Smart farming in a warm world -Feroze Varun Gandhi
Investment and policy reform are needed on priority to help farmers cope with climate change
Over the last decade, many of Bundelkhand’s villages have faced significant depopulation. Famous of late for farmer protests, the region, which occupies parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, has been adversely impacted by climate change. It was once blessed with over 800-900 mm rainfall annually, but over the last seven years, it has seen this halved, with rainy days reported to be down to just 24 on average in the monsoon period. With rains patchy, crop failures become common. There is hardly any greenery in many villages, making it difficult for farmers to even maintain cattle. Adaptation is hard, with farmers varying and mixing crops across seasons, along with heavy investments in borewells, tractors and threshers. While the national media may wonder about hailstones in Noida, such weather has been destroying crop in recent years, with the arhar crop failing completely in 2015. Farmers are increasingly abandoning their lands and heading to nearby towns to find work as labourers.
India is fortunate to have the monsoon, but it is also uniquely vulnerable to rising temperatures, with the country ranked 14th on the Global Climate Risk Index 2019. The country has over 120 million hectares suffering from some form of degradation. This has consequences, especially for marginal farmers. According to one estimate, they may face a 24-58% decline in household income and 12-33% rise in household poverty through exacerbated droughts. With rain-fed agriculture practised in over 67% of our total crop area, weather variability can lead to heavy costs, especially for coarse grains (which are mostly grown in rain-fed areas). A predicted 70% decline in summer rains by 2050 would devastate Indian agriculture. Within 80 years, our kharif season could face a significant rise in average temperatures (0.7-3.3°C) with rainfall concomitantly impacted, and potentially leading to a 22% decline in wheat yield in the rabi season, while rice yield could decline by 15%.
There are simple solutions to mitigate this. Promotion of conservation farming and dryland agriculture, with each village provided with timely rainfall forecasts, along with weather-based forewarnings regarding crop pests and epidemics in various seasons, is necessary. Our agricultural research programmes need to refocus on dryland research, with adoption of drought-tolerant breeds that could reduce production risks by up to 50%. A mandate to change planting dates, particularly for wheat, should be considered, which could reduce climate change induced damage by 60-75%, by one estimate. There needs to be an increase in insurance coverage and supply of credit. Insurance coverage should be expanded to cover all crops, while interest rates need to be subsidised, through government support and an expanded Rural Insurance Development Fund. The recently announced basic income policy by the government is a welcome step as well.
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