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Climate Change and the Small Scale Farmer in India

Centre for Education and Documentation

08 / 2010

« It rained continuously for 8 days.. Everything is washed out..We had grown onion, maize and now everything lies flat » – Chandappa, small farmer in Bagalkot District, one of the flooded districts in north Karnataka in 2009 (1).

« I used to draw water with help of oxen to water my fields, since 15 years we have very poor rainfall » - a farmer in Anantapur district (2).

« I lost my mango crop this year since it rained in February. » - Y.B.Ramakrishna, a biofuel entrepreneur and an organic farmer in central Karnataka (3).

All these problems may or may not be directly related to Climate Change, but they add to existing woes of people caused by a degrading environmental problem, part of which is global warming, along with land degradation caused by intensive chemical agriculture, destruction of forests, changing land use etc.

There have been noticeable extreme climate events in recent years which took a heavy toll on crop output - the drought of 2002, the heat wave in Andhra Pradesh in May 2003, extremely cold winters in 2002 and 2003, and prolonged dry spell in July 2004 and January 2005 in the north, floods in the Rajasthan in 2005, drought in the north-east in 2006, abnormal temperature in January and February in 2007, and 23 per cent rainfall deficiency in the 2009 monsoon season.

More serious is the regular irregularity of precipitation, and temperature changes which are critical for the proper development of crops – particularly conditions required for germination, vegetative growth, and then reproductive growth – all of which are critical.

Modern Science tried to take care of such problems in the early 60s, by developing High Yielding Varieties – with higher response to chemical inputs, and recommending major irrigation. This however has resulted in the development of monoculture, and narrowing down of the variety in each of the crops. Thus we have a situation where a single event can devastate the entire output for that season.

The erratic climate events have also affected hitherto robust activities like horticulture; for example Vishnu Pandey reported that premature blooming of mango flowers due to above normal temperatures in the Malihabad area near Lucknow. The flowers are exposed to higher risk of shedding (4).

The Centre for Science and Environment quoted scientists , which highlights the complex ways in which global warming related events impact agriculture.

• As the climate warms due to greenhouse gases, sea water evaporates faster and increases air moisture that condenses and falls as intense rains

• Lack of uniformity in temperature changes in India affects microclimates and makes weather predictions more and more difficult -

• Increased intense rainfall with less of moderate rainfall could decrease groundwater recharge and soil moisture, affecting agriculture

• Changes in soil, increase in pest population and weeds are all inevitable with the increasing temperatures.

• In certain crops geographical shift to cooler areas will occur. More carbon in the atmosphere might be useful for the crops but this effect will be nullified due to increase in temperatures.

• Coastal regions are likely to suffer due to the vulnerability to inundation and salinisation of fertile soils

• Other likely impacts are change in farm ecology viz. bird-insect relations.

Threat to Food Security

Viewed from a national perspective the overall projection of decreasing production, at least in the major food grains of rice and wheat, is quite daunting. Studies by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) indicate the possibility of a loss of 4–5 million tonnes in annual wheat production with every 1 degree C rise in temperature even after considering the carbon fertilization effect. Another study says that 0.5°C increase in winter temperature would reduce wheat yield by 0.45 ton/ha. and that wheat yields could decrease between 28 to 68% without considering the CO2 fertilization effects; and would range between +4 to -34% after considering CO2 fertilization effects. Another study put the decrease in production of winter wheat to as much as 55% in India .

For rice too, the figures are quite alarming. Studies say that a 2°C rise in temperature could decrease the rice yield by about 0.75 ton/ha in the high yield areas. Every one-degree rise in temperature the decline in rice yield would be about 6%.

The Official Policy

India’s policy on Agriculture in the context of climate Change, is foregrounded by the need to produce enough grain to meet the food requirements of the country. Speaking at a meeting, seeking to promote sustainable agriculture, Mr. Shyam Saran, the then chief negotiator for India at the COPs indicated the direction of the policy by repeating the old adage that the Green Revolution helped the country achieve self-sufficiency in food grain production. He also seemed to predicate sustainability on “getting the best deal for the Indian farmers as the means of meeting the galloping demand for food.” The food grain production that he is talking about is overwhelming rice and wheat, precisely the ones most vulnerable to climate change, as they are being mono-cropped, using green revolution technology. Dr.Vandana Shiva of Navdanya, a support organization, says that the mission on sustainable agriculture under the National Action Plan on Climate Change is based on the false assumption that genetic engineering will “create” climate resilience. Genetic engineering will not create drought resistant or flood resistance. Genetic Modification is the latest form of biopiracy, which will rob vulnerable communities of their adaptation capacity to climate change.

The Small Farmer

600 million people are dependent on the agricultural sector in India, most of them small farmers holding upto 2 hectares of land. Two thirds of the net sown area, is rainfed. About two-thirds of this is drought-prone with about 40 million hectares of land being flood-prone. The poorest people tend to be located geographically in more exposed or marginal areas, such as flood plains or on nutrient-poor soils. The poor also are less able to respond due to limited human, institutional and financial capacity and have very limited ability to cope with climate impacts, and to adapt to a changing hazard burden.

