There were stray notes everywhere. At first, they were scattered here and there as India hurtled towards development. Only recently have these notes of land shortage, water paucity and bad climate come together to form a raucous tune that threatens to haunt the nation and its farmers for a long time.
The Central government, in April last year, declared that a third of India had been affected by severe drought. In Karnataka alone, 86 taluks in 20 districts are drought prone as famine continues to be a major impediment to realizing the complete potential of crop yield.
The stark observation made in a study conducted by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reveals that urban expansion will lead to a ‘1.8-2.4% loss of global croplands by 2030’, with about 80% of that loss taking place in Asia and Africa.
This impending reality raises serious questions about the future of agriculture in the country. The alarming rise in population has taken a toll on the natural resources, thereby stoking apprehensions of a significant departure from farming.
Dr. Y.A. Nanja Reddy, Small Millets specialist at Bengaluru’s GKVK concurs: “The trend is going on. It is mainly because of unavailability of water. Also, the farmers are getting free of cost many things: they get rice at one rupee per kilogram which is sometimes sufficient for the family, so they don’t work. Once you don’t work, the agricultural land becomes a waste.”
However,Dr Udaya Kumar of the Crop Physiology Department, GKVK, begs to differ: “India is not moving away from an agrarian economy. Farming may not be lucrative at this point but the greater demand and technology will add value to it. The emphasis now is on how to double farmers’ income in the next five years.”
The centre is aware of the tapering interest in farming as evidenced by the formation of a special inter-ministerial committee to prepare a blueprint for doubling farmers’ income by 2022. While earnings are a crucial determinant to realise agricultural growth, the buck does not stop there.
According to Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Chandigarh, the temperatures in Punjab are likely ‘to rise above the normal mark in the next 5 to 7 years’.
Dr. Kumar sees other subtler innovations at play like ‘better genetic variants of wheat and rice that can sustain even at high temperature or technology that can help the crops survive the heat are in the pipeline.’
The stress on the food system because of climate change is being alleviated in different ways. Nevertheless, the wheat yield could see a dip if the warm weather continues to prevail through January. In this scenario, switching to alternative crops such as millets (heat resistant crops) could prove useful.
But according to Dr. Reddy, “People are not accustomed to eating things other than wheat and rice. They are not leaving fallow land also, which would have otherwise helped in conserving moisture.”
He adds: “But we are identifying varieties of millets suitable for areas in Maharashtra and Gujarat to encourage farmers. The one reason why millets are not popular yet is their price. The best rice (Kollam) is available in the market at approximately 63 rupees/kg but the millet price will be between 100 and 150 rupees/kg. Therefore, the price needs to be calibrated to fuel demand for (millets).”
While the farmers and consumers grapple with the gamut of options available to them, the depleting water and land resources continue to harrow the stakeholders.
According to a report by Prashant Goswami and Shiv Narayan, the total water available in India is only 67 % of that for China. The per capita water availability has decreased from 4098 cubic metre/capita /year in 1961 to 1519 cubic metre/capita/year in 2010.
Dr. Kumar offers a different perspective: “The water required by human beings is the virtual water embedded in your food products. Much of the water footprint comes from that virtual water. A big change in food consumption pattern is required to save water. If everyone starts eating once in a week a millet dish instead of rice and wheat, they can save 4-5% of water. There has to be more awareness about the concept of water footprint.” Adding to this disconcerting situation is the possibility that the vanishing tracts of farmland may even spur a food crisis in the future, but according to Dr. Kumar, that situation can be averted with a heady mix of alternative crops and consciousness about the significance of virtual water.
On the other hand, Dr. Reddy is more concerned about the storage of food crops: “Nearly around 30% of what we produce is getting wasted. The government needs to take care of this.”
While it is premature to say if India will reel under a food crisis, the future of its agriculture and our farmers rests on a host of policy interventions, crop innovations and, above all, a change in the outlook of the consumers.