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How India’s Environmental Policies For Its Farmers Are Fuelling Climate Change

by Ananya Malhotra Asia Sep 21st 20215 mins
How India’s Environmental Policies For Its Farmers Are Fuelling Climate Change

It’s been 75 years since India’s independence from colonisation. It’s come a long way from being the world’s leading importer of food grains under the Food for Peace Programme in the 1960s to being one of the leading exporters of rice, sugar and spices in 2020-2021. How did India achieve this? And what are the repercussions of those environmental policies ? Let’s find out.

The clarion call of Shastri’s “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” resonated with his predecessor Mrs Indira Gandhi and she made the “Green Revolution” a key government priority. India was pulled away from the mouth of mass famine and devastation with the shift from relying on erratic food aid by the Johnson administration to a fully self-sufficient nation with ample food security. 

Agriculture flourished with the use of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) of wheat and rice, subsidies for fertilisers, provision of cheap electric power for irrigation and minimum support prices (MSPs) for the produce. 

What started as a boon for the agriculture sector and the Indian economy as a whole is casting a deep shadow on the future of the nation. The economic prosperity observed in the initial years has plateaued because of unsustainable agricultural practices. The country is witnessing a catastrophic increase in farmer suicides because of high debt burdens, and crop failure. How did this happen? 

For example, the adoption of the Green revolution was targeted at prosperous farmers of Punjab and Haryana. They were encouraged to adopt the wheat-rice (paddy) cycle and shift away from their traditional crops like maize, millet and pulses by providing incentives like subsidised electricity and fertilisers, and a guarantee of procurement of their crops at a price two times higher than the cost of production.

Producing a kilogram of rice requires an average of 2,800 litres of water, while a kilogram of wheat takes 1,654 litres according to a WaterAid India report. These water-intensive crops aren’t sustainable for regions with sandy loam soils such as that of  North India’s. This has led to the recession of the water table to alarming levels and the indiscriminate use of electric pumps to irrigate paddy have led to potable groundwater becoming alkaline due to contamination from saltwater intrusion. The unthinking application of pesticides and fertilisers has also polluted the groundwater,  increased its chances of getting into the food chain through bioaccumulation and risk rendering the soil fallow (ironically) eventually. This also makes the crops prone to locusts and other resilient insect species, as was seen in June 2020 across the West Asian landscape. Eventually, the productivity of the land decreases and thus the vicious cycle for farmers of taking loans for improving soil fertility by the use of fertilisers and pesticides begins. The credit burden weighs heavy on the shoulders of poor farmers and they are left with little choice. 

So Why are Government Environmental Policies to Blame?

Every government succeeding the Congress in the 1980s has made agriculture an unsustainable exercise. The subsidies for fertilisers and electricity that were meant to decrease the out-of-pocket expenditure for the marginal farmers has led to the adoption of water guzzler crops in the most water-scarce regions of the country like rice in Haryana and Sugarcane in Maharashtra. The cost incurred for the farmer subsidies accounted for 1,34,400 crore rupees in 2020-21 according to the economic survey 2021-2022.

The Minimum Support Prices set in place as a policy that guarantees farmers an assured purchase from the government over and above their production cost has led to a distortion of the market forces of supply-demand that used to govern what crops are to be grown. The Food Corporation Of India has its cold storages and godowns overflowing, festering with wheat and paddy. 

The guarantee by the government has also led to a tragic exercise known as ‘stubble burning’ a major contributor to New Delhi’s worsening AQI which stands at 880 ppm, pushing the cigarette-equivalent figure to over 40 a day. Stubble burning is the process of clearing the agricultural land by lighting the residue of the previous harvesting process on fire, to prepare it for the next round of sowing. It is common in North India when shifting from paddy to wheat. There are over 74,000 agricultural fires in a span of 60 days in Punjab. 

You might also like: The Cost of Subsidising Agriculture

The efforts of the government to legislate on the three farmer bills have gained traction across the world for being anti-farmer, especially from pop stars like Rihanna and environmentalist Greta Thunberg. The farmers are agitated by  being treated as second class citizens of the nation. Again, the contention is around MSPs, Contract farming and APMC mandis (agricultural markets) ; all holding important relevance for the future of the environment. 

It is important to not only identify the loopholes in the making of environmental policies for the farmers of India, but also essential that we look at viable solutions that can come to pass, through dialogue and policy making. 

What Can Be Done?

Water Productivity Mapping Of Major Indian Crops”, a report by NABARD suggests a strategic change in the pricing policies of inputs and procurement of outputs could tackle the misalignment between cropping patterns and water resource availability. 

Farmers in the Punjab and Haryana are willing to take the leap of shifting to more traditional and sustainable crops like maize, pulses and nitrogen-fixing oilseeds that also take up fewer water resources to flourish. But they are willing to shift only if given a safety net from market risk and a state assured procurement policy from the government similar to wheat and paddy. 

In-situ catchment water harvesting for supplemental irrigation, improved water retention through composting and mulches, installing of micro-irrigation drips and sprinklers,  synchronising crop planting with on-set monsoons and use of community tubewells will promote sustainable use of the limited water resources we have. We can use the government’s social security schemes like MNREGA or India’s Rural Employment Guarantee to set up farm ponds for rainwater harvesting and distilling irrigation tanks. 

To promote less-water consuming crops like oilseeds and pulses, it is essential to encourage diversification away from water-intensive paddy and sugarcane by reducing market price risks associated with the switching of cropping patterns. This is especially true for Northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana which are struggling with depleting natural water resources. Procurement of paddy should be strengthened in eastern states like West Bengal, Assam and Chhattisgarh, which have high irrigation water productivity and soils suitable for the sowing of water-intensive crops. 

Direct Benefit Transfers under the Jan Dhan Yojana scheme, PM Fasal Bima Yojna has helped farmers improve their purchasing power. This is more effective than subsidies on fertilisers and power which lead to the exploitation of  natural resources. It also effectively enables farmers to migrate to more sustainable agricultural practices of crop rotation, organic farming and artificial recharge of groundwater. 

India is a resilient country. Despite the diversity, the people of India stand united and face the challenges it is cast to overcome. Climate Change is an impending threat to the future of the planet, and as a nation, India must contribute to formulating sustainable, environmental policies in the agriculture sector. We must ensure that the 500 million people residing in rural India, who are the most vulnerable and impacted heavily by such environmental policies, are assured their right to a dignified life as enshrined in Article 21 of the India Constitution.    

Featured image by: Ron Hansen/Unsplash

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