The National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) should take charge of dry-land farming now

For implementing the inclusive growth agenda, it is crucial to prop up agriculture, the soft underbelly of our economy. Here’s what can be done

Inclusive growth is an area that we have been talking about for a few years now, but integrating agriculture into the Indian economy has been rather difficult for many reasons. Agriculture continues to be the soft underbelly of the Indian economy and unless the millionsi  involved in Indian agriculture are enabled to participate meaningfully in the growth process of the country, inclusive growth will remain an elusive dream in India. Let us make no mistake about that!

Part of the problem in pushing the inclusive growth agenda has been our inability to break down agriculture into concrete sub-areas that need to be tackled and devise cogent and specific action plans to tackle ground-level problems in these different areas. While large national flagship programs such as NRLMii  and institutions like ICARiii , NABARDiv , CRIDAv  etc., promise to tackle issues related to agriculture and rural livelihoods, much of this strategising happens either in general terms and/or lacks sufficient teeth for implementation. There is too much happening across institutions in terms of policy setting and programme design (particularly at the national level) but because ground-level implementation is left to state governments and/or other local bodies which lack the requisite expertise, infrastructure and perhaps even political/administrative will to implement these, there is no serious accountability in translating the well-intentioned policies into tangible action. This has indeed been a recurring theme over the last few decades, much to our dismay and that is why we keep having newer programmesvi  similar to the NRLM (National Rural Livelihood Mission) over and over again.

Therefore, it is about time that programs like NRLM stop talking of generalities and focus on specific areas where tangible action is required and can be undertaken on the ground. In other words, we do not need a huge program like the NRLM just to build a whole network of SHGs (self-help groups) and related institutions. NRLM must become accountable to the Indian people and focus on rural livelihoods in areas that have the highest potential to include large numbers of people in a meaningful sense in the overall growth process. If the NRLM does that, it can surely usher in a golden era of inclusive growth that we have been talking about for almost seven years now, without a great deal of success.

So, where can the NRLM start? One such area is rain-fed (or dry-land) agriculture, obviously. “India ranks first among the countries that practice rain-fedvii agriculture both in terms of extent and value of production. Out of an estimated 140.3 million hectares (m ha) net cultivated area, 79.44 m ha (57%) is rain-fed , contributing 44% of the total food-grain production. It is estimated that even after achieving the full irrigation potential, nearly 50% of the net cultivated area will remain dependent on rainfall. Rain-fed agriculture supports nearly 40% of India’s estimated population of 1,210 million in 2011. While cultivation of coarse cereals, pulses, oilseeds and cotton predominate in these rain-fed regions, there are other crops as well. In the rain-fed areas, farmers’ dependence on livestock, besides arable farming, as an alternative source of income, is high. It is estimated that nearly two out of three heads of cattle population in India thrive in rain-fed regions. These data emphasise the crucial role played by rain-fed agriculture in India’s food security.”viii 

Thus, while the strategic importance of dry-land agriculture cannot be ignored, its state in India is very precarious, to say the least. The multifaceted problems associated with rain-fed agriculture severely impoverish the rural communities and populations dependent on them. Specifically, several factors exacerbate the problems of vulnerability and rural poverty among such dry-land farmers: a) poor/low soil fertility; b) inappropriate soil/water management practices (that result in land degradation); c) lack of improved/suitable varieties to counter uncertainty and diversity in climatic conditions; d) devastating pest/disease attacks that finish off the crops and/or drastically reduce the yields; e) declining land-man ratio; and f) resource-poor rural communities (that are unable to meet even minimum standards of health, nutrition and hygiene).ix 

That is not all. The vulnerability and poverty of these farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture is further accentuated by low cropping intensity, high cost of cultivation, poor adoption of modern technology, low productivity and uncertainty in output, inadequate public investment in water/market/related infrastructure, lack of appropriate and quality institutional credit (post-harvest, especially), decreasing returns, increasing indebtedness and related factors. The net result of all of this is that these resource-poor farmers become poorer and vulnerable, with each passing day and have no other recourse than to end their lives dependent on fragile livelihoods—the suicides witnessed in Andhra Pradesh, Vidarbha (Maharashtra) and other states over the last few years are a manifestation of and testimony to their burgeoning helplessness.x

