Bengaluru: Depending on weekly reports from field staff to assess crop damage instead of conducting a scientific survey could underestimate the impact of drought in Karnataka and lead to relief falling short of requirements, a government official said.

The state parched by the worst drought in nearly four decades chose to assess the damage to the winter harvest, based solely on weekly reports from district-level agricultural officers.

“Usually, they will give us a direction to go for a joint survey on January first week itself," said the joint director of agriculture in one of the worst drought-affected districts in North Karnataka, requesting not to be named.

A joint survey is the official term for scientific crop assessment carried out by the agricultural department along with other departments and experts.

This means the actual crop loss could be worse than the 70% damage in sown area reported so far. Karnataka is the first Indian state to record rabi crop damage, Mint reported on Wednesday.

According to the official quoted above, weekly reports sent by field officers like him are based on “visual data" gathered from the fields.

“The best way to arrive at the actual figure on how much is the total crop loss and what is the input subsidy needed was to do a joint survey," he said.

On Wednesday, Mint reported that for rabi crop damage worth 7,209 crore, the state has sought central aid of 1,417 crore. But according to the joint director, a joint survey could have shown that the actual damage—at least in his district—was more severe.

The damage to Karnataka’s rabi crop has raised fears of another crop failure in other states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. As data from the Union farm ministry shows, winter planting has already been cut by 3 million hectares in the country.

A failed rabi crop will mean the fourth consecutive crop failure for Indian farmers, coming on the back of two failed kharif crops (in 2014 and 2015), interspersed with a spate of unseasonal rains that damaged last year’s winter harvest in 15 states.

Manjunatha Prasad, principal secretary, agriculture, said several difficulties prevented a joint survey. The department is short-staffed and its officials are busy distributing last year’s input subsidy, he said.

The input subsidy he is talking about is the 1,540 crore approved by the Union home ministry in November for Karnataka after the state declared damage of 14,471 crore in over 3.2 million hectares of crop area due to drought in August.

Prasad also said panchayat elections scheduled for later this month was another reason why the department did not go for a full-scale survey.

Across states, agricultural departments are short-staffed, said Himanshu, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and a Mint columnist. “I don’t think the story will be much different in other states," he said.

“Who’s bothered about real crop assessment," scoffed Ashok Gulati, agriculture chair professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Delhi. “Technology is available (for crop assessment). But human resources won’t allow transparency to come in because it will take away their discretionary power," he said.

Karnataka’s agriculture minister Krishna Byre Gowda suggested that the state government was trying all possible ways to support farmers, despite the shortcomings. “ 800 crore out of 1540 crore were dispersed until last week. You think that was easy?" he asked.

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