India’s food self-sufficiency is conditional to drought-hit districts

For over 40 years India’s net sown areas remain the same; drought-hit areas have to increase production to match food demand

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Wednesday 06 March 2019
Photo: Aparna Pallavi/CSE
Photo: Aparna Pallavi/CSE Photo: Aparna Pallavi/CSE

India’s drought-prone districts are usually painted in the darkest colours, always treated as the country’s nagging challenge. While the amount of drought relief spent on them is taken as a sign of failure and “wastage” of public fund, India now has reasons to seriously pursue development and to make them drought-proof. Ironically, the country’s food self-sufficiency has to be met through these areas.

This is why production in Green Revolution states like Punjab and Haryana has plateaued and the net sown area in India has stagnated for long. But there is an increase in demand for food due to both population rise as well as increase in consumption.

The only area where India can seek increase in food production is from the rain-fed areas, where food production is very low. But these areas mostly account for the country’s drought-prone districts.

The net cultivated areas in India leaped from 119 million hectares (ha) in 1950-51 to 140 million ha in 1970-71. But, over the last 40 years it has remained there — hovering around 140 to 142 million ha. On the other hand, since 1950, the country’s population has tripled.

India’s food self-sufficiency has primarily come from the increase in cropping intensity in areas like Punjab and Haryana. Drought-prone districts account for 42 per cent of the country’s cultivable land.

With 68 per cent of the country’s net sown areas dependent on rain, rain-fed agriculture plays a key role in the country’s economy. For maintaining food security, even at the current nutritional levels, an additional 100 million tonnes (MT) of food grains need to be produced by 2020.

Realistically, the total contribution of irrigated agriculture to food grain production from both area expansion and yield improvement will contribute a maximum of 64 MT by 2020. The remaining 36 MT will have to come from the rain-fed areas, to be specific from the drought-prone districts.

According to estimates, 40 per cent of the additional supply of food grain, required to meet the rise in demand, has to come from these districts. But, on an average, India’s rain-fed regions suffer from drought every three years.

Often the drought persists for three to six years and affects the availability of water for people, livestock, crop and fodder production. Drought directly and negatively impacts agricultural production. Severe droughts in rain-fed areas have reduced agricultural production by 20 to 40 per cent.

There is little wonder over why farmers in rain-fed areas are abandoning farming as a source of livelihood. States like Rajasthan — where most agricultural areas are rain-fed — have witnessed a dramatic shift from farm to non-farm employment.

Another challenge is the progress in irrigating rainfed areas. In the country as a whole, the net irrigated area (58.5 m ha) is only 41 per cent of the net sown area.

A 2006 study — by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and the Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Science, in association with research organisations in Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand — showed that drought is a key reason for the poor staying perennially below the poverty line.

In 2014, poverty line in rural India was defined as people earning Rs 34 per day. The inevitability of drought-prone areas affecting the country’s overall food self-sufficiency has been known for a while.

This was the reason why Green Revolution II was targeted towards rain-fed areas. But, with the country’s food demand-supply set to hit that tipping point, the persistent droughts and our consistent failure in evolving strategies to make them drought-proof will be the next big disaster in the agrarian sector. 

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