Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram on Thursday criticised the Narendra Modi government’s move to make crop insurance voluntary, labelling it a “retrograde step” and an example of the Centre’s anti-farmer position.

The Union Cabinet on Wednesday decided to revamp the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, and the Restructured Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme, The Hindu reported, to “address the existing challenges in implementation of crop insurance schemes”. The government reduced its share of the premium subsidy from 50% to 25% in irrigated areas and 30% in unirrigated areas from the 2020 kharif season. When the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana was launched in 2016, it was mandatory for all farmers with crop loans to enrol for insurance cover under the scheme.

“What is required is to bring more cropped area under crop insurance,” Chidambaram tweeted. “The new decisions will reduce the coverage putting millions of farmers at risk. Another example of the BJP government’s shortsightedness and misplaced priorities.”

At present, coverage under the scheme is 30% of cropped area. After announcing the Cabinet decision, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar had said 58% of the farmers enrolled in the two schemes were loanees, and would no longer need to compulsorily take insurance cover. “The numbers [of enrolled farmers] may go down in the first year, but it will pick up again after that,” Tomar added. He said the Centre would launch an awareness campaign to encourage farmers to voluntarily sign up for the insurance schemes.

The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana has been criticised by farmers groups and the Opposition for allowing private insurance companies earn profits. Major insurers such as ICICI Lombard and Tata AIG opted out of the scheme in 2019-’20, reportedly because of losses as a result of high claims ratios. Several States, including Punjab and West Bengal, have refused to participate in the scheme.