India's Agrarian Distress: Our Failure to Combat Climate Change is Destroying India's Agricu
Despite advancements in science and technology and the boom in the service industry, agriculture still remains at the heart of the India’s polity and economy. At the time of Independence more than 80% of India’s population was employed in agriculture, generating about 50% to the national income. 70 years later, in 2018 it still has 49% of its population engaged in agriculture. What is more disconcerting is that this 49% only generates 16% of India’s National Income.
Poor agricultural performance routinely leads to inflation, farmer distress and social unrest. In a country with a myriad of social stratifications, which are particularly sharp in the countryside, poor farm income often has stifling consequences for upward mobility. For rural India, agriculture is not just an occupation, it is a way of life, with far reaching cultural significance. Given the social as well economic imprint this sector has on the overall prosperity of India, it is imperative to understand why agriculture is the least productive sector of India’s economy.
A host of factors such as scanty land holdings, degraded soil profiles, inadequate financial and credit institutions, poor connectivity channels, rudimentary market structures and ignorant policy measures affect the productivity of the agriculture sector. All these factors can be remedied to a certain extent, given concerted execution and political will to plough through vested interests. However, there is one factor which is completely uncontrollable and drastically impacts the agricultural produce- Climate. Despite the green revolution- a popular way of referring to the period of large scale introduction of HYV seeds and modern irrigation in the 1960s- Indian agriculture remains enslaved to the vagaries of nature. The acute dependence on a rainfall every year impedes productivity by decreasing the efficiency of sowing and post-harvest planning. The problem is worse in unirrigated areas where droughts have become a norm every summer.
Vidarbha is one such example. Elongated droughts and poor relief measures have trapped the farmers in this impoverished district- located 400 miles off Mumbai- in a vicious circle of despair and penury. The general trend of climate in Vidarbha looks grim. The 2017-18 winter could go down among driest seasons ever. Last year, India recorded just around 2.2 mm rain and the northwest 3.1 mm.
Cumulatively, that is a deficiency of 84 per cent and 88 per cent, in the two regions. Central India was the worst affected with no rains and a deficit as high as 99 per cent this January. This season, the rains have remained restricted to upper latitudes, largely north of the western Himalayas. This has resulted in states like Punjab, Rajasthan and Delhi going almost dry throughout January. The picture painted by the current weather scenario raises serious questions about the impending gloom. Persistence of such trends makes us ponder about the survival of the agricultural sector in India, once one of the world’s most fertile countries.
“As per the Survey, a broad pattern of rising temperatures has been witnessed post 1970’s, with a rise of about 0.45 degrees and 0.63 degrees in the Kharif and Rabi seasons, respectively.”
The Economic Survey 2017-18 provides some startling findings about the impact of climate on agriculture with a special emphasis on irrigated and unirrigated areas. As per the Survey, a broad pattern of rising temperatures has been witnessed post 1970’s, with a rise of about 0.45 degrees and 0.63 degrees in the Kharif and Rabi seasons, respectively. Between the 1970’s and the last decade, Kharif rainfall has declined on average by 26 millimetres and Rabi rainfall by 33 millimetres. Annual average rainfall for this period has on average declined by about 86 millimetres coupled with a stark rise in the number of days with extremely high temperatures, and a corresponding decline in the number of days with low temperatures. Temperature increases have been particularly severe in the North-East, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
This data suggests that the impact of temperature and rainfall is highly non-linear and felt almost only when temperature increases and rainfall shortfalls are extreme. Also extreme shocks have highly divergent effects between unirrigated and irrigated areas (and consequently between crops that are dependent on rainfall), almost twice as high in the former compared with the latter. Translating these figures in terms of farm incomes, the survey suggests when temperatures are 1 degree Celsius higher, farmer incomes would fall by 6.2 percent during the Kharif season and 6 percent during Rabi in unirrigated districts. Similarly, in a year when rainfall levels were 100 millimetres less than average, farmer incomes would fall by 15 percent during Kharif and by 7 percent during the Rabi season. Given India’s recent climate trends, and assuming no policy responses, farm income losses shall be of 15 percent to 18 percent on an average, rising to 20 percent-25 percent for unirrigated areas. Thus there are three main channels through which climate change would impact farm incomes – an increase in average temperatures, a decline in average rainfall and an increase in the number of dry-days.
"The shift should be from dealing with a decline in production due to low precipitation to preventing a decline irrespective of the weather condition i.e. from ex-post damage control to ex-ante prevention mechanism to deal with any adversity. "
A series of actions, both short-term and long-term are needed to tackle the problem at hand and revive India’s agriculture sector. First and foremost, a substantial change in approach of all policy mechanisms is required. The shift should be from dealing with a decline in production due to low precipitation to preventing a decline irrespective of the weather condition i.e. from ex-post damage control to ex-ante prevention mechanism to deal with any adversity. Amongst the short run measures, building an irrigation network is a must as climate change affects the unirrigated areas with greater intensity. Providing adequate water supply is in itself a challenge due to the falling underground water tables. Thus, more innovative ways such as of drip irrigation, sprinklers, and water management are required. Climate change will increase farmer’s uncertainty, necessitating effective insurance. Building on the current crop insurance program (Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana), weather-based models and technology (drones, for example) need to be used to determine losses and compensate the farmers. Among the long term measures, a sensitivity towards climate change amongst the citizens needs to be initiated. Citizens need to be made cautious about the amount of carbon footprints they produce through their activities in a day and its deleterious impact on the environment and their own health. Moreover, since controlling the systematic changes in climate is beyond the government, it should, at the minimum, try to maintain the agricultural produce at the same level through substantive investment in agricultural research and technologies that could protect the crops against the vagaries of nature.
It’s high time that India focuses its attention on mitigating Climate Change before it pulverizes the very backbone of its economy. The simple fact that its economy is agrarian in nature makes India extremely vulnerable to any change in climate as it not only adversely effects half of the population employed in the activity, but also the other half which indirectly faces the brunt of it through shortage of produce and subsequent hike in prices. A country so dependent on its natural resources should be the first in prioritizing and forming a nationwide framework for global warming and climate change, but as it stands, it is are nowhere close to achieving any such objective. The unhealthy ‘obsession’ with Chinese style growth through industrialization has not just been futile, but has also led to complete negligence of the environment. In order to ensure a well-sustained and productive agriculture sector for the future generations, a concerted effort needs to be put into a model of growth which would entail environment and climate change as the prime focus. A paradigm shift from loan waivers and subsidies to crop insurance and agricultural research and development is the need of the hour if India wants to avoid a permanent loss of its natural agrarian resources.
About the Author
Tanya Madan is currently pursuing her Bachelors in Economics from Hans Raj College, Delhi University and has also served as the President of the Economics Society at the College. Apart from being deeply passionate about the subject, she has also been a debater and a travel enthusiast.