India must focus on rainfed farming

There was a time when it was said that the Indian budget was a gamble on the monsoons. That is not the case any more, with industrial production soaring and agriculture on the margins. But what is clear is that without addressing the problems of the majority of farmers in unirrigated land, we are not going to achieve food security. As the monsoon starts teasing, Down To Earth brings you what the forthcoming months have in store

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

India must focus on rainfed farming

  There was a time when it was said that the Indian budget was a gamble on the monsoons. That is not the case any more, with industrial production soaring and agriculture on the margins. But what is clear is that without addressing the problems of the majority of farmers in unirrigated land, we are not going to achieve food security. As the monsoon starts teasing, Down To Earth brings you what the forthcoming months have in store
Inside the story

Down to Earth FOR A RAINY DAY
It is time to revisit rainfed farming to feed hungry millions in India

Down to Earth POLICY DRIFT
Green Revolution strategies do not apply to rainfed

Down to Earth DO OR DIE
Rainfed areas are a survival issue now
Down to Earth
  Down to Earth

For a rainy day

The onset of the monsoon is the crucial determinant for majority of farmers in rainfed areas of the country. With no access to irrigation or state support they have developed complex yet fascinating mechanisms that sustain agriculturewhether it is a birds nesting habit or the clouds. There is, however, a constant in their lives. That of uncertainty.

Story of a cow and a crow
Hajia Gomnaji, a 50-year-old Bhil resident of Devki village in Rajasthan's Dungarpur district, is optimistic about monsoons this year. The prologue to the agriculture season is long, a very long foreplay of hope and optimism. But Hajia's hopes have been high since Diwali last year. That was nine months ago. It is one day after Diwali when Bhils celebrate gai-gouriwhere a number of brightly painted cows are made to run towards temple gates from a common point. There is a method in this madness.The colour of the first cow that crosses the temple gate represents people's fortunes the following year. It is believed that if it is a white cow then the monsoons next year would be good, if a brown cow wins it represents average rainfall and a black cow symbolises drought. And in Hajia's village, a white cow beat the others in the race.

Fast forward to January 2007. The positive message needs to be cross-checked. On the Hindu new year in mid-January, villagers catch a robin, feed the bird with milk, grain and ghee before releasing it. The first tree the bird perches on signifies what the year ahead would be like. If it sits on a green tree, it signifies good monsoon and a dry tree means cloudless sky. "This year the bird sat on a young tree signifying good rains and crops," says Hajia. "The rains have always been important, what has changed over time is the dependence on them," Kalu Bhil asserts. After the district's forest cover thinned, more and more people depend on agriculture now for survival than before, though with enormous constraints. With 86 per cent of its agriculture rainfed and 60 per cent of the population dependent on agriculture, monsoons script people's lives. So hopes -- the most precious tool for farmers in Indias rainfed areas -- float whenever there is a sign of a good monsoon.

Down to EarthHowever, the constant of uncertainty comes into play again. Strongly. What if they are proved wrong? The uneasiness in the villagers' eyes is stark. "What you see around you is what there is to our lives," says Sampa, a 40-year-old resident of Gowadi village in the Saagwada block of the district. Pointing to the barren fields full of stones, she adds "We end up migrating to Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Some men even go to Kuwait for manual labour."

Alternatives have ceased to exist. "Earlier, farmers had alternatives if rains failed. These included innovative ways of cropping, changing the crop sown to varieties that needed only a few showers to mature, like millet. But currently, due to years of stress migration, people are losing the will and the knowledge to invest in rainfed agriculture," asserts Shailendra Tiwari, head of natural resource development at Seva Mandir, an ngo based in Udaipur. "The public distribution system (pds) distributes coarse corn and red wheat to villagers, so where can we go looking for better quality foodgrain? If the government procures only corn and wheat and even though our lands do not support wheat we have no option but to grow corn. Whatever little rice that people grow never reaches the market," says Gumla Bhurji of Saagwada. This has given rise to monocropping, which in turn has enhanced the chances of crop failure in the face of scanty rainfall. This has laid a debt trap.More than 50 per cent of farmers in major rainfed agricultural states like Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra are indebted, according to the Yth round of survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation.

Cold comfort
The situation isnt much different down south. Laxamama Reni and her husband Anjeria Kumar from Nyalkal village of Medak district, Andhra Pradesh, are expectantly waiting for the monsoons to cultivate their 2 acres (0.8 ha) of rainfed land. In anticipation of the monsoons, they have finished tilling in March. Early tilling increases water retention capacity of the soil. Stakes are high for farmers like Laxamama as 70 per cent of Medak's agriculture is rainfed and rainfall has been drastically below average in two of the past five years.

