Last week, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman emphatically called for a real-time assessment of yields of essential crops, particularly pulses and oilseeds which India often needs to import. She rightly observed that such data is essential for timely, calibrated and appropriate decisions on imports, so that farmers are not hit by a sudden influx of imports coinciding with their crop harvest. Her call, in fact, coincides with recent efforts in this direction.

Last month, the Centre launched a digital crop survey in 12 States on a pilot basis. But this survey is focused on measuring acreage more than yield; as the Finance Minister said, even as acreage estimates are in place, yield and therefore output projections are not. However, the lack of accurate projections on output impacts not just import decisions and farmgate prices, but also insurance premiums and payouts. In fact, the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana apparatus has taken the lead in estimating crop yields through its initiative named ‘Yes Tech’. With ICAR and ISRO as partners, it has conducted two years of pilot studies to arrive at estimation models. According to PMFBY officials, tech-based yield estimations will cover all insurance clusters in the next three or four years, with the ambition to hit 30 per cent this fiscal.

It is curious that the digital crop survey has been announced as a parallel initiative under the Ministry of Agriculture. It appears that the plan is to expand the PMFBY model to estimate output, overall. In any event, crop acreage and yield surveys should be ideally conducted in a more coordinated manner. At present, there are multiple agencies at work under the Ministry — the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, which estimates yields after receiving inputs from the States; the Mahalonobis National Forecast Centre, tasked with satellite-based forecasting with ISRO and ICAR; and the Commissioner of Agriculture who guides the Ministry in technical matters. Their working could be brought under a single umbrella. If the application of remote sensing technologies has seen limited progress over a decade, it is perhaps due to lack of coordination. The States need to be roped into tech capacity building. Karnataka has taken some steps in digitising farm information systems. Meanwhile, crop cutting experiments can become more efficient and reliable with the application of ML tools, as government studies have suggested. That the evolving technologies and processes should be disseminated as a ‘digital public good’ seems to have been taken into consideration.

However, crop output estimation is only one leg in the effort to manage supply-demand-import dynamics. It is important to have some grasp of demand levels as well, which are largely unknown at present in the absence of recent consumer expenditure surveys. Finally, instead of imposing arbitrary stocking limits from time to time, market intervention by agencies such as NAFED should be made more effective.