Kapil Shah, Jatan Trust, Gujarat (5) says that small farms are now being expected to be market driven which loosely translates to raising monocultures that subsequently erode the natural resource base. Government policies like high subsidies to costly and unnecessary inputs like fertilizers, genetically modified crops, exotic seeds, etc. The price support mechanism also encourages planting of monocultures of a select few crops. Besides, the push to diversify away from food crops to cash crops for exports is impacting the cropping pattern.

We are seeing intense rainfalls and shorter duration monsoons in the semi- arid regions of the country. The semi-arid region of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra received heavy rainfall during Sept-Oct 2009 which resulted in flooding causing severe crop loss and loss of life and property. The soils do not have the capacity to hold the water, which is lost as run-off. Ground water is also not recharged by such rain, as compared to the earlier moderate rain. The rise in temperature dries up the soil and increases water requirement of crops. The climate change projections indicate that even when farmers have largely adapted to arid cropping patterns, increased demand and consequent water stress could severely jeopardize livelihoods and diminish agricultural productivity.

Dr Y V Malla Reddy, Director of the Anantapur based NGO Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre told us that the repercussions of climate change are already being felt in Anantapur. “The rainy season is very short and we are experiencing a huge gap in temperature extremes. For example, the other day the minimum temperature in Anantapur was 13°C, and the maximum was 35°C; 22°C difference is not at all normal in Anantapur. Normally the gap between the maximum temperature and minimum temperatures is about 12-13°C. This huge difference can cause adverse impact on the crops which cannot withstand this kind of extremes in temperature.”

“Then the next important thing is what are the adaptation strategies, because we say that the climate change is real. This is where I think lot of research is needed. For example, take Anantapur, we will have to find short duration varieties, we will have to find crops that can withstand these kind of temperatures, and we will have to diversify quite a lot. The conventional paradigm of agriculture has gone more and more into mono cropping. Like in paddy area, you have only paddy, like when you come to Anantapur everywhere there is groundnut, nothing but groundnut. This type of mono-cropping is not a good practice.”

Accion Fraterna is helping small farmers go in for diversity. Malla Reddy has called for diversification of land use, and a mixture of annual crops, perennial crops, fruit trees, fodder trees, timber trees etc. There must provide subsistence and food, as well as cash or commerce, and also provide for other habitat needs. Very important is that our agriculture itself should provide additional environmental services, rather than consume or pollute them.

Navdanya feels strongly that adaptation strategies must address the issue of the commons, in addition to diversity. They emphasise that Climate change is not a linear phenomenon of warming everywhere, or more rain or less rain. It is a non-linear phenomenon, and it is better to talk of climate chaos than climate change or global warming.

Navdanya is creating community seed banks for climate emergencies so that the widest varieties of crops are available to communities to respond to climate related disasters. And this diversity is available as a commons. That is why, besides setting up community seed banks, Navdanya has launched a campaign against Biopiracy of Climate resistant strains, and climate resilience must be in the public domain and not encashed by a few who might have purchased some rights.

The solution to the crises of climate is to promote biodiverse, ecological, organic farming, which produces more food at lower cost, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the resilience of farming systems to climate chaos, and enhance the capacity of agriculture communities to adapt to climate change.


Traditional small scale farming has been shown to be resilient to the different impacts of climate change. Whilst the NAPCC - National Action Plan on Climate Change - would like to focus on bio-technology to develop new strains of crops resistant to drought and increased CO2 in the atmosphere, it might well be served by existing practices that can form the basis for adapting to these changes.

Water management practices are another area which has a bearing on dryland farming. There is extensive learning on local management practices that enable local communities to adapt to even severe deficits in rainfall. These also find no significant place in the NAPCC, which prefers to go for large-scale storages, with its attendant ecological, social and economic disastrous consequences.

Civil Society has been coming together regionally and nationally to place these traditions squarely in the centre of the response to Climate Change. These need to find a place in Official Policy as the basis on which to build a response to climate impacts. There are pockets of sympathy and understanding, but it is a long haul before these are recognised as the mainstream basis for response to climate change.

Modernity, especially adaptive response to climate change, needs to be based on solid traditions; right now they are running on parallel tracks.

1From the film “I am the drum that will be heard” by CED
2From the film “Where is the monsoon” by Deepa Dhanraj, a ILEIA film
3At one of the Roundtable on Climate change, Bangalore, 2008
4Vishnu PANDEY, « UP mango farmers feel the heat of global warming », in Business Standard, 16 March 2009
5Dr. G V. Ramanjaneyulu, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, National workshop on Climate Change and Sustainable Agriculture, November 2008, New Delhi


changement climatique, agriculture, agriculture et environnement, agriculture paysanne, influence du climat sur l’agriculture

, Inde


L’Inde et le changement climatique


This article is available in French: Le changement climatique et les petits paysans en Inde

Read also Climate Change and Agriculture in India: Avenues for Mitigation

and the dossier on Small scale farming in India edited by the CED

See the film by CED : “I am the drum that will be heard”

Further readings:


Texte original

CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) - CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - Inde - -,

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