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Updated: May 11, 2010 16:25 IST

Sorry state of rainfed agriculture

A. Narayanamoorthy
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Though India has the largest irrigated area in the world, over 60 percent of its cropped area is fed by rain and it contributes substantially to the production of coarse cereals, pulses, and oilseeds. Yet the state of rainfed agriculture is precarious and the problems associated with it are multifarious. To name the more striking ones: Low cropping intensity; poor adoption of modern technology; uncertainty in output; low productivity; the increasing number of suicides among farmers; and the high incidence of rural poverty.

A collection of papers presented at a conference held to commemorate the silver jubilee year of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Jaipur, the book makes a clear projection of the issues related to rainfed agriculture. The 15 papers in the volume have been grouped under three heads: agriculture in rainfed areas; conserving land and water; and natural resources and livelihood options.

Way behind

The era of planned development saw governments making efforts to improve the performance of rainfed agriculture as part of their plan to alleviate rural poverty. Although over the years productivity has increased, it is still way behind the performance of the irrigated regions. Why is this so? Has it anything to do with the application or non-application of modern technology? If the problem is indeed related to technology, will the technology employed for irrigated agriculture be suitable for rainfed farming? What are the impediments to rainfed agriculture? Have the governments' programmes had any impact at all?

These and other related questions are discussed broadly in the first section. The authors share the view that the green revolution, set in motion during the mid-1960s, has bypassed rainfed agriculture, and this is the main reason for the parlous state in which this segment of farming finds itself. M.S. Swaminathan speaks of a ‘Community Landcare Movement' based on conservation farming techniques to improve rainfed agriculture and says that the gram panchayats must be actively involved in it. Since moisture stress is often found to be a major reason for the underperformance of rainfed agriculture, adoption of drip and sprinkler irrigation is suggested as a remedy.

Major problems

The articles in the second section address soil fragility and water scarcity, which are among the major problems plaguing rainfed agriculture. Considerable space is devoted to a discussion of the watershed development programme, which represents an important official intervention for the conservation of land and water resources in rainfed areas.

In a significant presentation, Ratna Reddy and Gopinath Reddy offer an insightful analysis of watersheds based on a study of 1,000 sample households spread over five districts in Andhra Pradesh and proceed to examine the outcome in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations. This section has a paper on tank irrigation pertaining to Chhattisgarh. One wonders how tank irrigation is related to rainfed agriculture.

On livestock

The last section deals with natural resources and livelihood options. Except one paper, the articles discuss, understandably, the importance of livestock production system in rainfed areas. While raising livestock can be expected to enhance the livelihood opportunities, the question arises whether people living in the rainfed region will be able to maintain the livestock without there being any improvement on the farm front.

After all, it is agriculture that provides fodder for livestock. How far livestock development programmes implemented in the rainfed areas have helped in sustaining and increasing the farmers' livelihood opportunities? This has to be studied in depth and systematically before they could be commended as a solution to the ills of rainfed agriculture.

The agrarian crisis (a major challenge for the country since the early 1990s) and rainfed agriculture are closely linked. The high cost of cultivation, the disturbing phenomenon of farmers' suicides, lack of institutional credit, and inadequate public investment are some of the serious issues affecting rainfed agriculture.

Without investing in infrastructure development (irrigation, rural roads, markets, etc.), the performance of rainfed agriculture cannot be improved. It is unfortunate that the volume has no essay that specifically addresses such issues. However, there is no denying that the book is well-organised and offers several policy prescriptions.

Surjit Singh, who is the co-editor of the book, deserves credit for his coherent and perceptive introductory chapter. On the whole, the publication will be immensely useful for those who are concerned with the development of rainfed agriculture.

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