What India Really Needs to Do to Protect Its Farmers

What India Really Needs to Do to Protect Its Farmers
Farmers shout slogans as they participate in a protest at the Delhi Singhu border on December 18, 2020 in Delhi, India. (Photo: Anindito Mukherjee, Getty Images)

Since November, hundreds of thousands of farmers and their supporters have been protesting across India, calling for an end to a series of new agricultural laws introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration. The demonstrations have seen record-breaking turnout in the streets — and sparked historic backlash, including widespread censorship, government-ordered internet shutdowns to crack down on organising, and mass arrests of farmers and allies, including jailing 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi last week.

The laws that sparked the months-long movement passed in September. They deregulate the agricultural industry and loosen farmer protections, including by removing the country’s minimum support price for crops. These were heavy blows to a farm sector that employs some 50% of the nation’s workforce and has already seen decreasing yields and profits.

It’s clear the Indian agricultural sector needs an overhaul, but the changes needed couldn’t be farther from the ones pushed through by the Modi government. The climate crisis is creating an increasing heavy burden on India’s farmers, and the government should be working to protect them and restore the country’s soil rather than to deregulate.

Economic growth in the agricultural sector has been stagnant for six years. Amid falling profits and increasing poverty, thousands of farmers have taken their own lives.

“Agriculture’s share in the country’s economic output has declined sharply over the decades — from about 50% of the GDP in the 1950s to about 15% now,” Anoop Sadanandan, political economist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email.

A major reason for this increasing instability is the climate crisis. Rising temperatures have made it more difficult to grow rice and wheat, the country’s two biggest staple crops. Changes in precipitation have also been a challenge. National data shows that India’s average rainfall has decreased by 8% since 1970. More significantly, the distribution of that rainfall has become far more erratic. In 2019, for instance, the nation saw its heaviest rains in 25 years, which killed 1,600. Yet at other times when no rain at all falls, crop yields suffer. 

Currently, some 42% of India is prone to drought. These drought periods are expected to increase and spread to more areas. One recent study found that the frequency of flash droughts — short periods of warm surface temperature and low precipitation that rapidly deplete soil moisture — could increase by as much as eightfold by 2100. That means the agriculture sector has to prepare for extremes on both ends of the precipitation spectrum as well as increasing heat.

“We are having long dry periods intermittent with short spells of heavy rainfall events now, over most parts of India, including north and central India and the Western Ghats,” Roxy Mathew Koll, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, wrote in an email.

Apart from the impacts of the global climate crisis, ecological degradation is also taking a toll on India’s farms and soil. Monocultural farming practices and the widespread use of pesticides have been the country’s norm since the 1960s. But they’ve caused a decreased soil fertility and increased salinity, while depleting groundwater levels and biodiversity. These local changes have an impact on farming that is “in some cases even more significant” than that of climate change, said Anand Patwardhan, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland who focuses on climate risk management.

But the reforms proposed by the Modi government aren’t likely to lead to more regenerative agriculture. In fact, they’re likely to make matters worse.

“If farming comes to be led by corporate agribusinesses as a result of the implementation of the laws, then, as in other parts of the world, monocultures and industrial farming can be reasonably expected to expand,” Shreya Sinha, a postdoctoral geography researcher at University of Cambridge, said in an email. “We know this typically leads to worse ecological outcomes, and there is no reason to think that India’s case would be different.” 

There are, however, reforms the government could — and should — undertake to wind down unsustainable farming practices and still feed the country’s growing population even in the face of the climate crisis.

For one, farmers could focus on growing cereals like millet that are less water intensive than the thirstier wheat and rice they currently prioritise. Before the push for higher yields and higher profits in the 1960s, India produced millet for thousands of years. Turning back to the ancient grain could help farms withstand coming droughts.

Farmers could also take steps to diversify their plots, planting many different cereals and other plants together instead of cultivating single crops. Research shows that crop diversity — and specifically intercropping, or the cultivation of two or more crops simultaneously on the same field — can make farms more resilient to changes in the climate. It can also help preserve biodiversity by creating a habitat for a variety of insects and soil organisms, and also restore the soil health, ensuring a future of good harvests for farmers.

To further nurse the soil back to health, farmers could also employ crop cycling, a practice of growing nitrogen-fixing plants at certain points to enrich the soil. Ending the use of harmful, soil-depleting pesticides is still another avenue to restore fields’ fertility.

While these solutions are all there for the taking, the problem is that Indian farm policy — even before the Modi reforms — makes it near impossible for many farmers to make these changes. The nation provides tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for growing water-intensive staples like wheat and rice, and has also allocated massive as well as sugar cane each year. It also funnels billions of dollars into subsidising pesticides, incentivising their use despite their harmful effects. But it doesn’t shell out the funds to help farmers switch to practices that would make their work more resilient and sustainable.

“Moving away from monocultures…requires that farmers are given some incentive to do this,” Sinha said. “The laws definitely don’t seem to indicate that they would provide such an incentive.”

Though moving away from pesticide use and monoculture can ultimately boost productivity, both can also initially temporarily decrease yields because the soil can take time to adjust.

“You need an upfront investment to restore soil productivity and quality, [and] the farmer typically is not in a position to make that upfront investment,” Patwardhan said.

To help Indian farmers make this transition, the government should agree to make those investments and support farmers through that transition period. It could also invest in building out infrastructure to help make farms resilient to drought. Currently, due to the lack of irrigation infrastructure in the country, some 55% of Indian agriculture is dependent completely on rainfall. But as Sadanandan said, irrigation “reduces the chances of crop failure, and increases productivity and profitability.”

Instead, with its new farm laws, India has moved in the wrong direction. Without minimum support prices acting as a safety net, farmers will have even less financial ability to change their agricultural practices. Activists also believe the laws could push the country toward even more monocultural farming. And research shows that the Modi administration has also dramatically undershot its promises to build out irrigation systems.

If Modi and his government want to ensure India still has an agricultural sector in coming decades, it should help farmers to transition to more sustainable practices now, providing subsidies for farmers who forgo pesticides, grow low-water crops, and diversify their plots instead of subsidising unsustainable practices.

“Basically, you have a situation where farmers are being squeezed,” said Sadanandan. These investments could help ensure farmers have economic security and that the country has food for years to come.

Across the country, many are already making these changes on a smaller scale. The state council of Kanjikuzhi, a village in the state of Kerala, for instance, provided farmers money to grow organic crops and effectively transitioned the entire community away from pesticide use. The state government of Odisha has also subsidised millet. Rukmini Rao, executive director of the Gramya Resource Centre for Women, a supporter of the farmers’ protests, said the Modi government should follow this lead.

“This can be done if government chooses this path,” she said in an email. “It is not a pipe dream.”