India ranks in the top 20 in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Our average surface temperature, over the past four decades, has risen by 0.3° Celsius, accompanied by a rising incidence of floods, droughts and cyclones. With the majority of all landholdings measuring less than a hectare, farmers face a steep decline in household income.
How India’s agricultural policy has made us structurally vulnerable to climate change
Bundelkhand is where India’s marginal farming dream died. Known for the dacoits of Chambal and the Rani of Jhansi, the arid region, occupying districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, has experienced drastic variation in climate in recent times. It faced a drought from 2003 to 2010, then floods in 2011, delayed monsoons in 2012 and 2013, and drought again since 2014. Farmers tried everything to adapt — growing a mix of dry crops during the kharif season, while interspersing the winter rabi wheat with cash crops like chickpea and mustard. They invested heavily in borewells, tractors, threshers and seeds and fertilizers through formal and informal credit.
The past two winters, with hailstorms and unseasonal rain, destroyed crops (chickpea yields were mostly wiped out, the arhar crop failed completely), leading to farmer suicides (3,500 since 2003) and mass migration. Mitigation has been lacking; contractors not farmers benefit, and instead of providing crop insurance, warehouses are built. Bereaved families, hoping for compensation from the Uttar Pradesh government (Rs.7 lakh on death), were instead offered wheat bundles.
India, a climate change hotspot
India is uniquely vulnerable to rising temperatures — it ranks in the top 20 in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Our average surface temperature, over the past four decades, has risen by 0.3° Celsius, accompanied by a rising incidence of floods, droughts and cyclones. With the majority of all landholdings in India measuring less than a hectare, marginal farmers face a steep decline in household income and a concomitant rise in household poverty through exacerbated droughts. Climate change would impact soil health, with increasing surface temperatures leading to higher CO emissions and reducing natural nitrogen availability. Mitigating this by increasing chemical fertilizer usage could impact long-term soil fertility, leaving the soil open to greater erosion and desertification. Meanwhile, migration patterns, farmer suicides and stagnating rural incomes, along with increasingly ad hoc land acquisition in the name of public goods, have politicised the idea of climate mitigation. Marginal farmland will increasingly be useless for agriculture.
Our dependency on rain continues to amplify — rain-fed agriculture is practised in the majority of our total cropped area supporting a significant proportion of the national food basket (55 per cent of rice, 90 per cent of pulses, 91 per cent of all coarse grain). Our regional crop patterns assume a specific range of weather variability, failing to cope with the recent high periods of heavy rainfall with long dry intervals. In 2013, large crops of wheat, gram, lentils and mustard, weeks away from harvesting, were destroyed in untimely rains. India’s flood-affected area has doubled since Independence, despite generous state spending on flood protection schemes.
Research has highlighted the deleterious impact of climate change on crop production. By 2100, the kharif season will face a varying temperature rise (0.7-3.3° Celsius) with rainfall significantly impacted. Limited temperature rises could lead to a 22 per cent decline in wheat yield in the rabi season, while rice yield could decline by 15 per cent. Other staple crops — sorghum, groundnut, chickpea — could see a sharp decline. Its impact is already prevalent: it is estimated that without rising temperatures and rain variability, India’s rice production over the past four decades could have been 8 per cent higher. India is home to the largest hungry population — falling agricultural yields will only make matters worse.
Some policy prescriptions
Our low agricultural productivity remains a key constraint. According to the Swaminathan Committee on Farmers (2006), for rice, we produce 2,929 kg per hectare, while China produces twice as much. For other staples, we remain woeful, producing 913 kg of groundnut per hectare, while Indonesia produces nearly half as much more. As suggested by the National Commission on Farmers, a rural spending plan, focussed on investments in agriculture infrastructure, particularly in irrigation, rainwater harvesting and a national network of soil-testing laboratories is needed. Simple water harvesting and conservation measures (micro-irrigation, watershed management and insurance coverage) can reduce the majority of the potential loss due to drought (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013). Drought strategies should be extended to the village level — for example, each village should have a village pond, created under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Indian agricultural policy has made us structurally vulnerable to climate change. As suggested often by the National Commission on Farmers, conservation farming and dryland agriculture should be promoted. Each village should be provided timely rainfall forecasts along with weather-based forewarnings regarding crop pests and epidemics in various seasons. Afforestation, in a biodiverse manner, should be encouraged to help modify regional climates and prevent soil erosion. Our agricultural research programmes need to be retooled towards dryland research — it has been argued that adoption of drought-tolerant breeds can help reduce production risks by nearly a third, while offering attractive returns to breeders. Changing planting dates could have a significant impact; research highlights that planting wheat earlier than usual can help reduce climate change-induced damage. Zero tillage and laser-based levelling can also help conserve water and land resources. Crop planning can be conducted as per the climatic zones of different regions, while utilising better genotypes for rain-fed conditions.
We should focus on expanding our formal credit system to reach all marginal farmers. Insurance coverage should be expanded to all crops while reducing the rate of interest to nominal levels, with government support and an expanded Rural Insurance Development Fund. A debt moratorium policy on drought-distressed hotspots and areas facing climate change calamities should be announced, waiving interest on loans till farming incomes are restored. The Centre and States should launch an integrated crop, livestock and family health insurance package while instituting an Agriculture Credit Risk Fund to provide relief in the aftermath of successive natural disasters.
Climate change will impact the entire food production chain, affecting our food security. Livestock production, often considered to be a substitute to farming for marginal farmers, would face reduced fodder supplies given a decline in crop area or production. With India’s population rising, demand for diversified crops will be hard to square with diminishing yields. Agricultural investments in food crops, along with systemic support for irrigation, infrastructure and rural institutions can help move India beyond climate change-induced food insecurity, strengthening our stressed food production systems. Through adaptation and mitigation measures, we can overcome this Hobbesian crisis.
Feroze Varun Gandhi is a Member of Parliament, representing the Sultanpur constituency for the BJP.