Rain-fed farms are common, but India is unique in letting bad rains wreak economic havoc

India has neglected its rain-fed farms.
India has neglected its rain-fed farms.
Image: AP Photo/Anupam Nath
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Last week’s rains helped dispel some of the gathering economic clouds‎. Though the storm has yet not passed, there is a collective sigh of relief, because poor rains would have meant higher inflation, lower GDP, commodity price swings and widespread human misery among India’s vast number of farmers and farm hands.

India might nurse delusions of becoming an economic superpower, but monsoons are still the final arbiter of our GDP. With all the progress in technology and weather forecasting in the last few decades, we seem to be still just as helpless as our grandfathers when it comes to rains.

India is not alone in being unable to control rainfall; nobody can. And India is not unique in being dependent on rainfall. Almost three-quarters of the world’s grain is grown on rain-fed farms. Majority of the farms in USA, Canada, and the EU—the agricultural giants of the developed world—are watered solely by rain. China and Brazil grow bulk of their crops without irrigation. Yet their farmers are prosperous. Their yields are several times higher than our irrigated farms. Their droughts do not result in human suffering.

What is India doing wrong?

Other nations have understood that timely watering is not the sole factor behind abundant crops. A farm also needs nutritious soil, high-yielding seed, protection from pests and adequate fertilizers. In developed countries, though the watering has been left to nature, all the other factors of production are managed efficiently. So, even if the water falls short occasionally, the production gap between irrigated and non-irrigated farms is not that stark. India has a dramatically different situation. We have the world’s largest rain-fed area, and among the lowest in rain-fed yields (less than 1 tonne/ha).

Rain-fed agriculture supports four out of every ten Indians, and comprises 60% of total cropped area, 48% of the area under food crops and 68% of the area under non-food crops. More than 75% of pulses, 66% of oilseeds and 45% of cereals are grown under rain-fed conditions. Yet rain-fed agriculture suffers from systematic neglect.

We treat ‘rain-fed’ as a permanent label that distinguishes the haves from the have-nots. The haves—the irrigated parts of India—are the prime focus of all policy and research. Obsessed with Green Revolution technology, Indian government continues to push for higher yields through a combination of hybrid seed, irrigation, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But this formula is a non starter in rain-fed areas. Each rain-fed farming system is unique. Scant attention has been paid on how to conserve the soil and intelligently use whatever natural resources are locally available in rain-fed areas.

Farmers that earlier grew legumes, which replenished the soil and reduced dependence on fertilizers, have shifted to cotton and maize. This allows them to make money for a couple of seasons but depletes the soil so much that yields drop dramatically.

Rain-fed areas receive only 6-8% of the total national subsidies in agriculture (including irrigation, fertilizer and chemical and fuel subsidies). The National Food Security Mission, which aims to raise foodgrain production, shuns rain-fed districts.

Crops in rain-fed areas need to be extra hardy and capable of maturing quickly. But the Indian Council of Agricultural Research is spending barely 13% of its total research budget on rain-fed farming. Even this pitiful share has dwindled since 2000-01. Where is the rest going? On those five-six commodity crops grown in irrigated areas. Research on cattle and livestock is focused on introducing new breeds for irrigated areas instead of adapting them to harsher conditions on a rain-fed farm.

Almost 70% of rain-fed farms lie in medium-to-high-rainfall regions with enormous potential for supplemental irrigation if the run-off water is captured. A tank that stores run-off rain water can help produce 500 kg per hectare in a year. Managed scientifically, the same tank can help grow eight times more.

Like this July, rain-fed farms have a tiny window for sowing. Machines can increase their productivity by a third. But most farmers can barely afford bullock power. Since banks don’t finance bullocks, often fields remain fallow. Inadequate access to support prices, credit, and markets has worsened desperation among farmers.

Of course, there is no dearth of tokenism. The National Rainfed Area Authority only gives advice. A dozen schemes aim to make a difference. Most remain on paper. The National Disaster Management Authority doesn’t help unless a drought is officially declared.

Despite this systematic neglect, yields of coarse grains, oilseeds and pulses are growing faster than irrigated and pampered wheat and rice only because desperate farmers use every strategy to eke out a tad extra.

The urgency to act is rising. Shrinking groundwater, demand for drinking water, and climate change will put more areas at risk from severe water scarcity. Even if we maximize irrigation, nearly half the net cultivated area will remain dependent on rainfall. Since rain-fed areas are also the biggest suppliers of meat, milk, and poultry, continued neglect will dramatically push up food inflation.

Unfortunately, the Budget ignores takeaways from Gujarat’s success with rain-fed farming. New schemes such as the Krishi Sichayi Yojana were announced but the total budgetary allocation to irrigation remains capped. Irrigation schemes anyway don’t inspire confidence, given their sketchy performance. Maharashtra, which has the maximum number of dams, suffers from serious water crisis. Diverting water to the rich sugarcane belt of Baramati while farmers elsewhere commit suicide shows how politics can raise the odds.

But political will is also the solution. Ultimately, irrigation, water management and development of rain-fed areas will be the real test of the BJP’s promises to farmers. Can the BJP wrest the economic remote control from the rain gods and haul our agriculture sector into the 21st century, like the other BRIC nations? If Narendra Modi does just this one thing, he will leave a lasting legacy.