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possibly every Five Year Plan from the 1980s onwards, although in the Eleventh and Twelfth that earlier conviction has been replaced by a condescension for planning whose origin is not New Delhi, but that really is another complaint altogether.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

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This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India.The full article is here.

Transplanting paddy in the rice fields of North Goa, in monsoon 2011

If the Government of India is, during the finalisation of the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) direction for agriculture and food, deciding to favour production over rural livelihood needs, then it must recognise clearly the internal land grab that India’s farm households are experiencing. The protests in western Uttar Pradesh by farmers’ groups typify the scale of the diversion of farmland for real estate development or industrial use. In the last four years the Bahujan Samaj Party of Uttar Pradesh has approved a number of projects like the Yamuna Expressway which has been allotted to a private company, JP Infratech Ltd, which holds a contract that includes the right to construct apart from the right to collect tolls for 36 years.

A village in the tribal regions of Navsari district, Gujarat, off the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway and its 'ribbon' land development

Along this 165-km eight-lane “super highway” a “hi-tech city” has been planned. This will include industrial parks, residential colonies, shopping malls, professional colleges, schools, hospitals and urban services centres. Currently estimated as a Rs 9,500 crore project this “hi-tech” city will, when complete to plan, occupy 43,000 hectares of land that is currently under cultivation by the residents of 1,191 villages. This very large land grab alone will remove the potential to harvest about 100,000 tonnes of foodgrain a year — an amount that can fulfil the cereal needs of all of urban Haryana for five weeks.

There are 533 urban centres with populations of between 1 million and 50,000 — this is apart from the metropolises. The drive to encourage the faster urbanisation of these 533 towns and cities has already taken an unknown amount of farmland out of cultivation. There is an estimate that in the last decade — to a large degree a consequence of the relentless expansion of the National Capital Region — Uttar Pradesh has lost about 6 million hectares of farmland. The expansion of the NCR and its satellite developments is unparalleled in modern India, but it is the biggest example of the land grab that is taking place in all urban areas in India.

A stack of crop residue in Satara district, Maharashtra. This biomass is increasingly being diverted from traditional uses and towards energy

Estimates based on fieldwork and the use of longitudinal spatial mapping based on satellite imagery show that for every acre of cultivable land that is built upon or used for urban purposes, over five years an additional four cultivable acres turns fallow and is quickly converted to non-agricultural use. How much has India lost in 2010? How much has it lost from 2001 to 2010? There are no best guesses, no reliable estimates, there is not even experimental methodology to apply to the chief crop-growing regions and their expanding settlements. Yet the macroeconomic models being produced for the central government and planning agencies promise ever-increasing yields from a plateau of cultivated land area. One of them is wrong and the evidence on the ground — and from the protests by farmers of Bhatta Parsaul village in Greater Noida — points to the error being in the models.

Will these errors be corrected before March 2012, when the Eleventh Plan ends? Will the social costs of real food inflation be counted, and will actual retail food inflation in India’s tier two and tier three cities be recognised and its underlying causes made public? At this point, all the answers are likely to be negative. The Government of India, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food Processing, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (Department of Commerce), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and central and state planning agencies now speak the same language — the message is that most of the growth in agriculture in future will come not from foodgrains, but from sectors such as horticulture, dairying and fisheries, where the produce is perishable, and where even greater attention needs to be paid to the logistics of transporting produce from the farm to the consumer, with minimum spoilage. Urban and urbanising markets and the structural change in nutrition being demanded by a section of the country’s population form the focus.

[This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India.The full article is here.]

Why India’s ‘growth’ focus is ignoring the food access question

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This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India. The full article is here.

Waiting for the bus in Satara district, Maharashtra

How much food will India need to grow to feed our population in 2011-12? How much in 2013-14? Will we need to import wheat and rice or will we be self-sufficient? Do we know the environmental cost of this self-sufficiency? Are we willing to bear it? These are the questions that the Government of India, its ministries and its planning agencies must find answers to before the start of the Twelfth Five Year Plan period, which is 2012-17.

The foodgrains view from mid-2011 is one of relative comfort — 235 million tonnes is the estimate (including 94 mt rice and 84 mt wheat).

From this position, the Government of India has a set of six broad-brush objectives. These it wants its ministries and departments, connected directly and as adjunct to food and its provision, to internalise. It wants state governments to shape policy to support these objectives, which are:
* Target at least 4% growth for agriculture. Cereals are on target for 1.5% to 2% growth. India should concentrate more on other foods, and on animal husbandry and fisheries where feasible.
* Land and water are the critical constraints. Technology must focus on land productivity and water use efficiency.

On what was formerly farm land in Thane district, Maharashtra, residential condominiums are being quickly built

* Farmers need better functioning markets for both outputs and inputs. Also, better rural infrastructure, including storage and food processing.
* States must act to modify the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act/Rules (exclude horticulture), modernise land records and enable properly recorded land lease markets.
* The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) has helped convergence and innovation and gives state governments flexibility. This must be expanded in the Twelfth Plan.
* The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) should be redesigned to increase contribution to land productivity and rain-fed agriculture. Similarly, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has potential to improve forest economies and tribal societies. But convergence with the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) is required for strengthening rural livelihoods.

Are these objectives reasonable? Are they equitable and will they encourage an agriculture that is ecologically sustainable in India? From a resources use perspective, the government is right to point out certain constraints (land and water) and administrative improvements (land records, using NREGA labour for farm needs). The direction to provide better infrastructure in India’s rural districts, the better to link farmers to markets with, has been stated in every single Five Year Plan for the last five plan periods, and has been repeated in every single plan review and even more often in the Economic Surveys which accompany the annual budgets. (Under the Bharat Nirman programme, this need has to an extent been met, but the beneficiaries are as likely industry and land developers as they are cultivators.)

A 'basti' in Satara district, Maharashtra, whose residents provide both agricultural and construction site labour

Protecting livelihoods in agriculture, cultivation and from use of forest produce is not, however, a central aim for food and agriculture in the Twelfth Plan. This omission, surprising from the social equity point of view, is taking place because the central government has before it three points it is trying to make sense of, and to decide the best way to tackle. In brief, these three points are: there is a “structural change” taking place in nutrition (more consumption of dairy and meat); there are world factors influencing foodgrain production, consumption and use in India; there are indications that agriculture’s share of GDP is today edging higher than it was five years ago, and that per capita agricultural income is increasing faster than overall per capita income.

It is the last trend, as seen by the central government although not by smallholder farmers and marginal cultivators, which is being taken as proof that new approaches to agriculture are delivering income benefits. The new approaches revolve heavily around the provision of infrastructure that aids modern terminal markets, agri-logistics, cold supply chains, integrated farm to retail companies, agricultural commodity traders, private warehousing service providers, export-oriented food processing units, contract farming operations which are linked to branded processed food, and exporters of cereals, fruits and vegetables. It is here that the growth in agricultural GDP is taking place and it is here that the rise in per capita agricultural income is being recorded. The central government will fight shy of a real cost-real price district analysis of agricultural investment and income because it will reveal the huge structural imbalances that are forming — that is why a national outlook artificially disaggregated into states becomes far more comfortable to defend.

[This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India. The full article is here.]