Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Rain, districts and agriculture in India, a first calculus

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Major rainfed districts of India and their main crops (Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are mainly horticulture-based). Map: NRAA

Major rainfed districts of India and their main crops (Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are mainly horticulture-based). Map: NRAA

Big dams and canals, ‘command areas’ and the high-yield crops they fostered have occupied the well-fortified middle ground of agriculture in India throughout the history of the five year plans. In the shadow of this view lies rainfed farming – no dams, canals, brobdingnagian irrigation schemes, suspicious water authorities and over-zealous agri-commodity boards to be seen here.

Look at the map. Rainfed areas occupy some 200 million hectares (that is, over two-fifths of India’s total geographical area) and agriculture that depends on the south-west monsoon (and winter rains) is to be found in about 56% of the total cropped area. The National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) of India has estimated that 77% of pulses, 66% of oilseeds and 45% of cereals are grown under rainfed conditions.

In which ways can these districts be better understood? The Ministry of Agriculture is (and has been) remarkably unconcerned about relating agriculture to socio-cultural factors in India’s districts, whether they are rainfed or happily commanded by a big dam. The national agricultural research system, staffed from top to bottom by careerists more interested in a foreign research fellowship (however pointless, but preferably at an American agricultural university), has ignored every consideration other than crop science. The factors that affect the inhabitants – and therefore the cultivators – of a rainfed district have scarcely been examined.

Now, a beginning has been made by the NRAA and two partners, and it is a good one, even if I say so myself. The state (and union territories, let’s not forget those usually post-colonial pockets, their renown coming from some anachronistic curiousity) has been and remains the default administrative unit for measuring progress or deprivation, when such measurement is done by the central government. That Andhra Pradesh with 23 districts and a population of 84 million should be considered a state in the same manner as Manipur, with nine districts and a population 2.7 million is a typological mismatch that has rarely bothered our planners, else they would have long ago abandoned the ‘state’ as the object to be measured.

What the districts look like in the RAPI list

What the districts look like in the RAPI list

It needn’t have been so rickety, this basis for understanding lesser administrative units. For a spell of some six or seven years, until about 2004-05, the Planning Commission had calculated district domestic products. It was an extremely limited data set and the methods used are not clear, but despite its faults, the series provided a glimpse of economic activity at the level of the district, and was therefore more readily understandable by those working in talukas or tehsils – the administrative remove was no more than a level. In around 2007-08, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) released a district-denominated index to aid planning for rural credit. There was a pilot data set provided for Maharashtra, and I always wondered why Nabard, with all its experience and reach and numerous partners, had not followed that experiment with a country-wide district index.

What we have now has enough potential to serve as India’s first district-denominated agriculture and rural development index. Even if the Ministries of Agriculture and of Rural Development ignore it (for the usual absurd reasons that have to do with the gaseous egos of ministers and their puffed-up underlings, IAS cadres not excepted) the index set is sound enough to begin being adopted by institutions and research groups (as also NGOs and CBOs) and thereby expanded and developed in wiki-like manner.

The impetus comes from the National Rainfed Area Authority which has worked with the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA, in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh) and the Indian Agricultural Statistics Research Institute (IASRI, in New Delhi). I am pleasantly surprised by the uncharacteristic cooperation between these institutions, not because India’s NARS doesn’t have within it people with skill and who care, but because the indefatigably short-sighted lot running the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have traditionally scotched all such socially relevant collaboration. So, encomiums are due to CRIDA and IASRI for being true to their potential.

A farmer in the district of Mysore, Karnataka state, prepares her rice field.

A farmer in the district of Mysore, Karnataka state, prepares her rice field.

And that is how we have the ‘Rainfed Areas Prioritisation Index’ (naturally collapsible into RAPI) which combines a natural resource index and an integrated livelihood index. Thus, each one of 499 districts (urban and urbanised districts are excluded, as are districts in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, as cultivation in the districts of these three states is considered to be predominantly horticulture). The natural resource index has seven variables: rainfall, drought, available water content of soil, area under degraded and waste lands, rainfed area, status of ground water, and irrigation intensity. The integrated livelihood index has three variables: socio-economic index, health and sanitation index and infrastructure index.

These two indices have been combined by assigning a weight of two-thirds to the natural resource priority index of a district, and weight of one-third to the livelihood priority index of a district, and so to derive the district’s Rainfed Areas Prioritisation Index (RAPI). Based on their RAPI scores, the three index developers have identified 167 districts, the top one-third of the full list, as needing attention with programmes designed to strengthen and support rainfed farming.

[You can find an Excel file with the 167 districts here. There are, in order of frequency per state, 32 in Rajasthan, 30 in Madhya Pradesh, 16 in Karnataka, 16 in Maharashtra, 13 in Gujarat, 13 in Jharkhand, 11 in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Andhra Pradesh, 8 in Orissa, 6 in Tamil Nadu, 5 in Chhattisgarh, 4 in Bihar, 2 in Assam and 2 in West Bengal.]

The RAPI has come at an important moment. The Twelfth Five Year plan is now a year old and the budgetary support given to India’s two ‘flagship’ (how did this term become so popular? The Bharat Nirman seems to be all flag and never mind the ship) agriculture programmes – the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and the National Food Security Mission – continues to increase. How to measure whether the RKVY and the NFSM are money well spent, or ill spent. The RAPI should help there, but far more important, it is the first genuinely local framework for gauging a district’s endowment of agricultural, human, natural and econmic resources. Wish it well.

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  1. […] cannot over-emphasise the importance of this finding. In a post titled ‘Rain, districts and agriculture in India, a first calculus’ there is a…. This shows rainfed areas in India occupying some 200 million hectares (that is, over two-fifths of […]


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