This being the case, and given the lofty objectives of NRLM (which is one of the flagship programmes of the present government), it seems only fair and appropriate for it to have a special focus on the fragile livelihoods of dry land (rain-fed) farming that supports nearly 480 million people in Indiaxi . And without doubt, the NRLM could play a crucial converging role in bringing together diverse stakeholders and creating synergies. For example, while many institutions have come out with suggestions and policy actions with regard to dry-land agriculture, ground-level implementation is dismal. Certainly, it is great to have research and innovate on strategies to tackle the problems associated with dry land agriculture, but this research must be transferred from “lab” to “land” in the real sense of the word and percolate to the grass-roots. And given its leverage with State governments, this is where the NRLM can offer strategic implementation guidance and help to converge all the existing efforts that attempt to tackle rain-fed agriculture.  

Therefore, the NRLM, which is in its early implementation phase, must create a special component on dry-land agriculture and facilitate the various state governments to devise targeted time-bound programmes to tackle such rain-fed agriculture in an integrated and holistic fashion. Among other things, this would call for a strong emphasisxii  on:

  • Creating market-oriented smallholder production systems which are market-led, demand-driven and follow the commodity chain approach to address limiting constraints along the value chain. Of course, these chains must ensure that farmers get returns/rewards commensurate with the investments made, efforts put in and risks undertaken by the small holder farmers/producers. Inclusive finance, inclusive markets, inclusive watersheds and other inclusive infrastructure would form a major part of such efforts indeed.
  •   Strengthening of research-extension-farmer linkages to facilitate real-time transfer and adoption of technology from ‘lab’ to ‘land’.
  •  Ensuring implementation of sound and sustainable policies/strategies for soil, water and biodiversity —mainly with a view to counter the prevalent high levels of natural resource degradation.
  •   Encouraging pragmatic research on soil-fertility improvement, soil and water management, development of irrigation systems, promotion of integrated livestock-wildlife-crop systems and development of drought-mitigation strategies to enable dry-land farmers to counter the huge uncertainties in their farming process.
  •  Strengthening capacities of producer-organisations, farmer institutions, community-based organisations and other aggregators to support input/output marketing and agricultural finance/production systems.
  •   Enhancing information flow and communication on various issues relevant to dry-land farmers using eclectic and traditional means, and
  •   Integrating a gender perspective in all of the above.

All of this calls for the adoption of a new (integrated) paradigm on rain-fed agriculture that can ensure proper management of natural resources and enhance the system’s overall productivity and effectiveness. This alone can reduce poverty without causing further degradation of the natural resource base and enable the participation of large numbers of dry land farmers in a meaningful and fair manner in India (inclusive) growth agenda. With a dynamic joint secretary at the helm of the NRLM and a proactive minister in charge of the Rural Development portfolio, the time cannot be more appropriate for true liberation of dry-land farming in India. Whether they will seize the initiative is a question that begs an answer but one that time only can tell.

  iAn estimated 600 million are said to be dependent on agriculture
  iiThe National Rural Livelihood Mission is one of India’s largest programs.
  iiiIndian Council for Agricultural Research
  ivNational Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development
  vCentral Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture
  viFrom IRDP to NRLM, there are have been many such initiatives in India, over the last few years!
  viiAnon., Agricultural statistics at a glance. Ministry of Agriculture, New Delhi, 2009.
  viiiCited from “Rain-fed agriculture could meet the challenges of food security in India” by K. D. Sharma
  ixCompiled from several sources
  xCompiled from several sources
  xiAnon., Agricultural statistics at a glance. Ministry of Agriculture, New Delhi, 2009.
  xiiCompiled from several sources

(The writer has over two decades of grassroots and institutional experience in rural finance, MSME development, agriculture and rural livelihood systems, rural/urban development and urban poverty alleviation/governance. He has worked extensively in Asia, Africa, North America and Europe with a wide range of stakeholders, from the private sector and academia to governments).

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