Can India Reform Its Agriculture?

Recent Features

Features | Environment | South Asia

Can India Reform Its Agriculture?

Climate change is stressing an already struggling farm sector, but there is a way forward.

Can India Reform Its Agriculture?
Credit: Indian farm via Shutterstock.com

Over the last decade, India’s official position in global climate negotiations has been one of opposition to agricultural mitigation. At Doha (COP18), India joined other developing countries in demanding that any talk about agriculture must be in the realm of adaptation, not mitigation. India considers the farm sector out of bounds with respect to emissions reduction, given its sensitivity and the potential implications for livelihoods. Is the concern valid? Can India achieve agricultural development and adaptation without addressing mitigation concerns?

Changing Climate of Indian Agriculture

Despite decades of industrial development, India remains an agrarian country. At a time of decline in many countries, the agricultural population in India rose a whopping 50 percent between 1980 and 2011. Although agriculture’s contribution to GDP has been falling, it has a far more important role in the Indian economy than its share of GDP suggests. Farming employs about half of the nation’s workforce and provides a livelihood to about two-thirds of the population. Moreover, almost half of the average Indian household’s expenditure goes towards food, which is an important factor in inflation and thus the nation’s chronic poverty.

Although a net exporter of agricultural products, India still depends on imports for essential items like pulses and cooking oil. Food self-sufficiency is not out of the question, yet food security at the micro level remains elusive. The agricultural sector’s ongoing performance struggles are cause for concern in terms of both food and income security as well as rural poverty eradication.

As a climate change hotspot, emergent climate phenomena seem to be aggravating the agrarian distress in India. An estimated 70 percent of the country’s arable land is be prone to drought, 12 percent to floods, and eight percent to cyclones. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that a temperature rise would result in a significant drop in Indian agricultural yield. Given that about 250 million Indians lack food security, the challenge is to produce enough food “sustainably” to meet the increasing demand, despite shrinking resource availability.

While the sector is highly vulnerable to climate change, agricultural production is a major contributor to the problem, accounting for 17.6 percent of gross emissions in India. Add emissions related to consumption and that figure rises to 27 percent. Thus, as an economic activity, agriculture emerges as not only less productive but also highly carbon intensive – hardly the ingredients of a sustainable scenario.


Has agriculture been given its due importance in India’s climate strategies? In keeping with its global position and trends in the developed world, India seems to be prioritizing the energy, industry and transport sectors for low-carbon development. However, there seems to be growing recognition of agricultural mitigation opportunities in developing countries, as evident in the recent Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions.

As part of its climate action plan, India has already set up a dedicated Mission, the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), to promote “sustainable agriculture,” seeking to “transform Indian agriculture into a climate resilient production system through suitable adaptation and mitigation measures in the domain of crops and animal husbandry.”

NMSA has been partly successful in identifying the challenges faced by agriculture and how they will be exacerbated in a changing climate. Yet it has failed to find innovative solutions. While aiming to promote resource-efficient technologies, it has not addressed unhealthy agricultural practices. Moreover, it seems to be targeting the big farmers, who can afford the new technologies, leaving the small and marginal farmers vulnerable.

The NMSA neither clarifies how the technologies will be governed nor addresses the weak agricultural extension services. In addition, the lack of adequate credit or an insurance facility would be a barrier for wider adoption of these technologies. Finally, weak institutional and human capacity will be a key challenge for effective implementation. An obscure strategy that merely addresses a few adaptation concerns falls short of a sustainable pathway for agricultural development.

Other parallel schemes targeting resource use efficiency have been similarly uninspiring. Initiatives to promote micro irrigation technologies are scattered, with limited success in only a few states. While India’s state governments are offering substantial investment subsidies, high transactional costs in accessing those subsidies give farmers little incentive to adopt new technologies.

The Agricultural Demand-Side Management program, another narrowly technology-centric approach, seeks to replace existing irrigation pumps with energy-efficient models, reducing electricity consumption by a fifth. The new pumps are apparently capable of drawing more water with the limited electricity supplied to Indian farmers. But water demand in India is much higher than what is currently extractable, so improving pump efficiency will increase water use and further deplete the groundwater table. That in turn will raise the horsepower of pumps needed to draw water from greater depths. More horsepower means more electricity consumption.

