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Farmer suicides: A call to climate action for India

by Suresh Babu | International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Tuesday, 5 September 2017 11:30 GMT

In this 2015 file photo, a farmer shows wheat crop damaged by unseasonal rains in his wheat field at Sisola Khurd village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India's agriculture needs to become climate resilient, as the risks for small-scale farmers become more dangerous with each passing year

As both a contributor to climate change and a victim of its impacts, agriculture needs to become climate resilient. This direct connection between climate change and agriculture is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in India, where recent research has shown climate change as the key contributing factor to the suicides of more than 60,000 farmers. This shocking number reveals the deep social and psychological impacts of climate on smallholder farmers and agricultural workers, who form the majority of the poor and hungry, and calls for better tools, policies and programmes to address the growing threat.

As many other countries, India has borne the brunt of climate impacts, seeing increased flooding, variability in rainfall, extreme heat, and vulnerability to more severe storms. Especially for small-scale farmers, the risks become clearer, and more dangerous, with each passing year. That is why boosting agricultural resilience in India is now, more than ever, a crucial key to preparing for the impacts of climate change.

Failing to address India’s climate change can spell trouble for many smallholders who continue to depend on rainfed agriculture. To save farmers lives and livelihoods, making Indian agriculture climate-resilient must be a priority next step.

As a start, policy incentives can be geared toward more equitable and efficient management of water resources, rather than leaving farmers to resort to unreliable borewells. In taking a climate-aware approach to water management, India’s policymakers can ensure that farmers become less vulnerable to the variable patterns of flooding and drought that have hit the region hard in recent years. Cycling between using surface water in rainier years, and recharged groundwater in drier years, for example, can reduce the threat of unpredictable rainfall to farming communities.

Empowering farmers to become financially independent will prove another key step toward resilience. Currently, farmers are trapped in a cycle of seeking out loans from high-interest money lenders. By making institutional credit available at affordable rates, farmers can avoid debt traps.

Further complicating the financial prospects of agriculturalists, government compensation policies seem to work against the farmers’ best interests. In a morbid sense, the compensation in the case of death of a farmer is seen as a route for farmers’ families to get out of debt. The money distributed to the farmer’s family is often used to pay off the predatory loans, to keep the farm afloat. This distressing cycle of debt further leaves farmers and their families most vulnerable to future climate-induced shock.

To move forward on climate-resilient agriculture, India must also take stock of its agricultural emissions. With the measurement and mapping of greenhouse gases (GHGs), better climate policy could be developed. Informing better mitigation techniques, a district-level GHG agricultural emissions index would set priorities appropriate to India’s context.

But a database is only a starting point; on-the-ground knowledge is needed in every district to put this data to practical use for climate resilient programming. Developing and using the data and the tools to boost technical competency at the local level means that resources will be better managed, and that research and extension services can be made more climate focused. Local solutions require use of such decentralised databases and multidisciplinary approach to climate-informed farming, especially if bolstered by collective action between large- and small-scale farmers.

The most recent uptick in farmer suicides is a call to action; India must heed this as a distress signal for the country’s agriculture. It is high time that Indian policy makers and researchers began to work more closely with its farmers; re-examining agricultural policies, enhancing financial empowerment, and charting a data-driven path toward mitigation and adaptation toward climate resilient agriculture. The impacts of climate change won’t wait.

Suresh Babu is a senior research fellow and head of capacity strengthening at the International Food Policy Research Institute.