That climate change will impact Indian agriculture is a foregone conclusion. In what way precisely is not clear, though some clues are emerging through various research projects to capture these signals and assess their impact on crops, livestock, fisheries and other fields.
The most widely trusted estimate indicates that crop yields may drop 4.5 to 9.0 per cent as a result of climate change in the next three decades, depending on how much temperatures rise and the impact of extreme climate in different parts of the world. A dent of this level in crop productivity translates into an overall cut of around 1.5 per cent in India’s gross domestic product (GDP), given that agriculture accounts for 15 per cent of total GDP.
Business as usual will put the country’s food security in jeopardy and cause widespread distress among farmers by threatening their livelihood security. Strategies to mitigate global warming by slashing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions alone will not help much. That’s because India contributes just 4 per cent to the world’s total harmful emissions. Its domestic efforts to reduce it further may, therefore, make little difference to overall global warming. The real need is for strategies to adapt agriculture to impending climate change.
Fortunately, the country’s farm scientists are unlikely to be caught unawares on this count. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which runs the country’s national agricultural research system, has recently augmented its efforts to combat climate change by launching a new research-cum-technology demonstration project called “National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture” (NICRA). This project received Cabinet approval on December 15, 2010, with an outlay of Rs 350 crore for the remaining two years of the current plan. The project will probably continue in the 12th plan (2012-17).
“The project will concentrate on creating research and capacity-building infrastructure and on conducting on-farm demonstrations of available climate-resilient technologies,” says ICAR director-general S Ayyappan. A significant aspect of this project is that it is entirely India-centred and focuses on finding location-specific solutions to climate change challenges.
Infrastructure to carry out basic and strategic research will help create capacity for developing technologies for medium- to long-term challenges. In the shorter run, the project aims to transfer to farmers climate adaptation technologies that are already available.
Significantly, about 100 of the most vulnerable districts in 27 states will be selected for field demonstrations of climate-resilient technologies. About 100,000 farmers are expected to benefit directly from this exercise. Millions of others will gain in the long run with the dissemination of these technologies and evolution of new ones.
It is critical to recognise that the consequences of global warming will vary from region to region. The mean temperature in India has risen by 0.6 degrees centigrade in the past 100 years. It is not certain whether the rate rise in warming will accelerate or decelerate, though most fear the former case. Evidence also suggests that weather extremes, such as drought, unusually heavy downpours, flash floods, intense heat and cold waves and the like may steadily exacerbate. All this bodes ill for agriculture, livestock and fisheries. Even more worrisome is the projection that though the overall amount of annual rainfall in India will increase, the number of rainy days will shrink.
This will increase uncertainties about crop yields, increasing the risk element in farming.
While many of these challenges can be tackled through technological interventions, some others may need policy support in addition to science-induced resilience. Agricultural scientists, on their part, can develop new crop varieties capable of withstanding stresses caused by heat, cold or water related factors. They can also conceive other kinds of technologies and cultivation practices to create tolerance to climate extremes. But the government, on its part, will need to revamp and expand arrangements for crop insurance and other means of hedging the heightened risks posed by climate change.
Ultimately, what we need is the ability to convert the challenge posed by climate change into an opportunity to mitigate the vulnerability of Indian agriculture.