Climate change is wreaking havoc on Indian farming as traditional weather patterns become unpredictable. Can farmers adapt to the changing reality?
Climate change is a reality for India
India was ranked the 14th most vulnerable nation on this planet in 2017 when 2,726 people died because of extreme weather events, which highlighted the growing climate change-related casualties. In 2018, India recorded an economic loss of $37 billion due to extreme weather and became the fifth most vulnerable country out of the 181 countries studied. Despite the warnings, India got its first real taste of extreme weather due to climate change in 2019 when it faced a 74 percent increase in extreme rainfall, a whopping 113 percent rise in forest fires and seven cyclones.
A legacy of distress: the lot of an Indian farmer
The struggles of the Indian farmer are not entirely due to climate change as the sector has been distressed for several decades. The dismally high suicide rate in rural farming communities exceeds 250,000 farmers since 1980 and climate change has only made a grim situation worse.
The Indian agriculture sector is confronted with a host of challenges: overcrowding with 43 percent of the population directly associated with agriculture, irrational use of groundwater, unscientific crop choices, locust threat, and the poisoning of soil by chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Studies show that a 1 degree rise in global temperatures in unirrigated districts, can reduce a farmer’s income by 6.2 percent in kharif crops and 6 percent for rabi crops. Indian agriculture is dependent on monsoon cycles and an increase in average global temperatures can disrupt rainfall and weather patterns resulting in lower yields. Nearly 42 percent of Indian farmland in 2019 faced drought conditions due to climate variations.
The Indian state has been supporting the sector with input subsidies, tax exemptions, cheap power, loan-waivers and adjustments to the Minimum Support Prices(MSP) of produce during crisis. However, critics say that these funds could have been put to better use in reforming the systemic issues rather than as sops.
Analysing the correlation between farmer suicides and climate change
A study on farmers’ suicides in India by Tamma A. Carleton, has shown a strong correlation between suicides and climate change. She has surmised that an increase of 1 degree Celsius in areas where the average temperature is 20 degree Celsius, can result in a 3.5 percent rise in suicide rates. There is also a seasonal trend which impacts suicides. She concluded that during non-growing seasons, there was no increase or decrease in suicide rates corresponding to the rise in temperature. She also points out that in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, there are highly charged public debates about the agriculture sector. These states show the highest negative yield when temperatures rise, and incidentally, they also share a high farmer suicide rate.
Reversing the Trend for Future
India has begun its journey towards making farmers more climate-resistant. The government is incentivising farmers to follow an integrated crop-livestock-forestry system, which encourages farmers to optimally use their land and diversify their outputs. This improves the local microclimate, facilitates higher water retention, increases rainfall and also, improves the overall soil quality.
Farmers need to be ecologically sensitised while selecting their main crops and avoid varieties that are water and nutrient intensive. Technology can improve productivity by enabling advanced precision farming. This is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops. Precision farming is a decision support system for whole-farm management with the goal of optimising returns on inputs while preserving resources.
In 2016, the Union Cabinet approved a new crop insurance scheme called Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna. Although it was a necessary step, this policy fell short as it does not cover individual farmers since a community is still the basic unit for claiming insurance. The government must also work towards making the agri-insurance sector more competitive as any monopoly would lead to faulty implementation.
The Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) scheme is also being supported by the state. It is a traditional farming method rooted in chemical-free agriculture, which rehabilitates the soil from the abuse of chemicals. Although the jury is still out on its scientific validity, pilot tests show a significant impact in improving land health. If ZBNF morphs to become economically viable and efficient, then a wider global campaign could help improve conditions of farmers globally.
A combination of higher temperatures, lower rainfall, and longer dry spells, threaten farmer incomes with a decrease of nearly 18% by the end of the century. This spells a major disaster for food security and portends a potential large-scale migration from rural farming communities into overcrowded cities.
About half of India’s population is directly linked to the primary sector; relentless work needs to be done to educate farmers on the challenges ahead and prepare them for change. India has a world-class agricultural research infrastructure which must create climate-resilient varieties.
The farming sector has been plagued by short term political gimmicks rather than a long-term strategy. Current irrigation systems are archaic and must be revived against the backdrop of diminishing water tables and erratic monsoons. Bigger dams and expensive canals are not the answer. Subsidies and MSP should not encourage indiscriminate sowing of cash crops which destroy groundwater and exhaust the soil in the long term. A more rational approach to subsidies which reward climate-friendly farming is the need of the hour.