A Way Forward

In the coming decades, feeding a growing population will demand ingenuity and innovation, to produce more food with fewer resources in more sustainable ways. India’s obsession with grain production as a means of food security is flawed, and has led to crippling price inflation and nutrition deficiencies. For accelerated growth and food security, policymakers need to adopt a demand-driven approach, accounting for local political-economy and environmental contexts. Agriculture must transform to adapt to a changing climate, meet food demand, and reduce emission intensities per output. A climate-responsive development strategy is needed to achieve the triple wins of development, adaptation and mitigation.

The major climate threat to agriculture is increased stress on already scarce resources, raising the vulnerability of agriculture dependent communities. An effective adaptation strategy would seek to boost resilience by preparing communities to deal with resource scarcity and extreme events through sustainable alternatives and resource use efficiency. Likewise, mitigation in agriculture would require improved efficiency in resource consumption so that climate change-induced stress, extreme events, and their intensity can be attenuated. In that sense, both adaptation and mitigation have the same goal, seeking to achieve sustainability in agricultural consumption and production.

How could agricultural development be converged with mitigation and adaptation actions?

First, livestock is a major contributor to India’s food basket and accounts for 40 percent of agricultural emissions. Yet it gets no mention in India’s low-carbon strategy. Productivity in the livestock subsector is highly vulnerable to temperature rises, let alone the impacts of extreme events. However, simple interventions like feed quality improvement and health and reproduction management, achievable through an improved extension service, have the potential to increase productivity, improve resilience, and slash emissions.

Second, water is critical for agricultural development. The availability of irrigation water is inadequate and susceptible to climatic change, while prevailing irrigation patterns are highly inefficient and energy intensive. Improving the management of irrigation water would help. Substantial cuts in water demand could be achieved by adopting efficient irrigation technologies such as the drip and sprinkler, and much of the remaining demand could be met by extending and enhancing the surface irrigation network. Sustained rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge initiatives, combined with better irrigation pump efficiency, could also contribute. These initiatives will raise resilience to looming water scarcity without compromising productivity, with co-benefits that include reduced energy consumption and lower methane emissions from flood irrigation.

Third, modernization is crucial for development, yet some traditional practices are more efficient. Land leveling, mulching, and crop diversification are all traditional practices that reduce the need for input resources like water and fertilizer. Farmers often neglect them, partly to avoid the extra labor and partly because they don’t understand the benefits. Yet these inexpensive practices reduce the need for inputs, and also help prevent erosion, preserve soil nutrients, suppress weeds, and increase fertility. Crop residues that are mostly burnt in the field, contributing to emissions and local air pollution, can be used productively as mulch. Similarly, agroforestry as a farming practice has tremendous benefits for productivity, resource efficiency, adaptation, and carbon sequestration. More modern practices like soil fertigation and systemic rice intensification can further improve resource use efficiency and productivity.

Finally, agricultural electricity and fertilizer subsidies, though lower than global standards, have contributed to significant inefficiencies in India. Broader agricultural subsidy policies and food procurement policies must be realigned to value scarce resources, and should incentivize resource-use efficiency and conservation in agriculture. For example, better support prices for water-efficient crops and varieties could encourage their adoption, while substituting regressive energy and fertilizer subsidies with subsidies for efficient irrigation technologies could help poorer farmers.

Opportunity for the New Government

The challenges are not insurmountable. Indeed, they are an opportunity for the new government to prove its commitment to faster, sustainable and inclusive growth. The National Democratic Alliance was roundly criticized for its underperformance in agriculture during its last stint in power (1998-2004). It now has a chance to do better. While the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government did better in the past decade, it fell well short of achieving an sustainability agenda. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an opportunity to better, giving agriculture its rightful place in India’s development policy agenda.

While it may be politically infeasible and socially unacceptable to take a mitigation-first approach, the new government can plan a development-first strategy for agriculture with clear adaptation and mitigation co-benefits. The climate-smart measures discussed in this article could cut sector emissions by a quarter, based on conservative estimates, while increasing productivity and climate resilience. This is low-hanging fruit, and the government would be short-sighted to miss it.

New Delhi may resist the inclusion of agricultural mitigation in global climate negotiations, but it can’t ignore the need for mitigation at home.

Dr Ashwini K Swain is a Fellow at CUTS Institute for Regulation & Competition, New Delhi. He tweets @AshwiniKSwain and blogs at www.aks-reflections.net.