Both Laxamama and Anjeria are worried about a decline in yield and income. "While the cost of inputs such as labour, fertiliser and seeds have increased drastically, the yield has been stagnant since the past five years," says Anjeria. With no irrigation facilities, the couple has been growing traditional and less water-intensive rainfed crops like sorghum, red gram and green gram. Agriculture gets them Rs 6,000 per month, subject to rains, of course. Their three children are not sure of even taking up agriculture for subsistence.

"The average groundwater table in the district has gone down from 25 meters during 1996-97 to about 100 meters during 2006-07. Farmers there are following monocrop method," says K Jagannadharao, project coordinator, Centre for Environmental Concerns, a Hyderabad-based ngo.

Eastern blues
In neighbouring Orissa, the poorest state of the country, with large agricultural areas being rainfed, the uncertainty strikes hard on farmer Ladukishor Mishra of Kudapada village in Baudh district. "Earlier, we had just the monsoon to worry about. Unfriendly government policies are an additional burden," he says. The village has long forgotten the rainfed crops and has had to switch to water-intensive crops like paddy and wheat because the market favours these.

Most farmers here do not have the capacity to suffer crop loss, and are hence cautious. "We start ploughing only after monsoon arrives," says Ladukishor. The often-reliable bio-indicators for a rainfed farmer stand redundant when there is a financial crunch. This year a crow nested in a leafy tree -- traditionally a good indicator of monsoons. But the residents are not excited. Every year, the village's priest addresses a gathering to talk about weather. Ladukishor dismisses the priest's visit as just another "ritual".

Fragile equation
For a rainfed farmer, preparing for agriculture is a fragile soil-water equation, where timeliness and precision decide on the returns. Even a week's delay in rains can spoil the harvest, for most of the rains is received within 100 hours, spread over five months. Thus, rainfed agriculture follows a complete cycle based on the moisture content of the soil.

As rainwater has to seep into soil through the surface, the land has to be kept open for receiving more and more moisture. It should also be free of weeds and levelled, wherever necessary, so that the maximum rainwater seeps into the soil. Therefore, land must be prepared before sowing to capitalise on the moisture available after the previous harvest and rain received during the off-season. Thus, tilling must begin in March. In April, the pre-monsoon rainfall is partly lost by bare soil evaporation and partly stored in the soil profile. In May, the soil has minimal moisture, enough to take some rainfed crops like bajra and mandia (a coarse millet). Crops are usually sown and grown during the next three months. The moisture levels in September and October make it unsuitable for any crop.This further deteriorates during November-January as the crops already planted consume water for maturing. In February, the soil-water storage is completely depleted and no crop growth is possible. Thus, for the rainfed areas the effective length of the growing season is five months. And these constraints make just one crop possible.

"Livelihoods in rainfed areas are complex and are marked by variability. Farmers mostly trade hunger as a coping mechanism," says Pradeep Bhargava of Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur.

Policy drift

Down to Earth Rainfed regions are those where crop production is exclusively dependent upon rainfall. In India they cover 177 districts and exist in all agro-climatic regions but are mostly concentrated in the arid and semi-arid areas (see map Fed by rain). Most of these districts are the country's poorest. It accounts for 68 per cent of the total net sown area in the country, according to the Union ministry of agriculture. An assessment done by S M Jharwal, principal advisor to the Government of India, shows that of the net sown area of 141 million hectares (ha), 86 million ha is rainfed. Of the 190 million ha cropped area, the irrigation potential is 140 million ha. Already, the irrigation potential of about 103 million ha has been created but the actual gross irrigated area is only about 77 million ha.Based on these assessments, what emerges is, currently 113 million ha is rainfed and even if we create full irrigation potential of 140 million ha, about 85 million ha would remain rainfed. However, rainfed areas change depending on rainfall and water availability in reservoirs. During 1993-94 and 03-04, the rainfed area declined from 90.88 million ha to 85.78 million ha.

Ecologically, rainfed areas are the most fragile. One-third of the dryland areas are highly degraded, which cannot be put under cultivation. They receive rainfall of either less than 500 mm or more than 1,500 mm and suffer from serious water management problems either way. Around 40 per cent of the estimated 100 million ha of dryland areas have shallow depth and have been affected by massive soil erosion. The production potential of these areas is obviously quite limited. Rainfed areas also suffer from droughts once every three years. Western Rajasthan, eastern Rajasthan, Gujarat, western Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh are most vulnerable to droughts.

Sustains majority
Rainfed crops account for 48 per cent of the total area under food crops and 68 per cent under non-food crops. Nearly 50 per cent of the total rural workforce and 60 per cent of livestock are concentrated in the dry districts. Crop-wise analysis shows major coarse cereals are grown in rainfed areas92 per cent, 94 per cent and 80 per cent of the total area under jowar, bajra and maize is rainfed. Similarly, 86 per cent of the area under pulses is rainfed. Eighty-three per cent of groundnut and per cent of soybean and 73 per cent of cotton is grown under rainfed conditions. However, these rainfed areas' productivity and production is much below the country's average.

