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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possibly every Five Year Plan from the 1980s onwards, although in the Eleventh and Twelfth that earlier conviction has been replaced by a condescension for planning whose origin is not New Delhi, but that really is another complaint altogether.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.

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.

The top 20 oryza districts of India

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Some of the rice varieties of Kerala state, displayed during the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting (COP 11) in Hyderabad in 2012 October.

Which are the districts of India which grow the most rice? Let’s look at the country-level numbers for rice in 2007-08, in 2008-09 and in 2009-10. In 2007-08 the total tonnage reported by the rice growing districts was 90.071 million tons, grown in 553 districts that reported rice harvests, and which grew their rice over 41.306 million hectares (413,000 sq kilometres, a combined area bigger than Paraguay).

In 2008-09 the total tonnage reported by the rice growing districts was 93.148 mt, grown in 508 districts that reported rice harvests, and which grew their rice over 42.759 m ha (427,590 sq km, which is a combined area nearly as large as Iraq). In 2009-10 the total tonnage reported by the rice growing districts was 80.07 mt, grown in 408 districts that reported rice harvests, and which grew their rice over 34.978 m ha (349,780 sq km which is a combined area larger than the Republic of the Congo). [See also this earlier entry on rice-growing districts of India.]

India’s rice-growing districts compared over three seasons.

So, looking at the rice totals, there were ups and downs even over three seasons – remember that the monsoon of 2009 was poor and we had drought conditions in many districts. I would have liked to include the data for 2010-11 at district level, but this is still minus West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh and I can’t understand why this is so because the regular ‘advance estimates’ released by the Ministry of Agriculture are supposed to be based on what the states send in as crop growing data every quarter. The three years before 2007-08 should help us understand these trends better and as soon as I collect and clean up data for those years I will add to this post. Meanwhile, you can download the spreadsheet of the top 20 districts for these three years here (xlsx).

Which are the districts that produce the most rice in India, year after year? Based on this three-season set, here’s what we have. In Andhra Pradesh the districts are East Godavari, Guntur, Karimnagar, Krishna, Nalgonda, Nellore and West Godavari. In Chhattisgarh it is Raipur. In Punjab the districts are Firozpur, Ludhiana, Moga, Patiala and Sangrur. In West Bengal the districts are 24 Parganas (South), Bankura, Birbhum, Burdwan, Hooghly, Midnapur (East), Midnapur (West) and Murshidabad.

The top rice-growing districts, 2007-08 to 2009-10, in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Chhattisgarh.

How much do these top 20 (there are 21 top districts over these three years) by year contribute to the country’s total rice harvest? In 2007-08 they contributed 23.16 mt which was 25.7% of the total rice harvest; in 2008-09 they contributed 24 mt which was again 25.7% of the total; in 2009-10 they contributed 21.93 mt which was 27.3% of the total.

Using a tonnage-based ranking, we have seen how the top 20 rice-growing districts contribute around a quarter of India’s total rice harvest. How different are the top 20 from a group of 20 rice-growing districts further down in the tonnage ranking, for example the 20 districts between 40 and 59 for those years? And is the 40-59 group of districts more diverse (geographically) and have more growing variety (what else do they grow?) than is shown by the dominance of the same districts from West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab in the top 20?

Let’s see what the numbers say. In 2007-08 the 20 districts between ranks 40 and 59 (ranked by tonnage) together harvested 7.20 mt, in 2008-09 it was 7.17 mt and in 2009-10 it was 6.90 mt.

Hence in all three years this set of 20 contributed around a third less rice than the top 20. This is a difference which helps explain the big gap between the tonnage for districts even between those at 80th and 90th percentiles – see the quick comparison chart for how concentrated India’s rice production is in relatively few rice-growing districts.

This cursory look at three years’ data for rice and the districts it is grown in raise several questions. Most important, why do we have complete data (at district level) only until 2009-10 and not after? I find this puzzling since we have advance estimates (released by the Ministry of Agriculture four times a year) for major cereals, pulses and commercial crops even into 2012-13. On what data from the states are these advance estimates then based if we can’t see district figures?

Also, why is there still so much concentration of rice production – 25% to 27% of the total – in only 20 districts? Depending on how many districts report rice harvests in a year, these 20 comprise no more than 4% or 5% of the total rice-growing districts in India. The National Food Security Mission (which concentrates on rice, wheat and pulses) is active in 137 districts specifically for growing rice, so in what way is this concentration of production significant? More on this matter to follow.

Written by makanaka

November 10, 2012 at 20:23