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The big climate shift busy India missed

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Climatic classification at district level (1971–2005). Map: Current Science

Climatic classification at district level (1971–2005). Map: Current Science

Quietly, a group of researchers from an institute that guides new thinking in rainfed farming, has published a finding that ought to make India sit up and take notice. They set out to ask whether a twenty-year-old classification of districts according to the climatic patterns observed in them still held true. It doesn’t, and this group from the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) has a remedy. But the startling finding is that there is a recorded climatic shift in about 27% of the geographical area of India.

Not that Current Science, the widely-read and well-respected fortnightly journal published by the Current Science Association (with the Indian Academy of Sciences) put it that dramatically. An eighty-one-year-old journal prefers drama in theatre and not as a by-product of scientific inquiry. Nonetheless, the finding is there and it is published, in Volume 105, Number 4, the issued dated 2013 August 25.

The problem has to do with how district-level planning can best be done – I am moulding this problem a bit to fit my own well-advertised bias against the state as the unit of planning and in favour of the district as the unit. The authors of the innocuously-named paper, ‘Revisiting climatic classification in India: a district-level analysis’, have pointed out that the Planning Commission of India had emphasised the need for district-level plans and the district as the focal unit for development schemes in the Twelfth Five Year Plan.

Only partly correct, for the Commission has been advocating a district-level contribution to planning in possibly every Five Year Plan from the 1980s onwards, although in the Eleventh and Twelfth that earlier conviction has been replaced by a condescension for planning whose origin is not New Delhi, but that really is another complaint altogether.

Earlier studies had indeed brought climatic classifications to the district level, but in those cases climatic data sets used were old (not later than 1970). And that is partly why the climatic classification used by the Ministry of Rural Development when it assesses (or says it does) the eligibility of districts to qualify for the Drought Prone Area Programme and the Desert Development Programme dates back to 1994 (the DPAP and DDP that veteran block development officers are familiar with).

Estimated district-level annual rainfall in millimetres (based on grid data for 1971–2005). Map: Current Science

Estimated district-level annual rainfall in millimetres (based on grid data for 1971–2005). Map: Current Science

No wonder then that this group of researchers, steeped in studying dryish and rainfed districts, chafed at the vintage of the classification. The most important difference observed between the old studies and the CRIDA group’s study was the shift of climate from moist sub-humid/humid to dry sub-humid in Odisha (12 districts), Chhattisgarh (7 districts), Jharkhand (4 districts) and Madhya Pradesh (5 districts) “to a great extent”, as they have said.

There is also a substantial increase of arid region in Gujarat and a decrease of the same type of region in Haryana. Other salient observations include the increase in the semi-arid regions of Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh due to a shift of climate from dry sub-humid to semi-arid. Likewise, the moist sub-humid pockets in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have turned dry sub-humid to a larger extent.

Among various shifts observed by the group, the shift from moist sub-humid to dry sub-humid was the largest (7.23% of the country’s geographical area). About half of the moist sub-humid districts in eastern India (other than West Bengal) became dry sub-humid. A number of humid districts of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh turned moist sub-humid. In Mizoram and Tripura, the shift was towards per-humid from the earlier humid climate.

India-district_moisture_index

The classification methodology.

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this finding. In a post titled ‘Rain, districts and agriculture in India, a first calculus’ there is a map. This shows rainfed areas in India occupying 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. And the pioneering work I referred to in that posting also included CRIDA.

There is no doubt that this updated district climatic classification will be vital for all those working at the district level, whether for agricultural planning, for assessment of water demand, preparing measures during times of drought, or determining whether the DPAP and DDP of yesteryear and the RKVY and NFSM of today need recalibrating.

Once again led by first class work at CRIDA, the district as the default administrative unit for development, assessment, planning and enumerating becomes the norm we still fail to adopt. To the 11 of the CRIDA group who really must take a bow for this work, I can only say: well done, for the revolution is at hand.

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