Battling the Elements: How Can India’s Farmers Cope with Drought?

About three or four times a week, Yogesh Verma takes government officials and farmers from various parts of India on a tour of the olive plantation he manages. The visitors travel to the plantation near Jaipur in the desert state of Rajasthan to see the 100,000 trees covering 520 acres (210 hectares) of land using an advanced irrigation system. Imported from Israel, the system continuously monitors moisture levels of the soil and reduces the plantation’s water consumption by as much as 90%, says Verma.

His work is part of a pilot project set up two years ago, which was designed to improve agricultural sustainability in rain-deficient regions of the country. The promoter of the three-year project, Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Ltd., is a joint venture between the Israeli government, Rajasthan’s state government and Finolex, a Pune-based industrial group. According to Verma, the plantation’s aim is to grow a million trees and find global markets for its olive oil, with projected revenue in the pilot phase of about Rs. 9 crore (US$2 million).

Agriculture and water experts say grassroots initiatives such as the one in Rajasthan that combine public agencies and private organizations hold the key to survival for India’s 235 million farmers. As this year’s lack of rainfall during the kharif — the first of the country’s main annual sowing seasons — showed, many of these farmers teeter on the brink of losing their livelihoods due to severe droughts and the vagaries of climate change.

Experts, meanwhile, warn that the situation will get worse before it gets better if the country doesn’t improve how it mitigates and manages rainfall shortages. “Other [developing countries] have more rain, more money and fewer people,” says Robert Giegengack, a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania’s department of earth and environmental science. With India’s growing economy and the projected doubling of its population to two billion by the end of this century, “the pressures that are being brought to bear on resources [will] get worse. Every environmental problem must become worse by a factor of two. And those problems [are not being solved right now] on a schedule that will avoid that catastrophe.”

In many respects, India’s farmers are better equipped to handle droughts than previous generations. As in other parts of Asia, the technical innovation introduced during India’s so-called Green Revolution of the 1970s resulted in dramatic advances in not only agriculture, but also the general management of natural resources.

Yet despite advances, many farmers still don’t have access to irrigation and depend on current rainfall to see them through each sowing season. Even the irrigation systems that are available leave much to be desired, says a report published in August by the non-profit International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), titled “Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation.” According to the report, “The large-scale, centrally managed irrigation schemes of the past were not designed to be demand-driven or provide the reliable, flexible and equitable year-round water service that modern farming methods require.” This should be a call to arms for both government policy makers and private-sector innovators, the report concludes.

Narrow Escape

This year put India’s outdated water-management systems to the test. The country’s current rainfall deficiency is hovering around, if not slightly higher than, the level of the last four major droughts — in 1971, 1979, 1987 and 2002 — when average rainfall was 19% of normal levels, according to the Indian Meteorological Department.

Alarm bells began ringing in early summer this year when 11 states — including Maharashtra, Bihar, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh — declared they were in a drought. June, which is in the middle of the kharif season, was reportedly the driest month in 80 years. Though monsoons — the primary water source for the majority of farmers in India — came in August and pulled many parts of the country back from the brink of a major drought, some damage had already been done. According to the most recent estimates issued by the Ministry of Agriculture on October 9, crop yields are expected to fall short of the average 230 million tons harvested every year.

The situation is not unusual for the country’s farmers. Rainfall in India has been erratic in four out of the past 10 years, making it “inevitable” that at any given time of the year, some part of the country is experiencing drought, according to a drought manual published by the Ministry of Agriculture. Meanwhile, overall per capita water availability is steadily declining due to not only poor rainfall, but also India’s growing population, rapid industrialization and urbanization, and increased farming intensity.

Farmers are among the most affected by those changes. Ramesh Chand and S. S. Raju, of the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (NCAEPR) in New Delhi, noted in an article published in October by Mumbai-based Economic & Political Weekly (EPW), farmers are facing more income-damaging risks than ever for a variety of reasons, including the increasing commercialization of agriculture and water-intensive cultivation.

Help at Hand

The plight of the farmers isn’t escaping the government’s attention. Earlier this year, it announced a subsidy of Rs. 1,000 crore (US$210 million) for diesel fuel used by farmers to run their water pumps, increased electrical power for states with rain deficits, and new tube wells to tap deeper into the ground as surface-level water dries up. The government is also providing free, albeit limited, distribution of improved seed varieties and has reduced interest rates to 6% on outstanding loans to farmers who make payments on time, compared with the 7% normally charged.

Another important buffer is the three-year-old National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) Act, which provides 100 days of employment for at least one member in each household. Last year, the program — with a budget of Rs. 16,000 crore (US$3.3 billion) — provided work for nearly 45 million households, including farmland. For the next fiscal year, the government has expanded the scope of the program and more than doubled the budget to Rs. 39,100 crore (US$8 billion).

But drought and water experts say these and various state-driven programs are limited as to how much they help farmers mitigate drought-related risks over the long term. What’s needed, they say, is a massive overhaul of irrigation systems in order to improve how water is stored and managed. Much of that involves a vast network of surface irrigation systems which the government has spent nearly US$60 million building over the past 50 years and which are now in disrepair.

Getting the Groundwater

According to Aditi Mukherji, an IWMI scientist and co-author of “Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation,” the adverse impact of drought is felt mostly in areas that are not irrigated, followed by those that depend exclusively on public canal irrigation systems, and the least in areas using groundwater irrigated systems, “because groundwater isn’t immediately affected by low rainfall.” That’s one reason why farmers have taken irrigation into their own hands and are pumping water themselves from aquifers, rivers and drains. Privately sourced, pumped groundwater now represents the bulk of irrigation in large parts of the country, and India has an estimated 19 million pumps, providing water for more than 60% of the nation’s total irrigated land.