A redeeming feature of the rainfed areas is that there is a wide variation in crop yields within a region. For example, the average yield of sorghum varied from 370 kg/ha in farmers' fields to 1,460 kg/ha in demonstration fields and 1060 kg/ha with assured input supply. There is still considerable scope for increasing productivity in the fields. In wheat, the unutilised potential is only 6 per cent in Punjab, but it is per cent in Madhya Pradesh. In maize, the gap is only 7 per cent in Gujarat, but it is as high as 300 per cent in Assam. In rice, the potential yield increase is over 100 per cent in Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh.

80 per cent rainfed?
Going by the literal meaning (see box It's not irrigated agriculture), many more areas can be termed rainfed. Of the 54.56 million ha of net irrigated area, 69.7 per cent is dependent on tanks, wells, and traditional water bodies. Barring wells under command area, the rest along with other sources depend on rain. This means around 80 per cent of the areas are rainfed.Down to Earth India's irrigation strategy has mostly focused on surface water use even though groundwater use has increased drastically, particularly in rainfed areas. On surface irrigation, the expenditure during the 10th Five Year Plan was Rs 95,734.4 crore, compared to Rs 441.8 crore in the first plan. During the first four five-year plans, India created huge projects to harness surface water. Irrigation did pick up. There was, however, a massive gap in irrigation potential created and optimum utilisation of available land and water. During the 5th Five-Year Plan (1974-78), the Command Area Development Programme was established to bridge this gap. But immediately after this, for the 6th Five-Year Plan (1980-85), new projects were again opened up. At the end of the 7th Five Year Plan, there were 182 major and 312 medium projects requiring an estimated Rs 9,044 crore for completion. Since then, until the 9th Five-Year Plan, completion was the sole objective of the irrigation sector. For this, the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme was launched in 1996-97. All these created irrigation for 93.95 million ha by the end of the 9th plan.

Coming to the rainfed areas, take the example of the 99 drought-prone districts in 14 states. These districts have 42 per cent of the country's cultivable lands and the government has 148 major and 195 medium projects. Most of them have not been completed. So, the irrigated land in these districts are what they used to be in the 1960s. In the 11th Five-Year Plan, the government proposes to bring 16 million ha under irrigation potential with a target of bringing at least 64 million ha of new area under irrigation. Meanwhile, some 72,000 tanks and storages for rainwater have gone into disuse.

Future food security
According to the national agriculture policy, India must achieve a growth rate of 3-4 per cent per annum in the sector. According to the Union ministry of agricultures estimates, foodgrain production has been 209.2 million tonnes during 2006-07. For maintaining food security even at the current nutritional levels, about 100 million tonnes of foodgrain needs to be produced additionally by 2020. The total cropped area in India has remained static at around 140 million ha since 1970s. So these areas do not serve as a source of increased output. Thus, the increased yield must come from areas with the least irrigation potential. Even then, there is likely to be a shortfall of 38 million tonnes of foodgrain in 2020.

As opportunities for further agricultural growth in irrigated regions are exhausted, food security and productivity growth in the forthcoming years would increasingly depend on improved utilisation of natural, human, financial and material resources and productivity growth in the rainfed regions. This implies that the demand will have to be met from unirrigated dryland areas. Rainfed areas thus have to contribute around 7 per cent of future foodgrain production. According to research done by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development on the rice economy of India in 2005, the rainfed areas, particularly of eastern India, are going to be crucial for ensuring rice production that contributes 60 per cent of foodgrain production in the country. "It is the rainfed parts of Indian agriculture that have been the weakest, they are also the ones that contain the greatest unutilised potential for growth, and need to be developed if food security demands of the year 2020 are to be have a realistic chance of being met," says S Parthasarathy, who headed the technical committee on watershed programmes in India.

Redundant Green Revolution
The biggest problem of the rainfed areas is a historic policy mistake adapting Green Revolution principle for rainfed areas. It focused on the intensive area approach comprising the already endowed areas.Down to Earth An anomaly at present is that large areas of land and large number of people in the country are outside this framework. "It is no wonder that these people also constitute the poverty geography of the country," says Planning Commission member B N Yugandhar.

Though the rainfed areas contribute significantly to Indian agriculture, the difference between rainfed and irrigated areas outputs is remarkable (see map Fed by rain). On May 29, 2007, during the National Development Council meeting to finalise the 11th Five-Year Plan, prime minister Manmohan Singh stated this difference as a reason for worry as well as the target for the next Green Revolution he has been championing. "There is a technology fatigue in Indian agriculture," he said, pointing at the Green Revolution method of increasing productivity. "India's net sown area under crops has fallen drastically for the first time. The area under canal irrigation has fallen again for the first time in history. This is overall bad news for agriculture but much worse for the rainfed farmers," says former planning minister Y K Alagh.

