What will it take to protect India’s angry farmers from climate threats?

Indebted farmers, facing falling yields and water scarcity, want legally guaranteed price support for more crops – but that may not fix their climate woes

India's farmers face big climate threats. How can we protect them?

Deedar Singh (middle) sits with colleagues by the side of the road at the Shambhu border, between Punjab and Haryana, protesting the government's inaction in providing legal MSP guarantees on crops, February 27 2024 (Photo: Kanika Gupta)


Indian farmers – struggling with erratic weather, shrinking water supplies and falling incomes – have quit their fields in a major new wave of protest, and plan to keep up the pressure on the government ahead of national elections starting on April 19.

Debt-laden growers want an existing government procurement system to be made legally binding and to raise the minimum price for a wider range of crops – which could help them move away from thirsty rice and wheat farming.

But some agricultural analysts argue that bolstering the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for produce would not resolve the wider climate problems farmers face, nor ease demand for scarce water resources.

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Deedar Singh, a 50-year-old farmer from Patiala, joined a march towards Delhi in mid-February and spoke to Climate Home at a camp on the Punjab-Haryana border, 200 km from Delhi. He participated in a similar mobilisation back in 2020 that lasted for just over a year.

With a family of nine to support, he complained that his five-acre landholding and meagre income of 200,000 rupees per year ($2,400) cannot provide a decent quality of life, especially as weather extremes worsen.

“If untimely rain destroys our rice or hot temperatures shrink the wheat grain, our crops are ruined, leaving us unable to even cover the costs of the next cropping season,” said Singh. Most people in his village rely on financial support sent by their children who have migrated abroad, he added.

Farmers gather at the Shambhu border, between Punjab and Haryana, to burn effigies of political leaders and shout slogans in support of the protest, February 27 2024 (Photo: Kanika Gupta)

Globally, India accounts for 10% of agricultural output and is the second-largest producer of rice and wheat. It is also the biggest consumer of groundwater. Its 260 million farmers depend heavily on depleting water reserves to irrigate their crops.

That means they are also struggling with climate change, as about 65% of the country’s cropped area depends on rainwater. Erratic rainfall and shorter winters are harming yields, with heavy downpours causing flooding and a sudden spike in temperatures a year ago causing wheat grain to shrink.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) reports that for every 1C increase in temperature, wheat production suffers a significant decline of 4-5 million tonnes.

Debt drives suicides

Water resources are running low and farmers’ input costs have soared – yet the government-administered minimum support price (MSP) has not risen accordingly, said Ramandeep Singh Mann, an agriculturist and member of Kisan Mazdoor Morcha, an umbrella body spearheading the current protest.

That has left farmers with no money to pay for contingencies and has forced many to take on high levels of debt, he said.

“At some point your back breaks. When that happens, there is no other solution but to take extreme steps,” he added, referring to suicides among indebted farmers.

To boost falling yields, farmers are using more inputs like water and fertilisers, leaving them with higher production costs and lower profit margins.

Some states have provided free or subsidised electricity, as well as loan forgiveness for debt-strapped farmers, but since 2014, only half of the intended waiver recipients have benefited, according to a study by the State Bank of India.

These woes have fuelled a growing wave of protest, as farmers feel they have no other recourse.

Nonetheless, Sardara Singh Johl, a 97-year-old agricultural economist from Ludhiana and former vice-chancellor at Punjab Agricultural University, said the latest mobilisation was unlikely to result in the dialogue required to address the broader problems facing farmers.

“They already have MSP for wheat and rice, and these are high-paying crops. Even if you reduce the price risk with MSP, what can you do about the other uncertainties?” he asked.

In mid-February, at the last round of talks with the government, ministers proposed to purchase five additional crops – moong dal, urad dal, tur dal, maize and cotton – from farmers at an MSP for five years through central agencies, but farmers rejected the offer.

Jagjit Singh Dallewal, leader of the non-political Samyukta Kisan Morcha group, which is also involved in organising the farmers’ protest, said the proposal would mainly benefit farmers willing to switch from paddy or wheat to other crops and would not ensure a stable income.

Farmer leaders give a press conference at Shambhu border, between Punjab and Haryana, on February 27 2024. Photo: Kanika Gupta)

Water reserves shrink amid over-use

Economist Johl argued that, irrespective of its profitability, rice is no longer a suitable crop for Punjab as its water table recedes to a dangerously low level.

A study by Punjab Agricultural University found that between 1998 and 2018, groundwater levels in the region had dropped drastically, from 10 metres below ground to 30 metres, largely due to a shift from traditional canal irrigation to widespread adoption of tube wells for water extraction.

Farmers are aware of Punjab’s dwindling water resources, said Mann, but they need guaranteed price support for more crops in order to shift away from water-intensive rice cultivation.

“They know that if they are able to earn as much as they do from paddy, they will grow other crops. But without fair support of MSP, it is hard to make that switch,” he said.

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Uday Chandra, a professor of government at the Georgetown University in Qatar, said key food-supplying states like Punjab have struggled to get their problems heard and dealt with by the national government.

“The problem is that what the Punjab farmer wants isn’t sustainable,” he said, referring to the state’s shrinking water supplies. “The best way would be to bring them into discussion and find a solution that is specific to them.”

India's farmers face big climate threats. How can we protect them?

Trucks lined up at the Shambhu border, 200 km from Delhi, after being stopped by the central government from advancing to the Indian capital, February 27 2024 (Photo: Kanika Gupta)

Thousands of farmers who were initially stopped by heavy police control outside Delhi have now made it to the capital after receiving permission to protest at the Ramlila Maidan ground. They are determined to maintain their mobilisation during the general elections – which will take place over several weeks from late April until the start of June – if their MSP demands go unmet.

In 2021, angry farmers backed down after the government rowed back on laws that had sparked huge protests. But they have now returned to direct action, calling on the government to fulfill its promises, including demands for pensions, debt waivers, penalties for selling counterfeit agricultural inputs, and withdrawal from the World Trade Organization.

Call for high-tech solutions

Mann said climate change is compounding their woes – yet while the government acknowledges the problem, it is doing little to help the sector deal with it.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

However, at the ICAR’s Annual General Meeting last month, Arjun Munda, Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, said the Modi government is committed to bolstering the agricultural sector and supporting farmers, including with high-yielding, resilient seed varieties released by ICAR in the past decade.

It also issues Agromet weather-based crop advisories with the India Meteorological Department to about 60 million farmers twice a week and promotes practices for more efficient use of water and nutrients.

But protesting farmers said the government’s measures are failing to help them adapt adequately to a changing climate and water shortages.

Bhupinder Singh, a farmer in Punjab’s Mohali district, discusses his transition to organic farming methods as a means to prevent the burning of stubble remaining after rice cultivation, November 26 2023. (Photo: Kanika Gupta)

Haranjeet Singh, 53, of Ludhiana in Punjab, said the rice variety farmers are now planting gives smaller harvests, after the government suspended use of a more productive but thirstier variety which also took longer to mature and produced more stubble – a major cause of air pollution when burned.

“Unfortunately, these new seeds don’t give us as much yield,” he said. “We are spending the same amount of money and getting less in return.”

Madhura Swaminathan, daughter of the late MS Swaminathan – the architect of India’s Green Revolution which boosted crop yields and tackled the nation’s food scarcity issues in the 1970s – believes greater use of technology could help.

The professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore pointed to an example she encountered in Amritsar a few years ago, where groundwater sensors were connected to mobile apps, enabling users to remotely control water pumps and conserve water.

“We must embrace new technologies, farming practices, and techniques to tackle the challenges brought by climate change,” she said.


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