Popular narratives paint the Indian farmer with a broad brush. The dominant image is that of a farmer—male, of course—gazing benevolently at his vast fields laden with lush crops–the image created by Bollywood.
The truth, though, is that farmers in India are as diverse as the country itself. So are the challenges they face, depending on where they are located, what they grow, the kind of farming they do, and so on. Which, obviously, means that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to address these challenges. And that’s where we are failing our farmers, especially rain-fed farmers.
Of the five major crops grown in India—paddy, wheat, pulses, cotton, and oilseeds—only wheat is almost entirely irrigated; the other four crops are unirrigated, or fall under the rain-fed farming category. At approximately 55% of India’s gross crop area, rain-fed farming constitutes a major chunk of the country’s farm sector.
Rain-fed farmers are typically small and marginal farmers who own small plots of land (less than five acres) and engage in monsoon-dependent farming. The primary income of the rain-fed farmer is cultivation and serving as labour to other larger farmers. According to the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) 2011, manual casual labour is the main source of income for 51.18% of rural households, followed by cultivation (30.10% of households).
Being single-season and rain-dependent, rain-fed farmers diversify their livelihood opportunities by engaging in activities such as poultry, fishery, and so on, which play an important role in their income portfolio. They also maintain livestock, mainly small ruminants like goats and sheep, that are not used for the purpose of dairy, unlike irrigated farmers.
Rain-fed areas have high levels of poverty. Out of the bottom 10 poorest districts, seven are rain-fed districts. According to the Rain-fed Atlas of Revitalising Rain-fed Agriculture Network (RRAN), about 66 out of the 100 poorest districts in the country are rain-fed.
There are several reasons for this. Rain-fed farmers lack the resources to enhance their livelihood occupation choices. Their dependence on the monsoon not only means that they have just one season of farming, but also that any change in the distribution of rainfall affects their production.
Single-season, rain-dependent farming is of low productivity and offers farmers few options to diversify their crops. Moreover, the produce of single-season, rain-fed farms is generally coarse cereals, which fetch a low value at the marketplace.
All this ensures that the rain-fed farmer stays at a lower equilibrium of farming production systems. It is not a coincidence, then, that the poverty map of India and the rain-fed area map almost completely overlap.
Ironically, these are the areas that get the least government attention or support; it is, in fact, irrigated farming that gets the lion’s share of both.
Here are a few examples of how public investments in the agricultural sector are heavily skewed against rain-fed farming:
Water: In order to make water available for irrigation, huge investments are made towards building dams and canals. Moreover, to increase the area under irrigation, successive governments have allowed unregulated exploitation of groundwater, which is a matter of concern.
According to Tryst with the Dams (SANDRP, December 2007), “Out of India’s net cultivated area of about 142 million hectare (mha), the net irrigated area is 57 mha as per the working report (agriculture) of 11th Plan and has remained around that figure for more than seven years now. Out of the net irrigated area, the area irrigated from large dams is about 17 mha; the rest is either irrigated by groundwater or small systems. What this means is that after spending over Rs200,000 crore on large dams and allocating 75-80% of available resources for large dams, the projects have benefited just 12% of net cultivated area.”
Subsidies: Seeds and fertilisers, inherently linked with irrigation and used significantly higher in irrigated areas, are heavily subsidised by the government. According to the Rainfed Atlas of RRAN, fertiliser usage (kg/ha) is three times more in irrigated areas as compared to rain-fed areas: 81.3% of irrigated area farmers use high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds and fertilisers as opposed to 44.9% of rain-fed farmers. Thus, the bulk of subsidies finds its way into the irrigated areas.
Market: The minimum support price mechanism, which ensures a floor price for agriculture produce, remains an important instrument adopted by the government to support farmers. The rain-fed category gets a raw deal here, too, as the pie chart below shows:
Clearly, then, public investments are not geared towards rain-fed farming. The general pattern is to get water, get farms irrigated, and then provide high-yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilisers and, finally, market access, too. Even R&D efforts follow this direction. All of which helps only a small section of the farming community.
Given this situation, it is obvious that rain-fed farming is in need of urgent attention and support. And there are a few steps that can be taken to change the current narrative:
- Local solutions to address the water problem: Small and marginal rain-fed farmers need protective irrigation, which can come in the form of small water storage structures made by locals with local material. There is a strong case for a watershed development programme for every village and every farm in the country.
- Alternative sources of income: Indigenous poultry, fisheries, and livestock such as goats and sheep help the rain-fed farmer’s family in multiple ways. They provide nutritious food, additional income, and double up assets that can be sold during times of stress such as droughts or other calamities. Therefore, a special programme to support these activities is more a matter of design than budgets.
- Alternative crops: Food crops such as millets are sturdy, grow with little inputs, and are nutritionally very important.
RRAN has attempted to put some of these ideas—such as strengthening of backyard poultry, comprehensive revival of millets in rain-fed farming systems, collectivisation of groundwater, and so on—in communities in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, and has experienced their potential in enhancing livelihood options and incomes of rural households.
It’s only when we recognise the unique nature of rain-fed farming and the specific challenges associated with it that we will be to find the resources and the solutions to nurture it. Until then, we risk continuing to look at the agriculture sector as a homogenous entity that can be addressed with a single set of solutions.