Agriculture scientists acknowledge that the Green Revolution technology was responsible for creating negative trends in rainfed agriculture. Also, hybrid seeds, chemicals and mechanical inputs have had devastating impact on rainfed farmers, says P V Satheesh of Deccan Development Society, a Medak-based ngo. A good portion of the available resources are diverted towards input subsidies on fertilisers, irrigation water, power, credit and the like, which have reduced the cost of production of farmers with irrigation facilities but failed to cover farmers who grow crops under rainfed conditions.

Change in cropping pattern
There has been an enormous shift in crops and cropping patterns in rainfed areas. Commercial crops like sunflower, soybean, and groundnuts have replaced the staple coarse cereals. Cotton is also replacing sorghum. Mixed cropping, which was universally practised in rainfed areas, is now limited to hot arid and humid regions, besides the tribal regions. With the popularisation of bore wells in the rainfed areas, rice and horticultural crops like fruits and vegetable have come up. Thus, in rainfed areas, ecological access to food has become acute. In fact, in the process the marketability of coarse cereals has become a problem. Even though the minimum support price (msp) exists for these crops, there is no attempt to procure them in many areas. "msp is hardly implemented in states. For coarse cereals it almost does'nt exist. This makes the market, and incentive for rainfed crops unsuitable," says Ramesh Chand of the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (see box MSP not helping rainfed areas).

The working group on rainfed areas for the planning of the 11th Five-Year Plan says production of coarse grains did not show any significant trend during 1980-2003 in the country. The moderate growth in productivity levels couldnt compensate for production losses due to shrinking area. In case of millets, the productivity enhancement for rainfed areas was 0.29 per cent, whereas the area in rainfed region reduced by 2.17 per cent resulting in overall decline in production from rainfed regions by about 2 per cent. In use of oilseeds, though there is a decline (0.56 per cent) in production at national level, productivity enhancement (0.75 per cent) and increase in oilseed area (3.10 per cent) under rainfed conditions resulted in increase in production (3.87 per cent) from rainfed areas. A comparison of the production growth rates for 1980-90 and 1990-2003 indicate lower growth rates during 1990-2003 in case of coarse grains (1.91 per cent and 1.47 per cent) and millets (3.31 per cent and 0.29 per cent) and marginally higher growth rates for pulses (0.32 per cent and 0.39 per cent) and oil seeds (0.70 per cent and 0.75 per cent).

With traditional rice system being phased out of the landscape and replaced with hybrid variety, the rainfed areas are now registering very low productivity. About 36 per cent of the districts covering 44 per cent of total rice area in the country achieved productivity levels of more than 2 tonnes per ha. These districts contributed the lions share of 63 per cent of production. On the contrary, the remaining 64 districts covering 57 per cent of total rice area seems to have contended with low productivity at less than 1 tonne/ha. Most of these districts are rainfed. Rice contributes close to 60 per cent of an average persons calorie intake. This means in rainfed areas the low productivity and production also affect the overall health.

Do or die

Down to EarthRainfed areas will have to be the focus for India's future agricultural revival. But as the past shows we need a different paradigm of development. "Rainfed areas require approaches to agricultural development that differ from the Green Revolution strategy," says Katar Singh, chairman of the Anand-based India Natural Resources Economics and Management Foundation.

"There is a need to change the mindset of the Green Revolution era, which did not look at regional variations. Even Kerala now suffers from drought," says J S Samra, head of the newly-established National Rainfed Area Authority.

There is considerable potential to enhance productivity of rainfed areas. "Most of the areas will be able to take up a second crop," says Samra. Realising this potential essentially hinges on our ability to reverse the process of degradation, he says. Secondly, crops must be suitable for local agro-climatic zones. Thirdly, market access to rainfed crops.The first and foremost shift should be from 'input-centricity' in agriculture policy to 'needs/requirements'-centricity. "By and large the prescription is the same as the good old Green Revolution. Hybrid seeds, chemicals and mechanical inputs, monocrops. They lead to externalisation of inputs and can be devastating for the rainfed farmers," says Satheesh.

Livestock is an essential component of dryland ecosystems. Farmers get their livelihood during drought mainly through livestock. Livestock, especially bullocks and buffaloes, provide much needed farmyard manure for maintaining soil fertility apart from being useful for other agricultural operations. The whole livestock support systems are 'milk-centric'. "There are practically no support systems available for livestock rearing for most of the farmers of dryland regions. It is time we think beyond milk," says B Venkateswarlu of Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture. Others talk about livelihood opportunities.

It is quite clear that the Green Revolution did not cure. The ills remain in much worse a form. A new prescription is a desperate requirement of today -- it's either now or never.

Anchored by Richard Mahapatra; reported by Neha Sakhuja, Sandip Das and Supriya Singh.

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