India’s ignored drylands could be key to climate-resilient agriculture

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India Climate Dialogue, Madhya Pradesh state, India

Rainfed farming in drylands taps into locally available crop and animal diversity and Indian policy makers should look at such traditional know-how to develop climate resistant agriculture strategies, say experts

Indian farmers inspecting millet - a climate-smart but neglected crop that grows in arid region (Image by C.Bonham)

Indian farmers inspecting millet – a hardy, climate-smart but neglected crop that grows in arid regions (Image by Biodiversity International/C.Bonham)

Rainfed farming in India’s drylands, often dismissed as ‘weak’, ‘fragile’ and ‘unproductive’, could hold the key to climate-resilient agriculture because of enormous crop and animal diversity, experts say.

More than two-thirds – an estimated 68% — of India’s 142 million hectares of arable land is under rainfed agriculture. This accounts for 42% of rice, 77% of oilseeds, 66% of cotton and 85% of coarse cereals such millets. The drylands, home to millions of poor Indian farmers, are home to much of India’s cattle, sheep and goats.

Because rainfed areas have variable rainfall, there is enormous diversity with several local hardy breeds of plants and animals, location-specific rich knowledge and agronomic practices based on prevailing local conditions, a paper by UK-based think tank International Institute of Environment and Development observes.

In India specifically, climate models developed at home suggest that monsoon rains have steadily decreased over the past decades and intense rainfall spells are becoming more frequent, interspersed by longer monsoon breaks without rain.

The changing climatic conditions call for climate-resilient agriculture and Indian policy makers and planners should turn to rainfed agriculture that survives under such unfriendly conditions, participants at a panel discussion held in the Indian capital in August said. The diversity and farming practices in drylands should be tapped into for climate-resilient agriculture.

The participants included officials from the department of animal husbandry in India’s ministry of agriculture as well as members of the NGO Revitalization of Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRAN), the science policy unit of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

Climate change does exacerbate existing challenges of development and instead of being suspicious of climate change as a northern-driven “imperialist agenda” to scupper economic growth, India should look on climate change as a filter through which we can look at different development agenda, said Navroz Dubash from CPR. It could review the relative merits and cost-benefits of irrigated and dryland agriculture, for example, in the context of climate change.

“Valuing variability (in drylands) and valuing resilience in agriculture in the context of climate change assumes new overtones,” he said. Climate change, he added, had created political spaces to address some of these issues which are not being looked at by policy experts and planners.

According to P.S. Vijay Shankar,  research director of the NGO Samaj Pragati Sahayog (Society for Development and Cooperation), who works in the tribal-dominated Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh state, rainfed areas play an important role in turning around agriculture when yields are plateauing in irrigated areas.

India’s conventional approach to agriculture, based on irrigation- and chemical inputs-dependent farming, is to “iron out” and “control” diversity. However, farming in drylands tries to tap into and optimally use the enormous locally available crop and animal diversity. “Because it is highly diverse, it asks for an innovative approach,” he said. This could be useful for developing climate-resilient agricultural strategies.

Much of this local diversity — whether it is indigenous breeds of cattle or crops — is getting lost with growing emphasis on commercial agriculture, he cautioned.

Samaj Pragati Sahayog has demonstrated how local communities in Dewas could be involved in participatory water monitoring, aquifer mapping, vulnerability assessment to identify and address climate-related risks in agriculture and developing a rainfed agriculture package.

Sabyasachi Das, who coordinates and leads livestock projects at RRAN, said India abounds with examples of local breeds helping poor farmers survive and even make money under harsh conditions, but they have been largely ignored by Indian policy makers.  These include location-specific cattle breeds in the western state of Gujarat and in Anantpur in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh where farmers have used the drylands on a principle of commons.

Such traditional knowledge is not being factored into the mission documents, an official from India’s agriculture ministry conceded.

The absence of a clear policy and programme approach to recognise the potential of dryland farming, including in India’s National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture, one of the country’s eight missions on climate change, is symptomatic of a larger malaise of the ad-hoc and uncoordinated way in which India has built its climate governance institutions, said Dubash.

A recent July 2015 paper by CPR shows that while institutions to address climate change issues have grown since 2007, often in response to international pressures, some have not been stable or long-lasting (for example, the office of the PM’s special envoy on climate change). This instability has meant individuals, rather than institutions have driven India’s climate policy, resulting in inconsistent engagement with the issue and absence of leadership.

There has been a proliferation of efforts, money and tasks towards climate change, but instead of a coordinated approach, the multiple missions, funds and tasks “have created silos again”, Dubash said.

There has also been limited mechanism for knowledge aggregation and strategic thinking, and nominal public input and scope for consultation, the CPR analysis found.

Moreover, there is “little specialised analytical capacity within the government to track the burgeoning climate literature, develop conceptual tools, and serve as a store of knowledge. There are also no mechanisms to mobilise specialised knowledge, especially on the linkages between climate change and other issues such as energy, urbanisation and agriculture, the report states.

Besides, policy formulation and institution building offers little scope for public inputs and consultation, and are largely bureaucratic-driven processes.