But there’s a paradoxical problem in what Mukherji calls “the mismatch of groundwater resource conditions and groundwater policies.” As she explains, “the northern, western and southern states have limited groundwater, but strong farmers’ lobbies, and it is here that groundwater is available virtually at no cost due to free electricity [to run pumps].” It’s a different situation in eastern India, “which is richly endowed with groundwater but is saddled with diesel pumps due to lack of electricity. Farmers have to bear a high cost of pumping water from shallow depths, mostly because diesel is expensive.”

So farmers in, say, the eastern state of Bihar where 85% of pumps run on diesel (compared with 50% nationally) are extracting water from merely 10 feet or so and pay up to 0.25 US cents per cubic meter of water. Their counterparts in the north, west and south are pumping water from a depth of 100 feet or more nearly free of cost.

“We have mismanaged our groundwater resources to such an extent that its role as a buffer [against rain deficiency] is now severely undermined [in many parts of the country],” she says. “Electrification of eastern India is perhaps the best way of drought proofing it, while in other parts, better and concerted efforts at rainwater harvesting and managed aquifer recharge is the way to go.”

Mukherji is among the experts calling on the government to selectively “support rather than thwart” the trend toward individual farmers using inexpensive pumps for irrigation. “The way that farmers have invested [heavily] in securing individual access to groundwater is, in my view, the most innovative coping strategy against droughts,” she says. What’s striking, she adds, is that “the farmers did not necessarily invest in the pumps as a coping strategy; they did so to increase their incomes and, in the process, derived the additional benefit of drought-proofing themselves, much like the farmers in Spain and California have done.” But without regulation of pump usage, she warns that farms are in danger of over-exploiting groundwater and depleting reserves.

Other experts agree that better groundwater irrigation is critical for managing future droughts. “We need to think long term,” wrote the IWMI’s Tushaar Shah, Avinash Kishore and Hemant Pare in EPW in September. Their proposal? Rather than directing more money into dams and canals, Indian agriculture will be better off investing in “groundwater banking,” — that is, storing surplus floodwater in aquifers, which can be drawn upon when needed. “Groundwater banking is an idea whose time has come,” they note, adding that this is where the NREG program should come in. As Shah, IWMI’s director and a member of a taskforce to study groundwater in Gujarat, recently told reporters: “NREG [programs] can provide employment to the needy as well as prepare the ground for dealing with future droughts. If every village were to construct five new water harvesting and recharge structures, and de-silt existing ones, it will be better prepared to survive the next drought.”

On Alert

Another area in need of attention is the flow of information about weather conditions between farmers and government officials in charge of agriculture and water management. Experts say that more reliable early warning systems, for example, are needed to alert farmers about when a monsoon is likely to hit or the magnitude of rainfall deficiency for different locations. R. S. Deshpande, director of the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore, cites the state of Karnataka, which took the lead in this regard back in 1987. Its drought-monitoring program now enables government headquarters in Bangalore to “get a picture of rainfall across the entire state by the evening of each day” by using sensors installed throughout its farmland that automatically transmit information over mobile networks. A few states, including Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, have shown interest in adopting the system but haven’t made budget allocations for it, he adds.

Regardless of budgets, there seem to be no quick or easy fixes. Back in Bihar, for example, when the state government announced that each landowner is entitled to 20 liters of diesel at subsidized rates for every hectare of land owned, there were few takers. One reason why: Cash-strapped farmers have to first come up with money to buy the diesel and then wait to be reimbursed. Going further into debt at a time when crop failure is high is a scenario they understandably want to avoid.

It’s a similar story for other programs across India that offer subsidies to farmers who switch from their traditional rice and wheat crops to less water-intensive but higher-value crops, such as corn, sweet potato, pulses and oilseeds. Farmers will still need access to upfront capital, which is not straightforward in under-banked parts of the country or where, for example, microfinancing isn’t easily available.

What’s more, some subsidies are counterproductive. The government’s program of guaranteeing “minimum support prices” (at which it buys select farm produce) is also skewed in favor of rice, which is “the most water-consuming staple you can think of,” according to Nilanjan Ghosh, senior vice president at Takshashila Academia of Economic Research in Mumbai. That makes it less attractive for farmers to sow coarse cereals like jowar, bajra and ragi, he says.

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal in August, M. S. Swaminathan, the agricultural scientist often referred to as the father of India’s Green Revolution, noted that many drought-related issues impacting the country go hand in hand with the “economics of farming.” To this end, he advocates changing farm credit to “interest rates at 4% to 5% with a four- to five-year repayment cycle. For example, if I had borrowed money from the money-lender or even from institutional credit this year, and my crop failed because of drought, and if I needed to repay the bank this year, I could only do so by borrowing from the money-lender. This is how indebtedness grows.” Many of the ways that today’s farmers can survive a drought hinge on public policy, he noted. “We have to develop public policies that address these issues. There’s no point pushing them under the carpet.”

The good news is that the general public won’t let that happen. According to Chand and Raju of the NCAEPR, the public’s awareness about the impact of droughts on the country is higher than ever, and people are “no longer willing to accept that the consequences of monsoon failures are treated as purely the effects of nature.”

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