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Impact of Climate Change on Indian Agriculture


Energy Review, Vol 5. Issue 06. 2023

India is the 7th largest nation by area in the world with more than 1.4 billion people.  Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in the country with 70 percent of its rural households still depending primarily on agriculture for their food, income and livelihoods, while a majority of 82 percent of country’s farmers being small and marginal by nature of their land holdings and pattern of cropping that they adopt. 

In addition, population of Indian farmers is spread over a large swathe of geographical areas across east, west, north and south zones of the country; however, they can broadly be categorized into regional clusters around agro products they cultivate and produce: diary, milk, wheat, rice, pulses, cotton, ground nuts, maize, millets, corn, tobacco, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables, among others.


India’s geographical diversity, socio-cultural milieu, farming practices and local supply chains have long defined the country’s distributed agro produce and their farming patterns almost predictably for a long time, historically. However, such defining characteristics and local agro conditions began to experience challenges at scale due to changing climatic conditions across the country. As a result, Indian agriculture and its defining characteristics are no longer the same it was about a decade back.


As climate change has been intense and more periodic, the majority of the small and marginal farmers have found it hard to be able to mitigate the change let alone adapt to climate resilient farming approaches. Climate change thus has created conditions where agriculture, mostly for the farmers with small holdings, has been proving an expensive affair with input costs going up and yields per hectare going down, resulting in massive losses and making the sector unaffordable for farmers. Lack of subsidies, absence of R&D, agro extension services and missing insurance facilities in the private sector have contributed to the plight of farmers.


Here is how, despite challenges, Indian farmers are trying to cope with the climate crisis and trying to earn their livelihoods while keeping the nation self-sufficient in food production across segments. Geographically, eastern and north eastern parts of India are dotted by farmers with weaker socio-economic profiles with scarce financial and technical resources including absence of access to agricultural extension services. In addition, small land holdings restrict them to do their agro production on scale as they produce traditional agro products such as wheat, rice and pulses, running errands and earning their livelihoods by sale of these traditional produce in community markets.


In addition, their agricultural practices are grass roots, organic and nature based, given these areas are generally barren, infertile, hilly and lack in water resources suffering periodic floods and droughts. Such a situation also reflects their vulnerable socio-economic condition and scant contribution to domestic and international exports through market access except in cases where they can do some small community sale of their agro products in border areas adjoining Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, among others.   


Western and central parts of India however have a rich and socially upwardly mobile population of farmers, with large land holdings which give them scale to grow large quantities of wheat, rice, sugarcane, pulses, milk and value-added dairy products. These two regions also contribute significantly to foreign exchange earnings for the country through exports and sale of their produce through public procurement channels as well as privately with corporate avenues with government policies aimed at enabling their efforts to produce more and superior quality of crops acceptable in international markets.


These two regions and their farmers are financially resourceful and adopt some of the finest agro technologies, superior seeds, more R & D activities, mechanized methods of sowing, harvesting and cultivation, use of solar pumps, drones for irrigation while spacing out their traditional agro produces with cash crops, earning more money in the process. The farmers of the region also have large corporate contracts for seeding, cultivation, harvesting, and sales of their agro products and value added products. Rice which is largely produced and mostly consumed by Indian households has a varying quantum of per acreage yield ranging between 2200 to 2700 kilograms per year. It is estimated that Indian farmers can increase per acreage yield of rice to 3500 kilograms per year by better utilizing water resources, using high yield climate resistant seeds, better R&D, and leveraging directly mechanized seeding (DMS) methods alone.   

The Northern Indian region similarly reflects the same trend as that of the west and the central part of the country. Southern part of India however specializes in large scale cash crops due to deeper levels of water resources, largely rain fed agriculture landscape and multiple cropping seasons enabling them to produce vegetables, tobacco, cotton and dairy products instead. These farmers are also advanced in their agriculture practices, well educated, socially mobile with corporate farming contracts as they have bigger land holdings and are well organised and thus have scale entering into large agro corporate contracts with large domestic and multinational companies.

Use of sophisticated farming practices such as drones, drip irrigation, solar pumps and high yielding variety seeds are a common sight with sale of their cash crops in Sri Lanka and Maldives. Many of these regions are well connected through air routes and use air connectivity to export agro products and cash crops in neighbouring countries on a daily basis.      


While agriculture in India has achieved grain self-sufficiency, the production continues to be resource intensive, water intensive, cereal centric, regionally biased and now affected by the changing climate conditions. The resource intensive ways of Indian agriculture has also raised serious sustainability issues. Increasing stress on water resources definitely needs realignment and rethinking of policies. Desertification and land degradation also pose major threats to agriculture.

The social aspects around agriculture have also been witnessing changing trends. Increased feminisation of agriculture is mainly due to increasing rural-urban migration by men, rise of women-headed households and growth in the production of labour intensive cash crops. Women perform significant tasks, both, in farm as well as non-farm activities and their participation in the sector are increasing but their work is treated as an extension of their household work.

Given the wide spread climate change impacting the farmers and their agriculture, Indian farmers need to improve their management of agricultural practices.  Improvements in agriculture performance can lead to increased incomes of farming households, diversified production of crops, empowered women, strengthened agricultural diversity and productivity. Designing careful price and subsidy policies can further encourage production and consumption of nutrient rich crops incentivizing farmers to better adapt their farming to climate change.   


In order for farmers, especially small and marginal, to be able to effectively cope with more frequent climate episodes with intensity, farmers are getting more vulnerable to the vagaries of nature in varying degrees, depending on areas and geographical locations they are situated in. Agricultural areas located, for instance, near rivers and sea shores are definitely more affected than those that are in plains or hills.

 Given that the climate crisis is more likely to unfold rapidly over time, it’s incumbent on central and sub-regional governments in India to collaborate together with a range of policy, financial, technological and technical and agro extension services support system to help farmers’ better cope with the evolving dynamics of climate change and adapt to climate resilient farming.   


(Mr Pooran Chandra Pandey is an Adviser at the UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab, Paris.)


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