Increasing climate change threat and deteriorating soil and water health are posing serious challenge to Indian agriculture. With growing number of smallholders and their declining areas of operations, the problem becomes more complex for their viability. Therefore, future policies and resource allocation should focus on sustainable and resilient agriculture that enhances income of smallholders and reduces their risks. With the budget around the corner, the finance ministry may be allocating resources for various programmes in agriculture sector. Keeping in consideration other priorities in agriculture, the following five areas must receive attention for FY16 Budget to promote sustainable and resilient agriculture and improve livelihood of smallholders.
First, the finance minister must include programmes that can mitigate the climate-change risk for the farmers, especially the smallholders. Every year, farmers in some or the other part of the country face the brunt of climate change. We need to promote climate-smart agriculture that (i) raises agricultural productivity and farm income, (ii) minimises risk that arise due to climate change, and (iii) reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Farm trials and pilots in Haryana, Punjab and Bihar demonstrated that climate-smart agriculture, which is a blend of improved technologies, value-added advisory services, application of information and communication technology, and agricultural insurance, significantly improved the adaptation capacity of farmers against climate change and also minimised greenhouse gas emission. This year’s budget should propose to transform at least 1 lakh vulnerable villages to climate-smart villages. Resources for this programme may be allocated from the already existing programmes, namely the National Food Security Mission, Rastrya Krishi Vikas Yojana and the MGNREGA.
Second, there is a need to promote solar energy for irrigation. India is fortunate to have sufficient sun-shine days to tap solar energy as a viable source of power. The majority of Indian villages, where groundwater is easily accessible, are deprived of electricity to harness this water to increase agricultural production. Bringing together the government of India’s planned mega programme on solar generation to supplement power supply, and linking this with agriculture would also fulfil one of the government’s priorities—that of irrigating each field. Recent IFPRI studies in Bihar and IWMI studies in Gujarat and Rajasthan have shown that solar-driven pumps provided assured irrigation, diversified production portfolio in favour of more remunerative and commercial crops, and enhanced the capacity of farmers to adapt to climate change as well as mitigate the process. The cost recovery of installing solar pumps came about in 3 years with negligible annual operation and maintenance cost. It is proposed that in at least half of the projected climate-smart villages, solar pumps should be made mandatory.
Third, micro-irrigation, in the form of drip and sprinkler irrigation, has vast potential to expand the count of irrigated area in the country.
Earlier, the subsidy-driven programmes for promoting micro-irrigation made some headway in few states but could not fully realise their potential. Studies have shown that the micro-irrigation substantially raised farm income and expanded irrigated area. It improved irrigation efficiency to 70-90%, compared to 30% of conventional irrigation, indicating enormous water-saving. More thrust on micro-irrigation and connecting it with solar pumps will pave the path for achieving the multiple gains of “more crops per drop”.
Fourth, soil test-based nutrient management is critical to improve soil health imbalance. The fertiliser subsidy has distorted the soil nutrient balance, especially in favour of nitrogen (N). Over the years, soil health has deteriorated with acute deficiencies of nutrients (such as zinc, sulphur, boron, and manganese) that has adversely affected crop yields. The Bhoochetna programme in the state of Karnataka is encouraging: its soil-test-based nutrient management approach both reduced fertiliser use and increased the yields of important crops by 25–30%. Although the government of India is promoting soil health cards for soil-test-based nutrient management, its effective implementation is yet to be seen. It would require investment on developing soil-testing laboratories and enhancing skills for soil-testing of various nutrients. Financing to private sector to establish soil-testing labs will go a long way in improving soil health, enhancing nutrient use efficiency and increasing agricultural productivity.
Finally, to improve soil and human health, expanding area under pulses cultivation and increasing the production of these crops is necessary. Consumption of pulses is declining due to growing demand-supply gap and the rising prices. Pulses are a cheap and important source of protein. They help in fixing nitrogenous fertiliser in soil and save more than 30% of the nitrogenous fertiliser for the subsequent crop and thereby help in moderating nitrogenous fertlisers’ use and cutting the subsidy spend . Production of pulses needs to be increased to avoid growing imports and ensure availability to the poor at affordable prices. These five areas are a must for the forthcoming budget to deal with to make agriculture sustainable and resilient. Failing that, any investment in agriculture would not yield the desired dividends.
By P K Joshi
The author is director (South Asia), IFPRI