share among all states, officials admitted that crop surveys begin only at the end of the sowing period in January. In the interim, the state agriculture department relies on “eye estimates” gathered through “general observation” by its field staff.
Dr Vinod Singh, a director at the state agricultural department, said it has at least three sources for the information. “Our krishi sahayaks on the ground in each block gather data,” he said.
Scroll spoke to one such sahayak or technical assistant in Budaun, Govind Sharma, based in Bisauli town. Sharma said that the technical assistant’s job is primarily agricultural extension work – informing farmers about new technology, fertiliser use and so on. Data gathering was limited to a few conversations with a few village pradhans once a month.
The other source pointed out by Dr Singh is the Mahalanobis National Crop Forecasting Centre in Delhi, established by the central government in 2012 to use satellite imagery to prepare crop forecasts and assess damage caused by droughts and other weather phenomena. “It’s a very accurate system and its findings are combined with data from the field staff,” he said.
But the most sophisticated satellite in space – which India does not possess – can at best generate images at a 0.41 metre resolution. This can help tell the difference between a car and a scooter. Standing on an empty plot, or even observing Dheerpal and his family scattering seeds in Sainjhani, it is difficult to tell which crop they were sowing.
The third source was the field staff of the revenue department. Since the department of agriculture has very few officers, it is the duty of the lekhpal, or the village-level accountant of the revenue department, to maintain a khasra (land use register) of the farmers. The khasras are updated after the sowing and harvest each season and a jinswar statement (sown area under various crops) sent to the higher officials at the tehsil level, then compiled for the district and finally the state. There are 33,000 lekhpals in Uttar Pradesh. Budaun and Bareilly each have about 100 lekhpals for over 2,000 villages.
“We get our data from their records, which describe the overall crop trend in each village,” said Yadav, the district agricultural officer, Bareilly.
But farmers said sightings of the lekhpal were very rare. “He sits in his office and makes up the numbers,” said Rishipal Singh, a 50-year-old resident of Sainjhani. Sunil Kumar, a farmer from Gangola village in Dataganj, another block of Budaun, said the same. “The lekhpals sometimes talk to the pradhan but how does the pradhan know what’s happening on everyone’s farm? Last year I finished sowing at the start of January. This year it will be delayed.” Kumar has finished sowing on an acre but still has three more to complete. In the second week of December, he spent six hours in line at the local bank and got only Rs 1,000 in the end.
The officials of the revenue department in both Budaun and Bareilly admitted their surveys for the rabi season only begin in the second week of January. “If I haven’t started my survey yet, how can I give you any data?” Suresh Pal Singh, a lekhpal in Budaun said in exasperation when pressed him for information. Then where did the department’s data come from? “It might be a modified version of the kharif estimates from September, or even last year’s rabi data,” he said.
Sown area vs yields
The advance estimates, cursory as they are, tell us even less about how sudden disruptions, economic or climatic, affect farmers and agricultural production.
The data for sowing does not change dramatically at the end of each season because farmers don’t have the luxury of leaving their fields fallow. But the crop yield is affected by the inputs they are able to purchase and use – something that government data does not capture.
Both farmers and input traders said yields this year would be low. “Business in this market is down by 40%,” said Sumit Kumar Saxena, who sells seeds and pesticides in Bareilly. “Many of us have two or more trucks full of products sitting in the godowns.”
“The farmers can’t choose to skip an entire crop. He will definitely sow but yields will reduce by at least 30%,” Saxena added.
In an uncharacteristic embrace of organic methods, the agriculture department responded saying yields would be better this way. “Scientific studies have shown that soil fertility improves if farmers don’t use chemicals for one or two crop cycles,” said Vinod Kumar, the Budaun agricultural officer.
Farmers like Rishipal Singh in Sainjhani also fault the technocrats in the administration for a lack of understanding of how the ability to take risks and withstand shocks varies between large and small farmers. Singh, who grows sugarcane on his land in the kharif season, said he didn’t have a contract with the local sugar mill, which would have ensured fair prices for his produce. “The private traders will give me Rs 250 per quintal if I take the old notes and only Rs 200 for the new ones.”
While Rishipal Singh delayed cutting the cane hoping for a better price, Sachpal Singh in the adjacent Qadar Chowk block appeared unaffected by the note ban. His family of four brothers has a contract with the sugar mill and receives payments in full directly into bank accounts. “We were able to sow [wheat] early,” said Sachpal. “There was some inconvenience but we made arrangements. The sowing has to be done on time.”
The family owns 100 bighas (nearly 20 acres) of land. According to the Budaun agricultural department, 90% of the district’s farmers own under 10 bighas.
‘At best, an informed guess’
Unmindful of such nuances, Radha Mohan Singh, the Union Minister of Agriculture, has cited the weekly rabi sowing data as a rejoinder to criticism of the government’s demonetisation decision. “This is going to directly benefit farmers and poor people,” he said.
But there are signs that the government itself does not trust the data. On December 8, the Central Board of Excise and Customs slashed the duty on wheat imports into the country from 10% to zero. Some commentators read the decision as an admission by the government that demonetisation might lead to a decrease in yields and overall production across the country. The reduction in import duties was seen as a preemptive move to avoid a further rise in wheat retail prices. Earlier this year, private traders claimed that the Ministry exaggerated last season’s wheat production by about 10 million tonnes, which the ministry has refuted.
Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, studies agricultural markets and issues of food security. The Food Ministry, which oversees grain imports, has had problems with agriculture ministry data for many years, he claimed.
The Food Ministry did not respond to Scroll’s request for a comment, but the millers, who lobbied for the reduction in import duty, agreed that this was the case. “By last May, wheat stocks with the mills had dried up and we told the food ministry that the numbers weren’t correct,” said Veena Sharma, secretary of the Roller Flour Millers Federation Of India. “They reduced the duty from 25% to 10% in September. But they realised that even this wouldn’t be enough.”
Said Himanshu: “At best, the data is an informed guess by the officials. The guess could very well be misinformed, too. At worst, they could be cooking up the data.”
All photos and video by Manas Roshan.