Does India's climate change response prioritise its farmers?

Two spells of rainfall and impending heatwaves have made March challenging for farmers.

Credit : Indie Journal


With two spells of intense unseasonal rainfall and impending heat waves, the month of March has been that of worry and losses for the farmers of Maharashtra. In fact, the uncertain weather patterns that are emerging as a result of climate change are making it difficult for farmers across the country to grow and sustain any crop all across the year. However, climate change, which is making such a drastic shift in the lives of the farmers, has not yet been significantly reflected at the policy level decision-making pertaining to them.

“The discussions around climate change globally talk greatly about the impact it is going to have on food security. But hardly anyone is talking about the impact it already has on the farmers and their lives and livelihoods,” says Sudhir Bindu of Shetkari Sanghatana says.

Resident of Parbhani in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, Bindu has been involved in the struggles faced by the farmers in his region each time a natural calamity destroys crops. While unseasonal rainfall is not uncommon in the state, its increased intensity and uncertainty, attributed to climate change, has made the farmers more vulnerable to losses.

“Global conferences like the Conference of Parties (COP) have underlined the role of climate change as being responsible for the changes in weather patterns. This must be considered while giving compensation to farmers for the losses suffered due to natural calamities like unseasonal rainfall or drought. However, that is not reflected in the policies yet. In fact, the existing parameters on compensation too are not clear or appropriate,” says Rajan Kshirsagar of All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS).

Currently, the compensation for losses given to farmers is based on the norms set by the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF). As of August 2022, the compensation stood at Rs 6,800 per acre. These have been criticised as being too low and incomprehensive of the losses farmers are facing now.

“The government has two schemes to offer to farmers suffering losses - one is the compensation as per NDRF norms, second, the crop insurance. Both of these have failed the farmers,” Bindu says.


Issues with crop insurance

“The crop insurance is supposed to protect farmers when the crop fails. But everybody knows that the number of farmers actually benefited from it till date is very small,” Bindu adds.

The limited coverage provided by the crop insurance schemes is also a major challenge ahead of the farmers.

“We have only limited forms of insurance. Our insurance is mostly confined to yield shocks,” says Prof. R Ramakumar of the Centre for Study of Developing Economies, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).



Last year, the crop insurance schemes received flak after reports of a Maharashtra cultivator receiving only Rs 90 for the losses that he had suffered surfaced. He had paid over Rs 2,000 to insure his cotton crop. Many farmers have come forward over the past few years, citing examples of the failure of the crop insurance system. 

Ramakumar explains, “The problem with the insurance is that it does not cover all kinds of risks. The coverage is very minimum. Secondly, the number of farmers who are insured even under this limited scope is small. The number, in fact, appears to be declining over the period of time. Further, a lot of the insurance coverage is in the hands of private insurance companies, which means, they are hesitant to pass claims. Claims are pending. All these problems leave Indian farmers poorly protected against climate shocks.”


Climate shocks ahead of Indian farmers

The changing weather patterns are threatening the way crops are being taken by Indian farmers almost all around the year. Last year itself, the deficient pre-monsoon rainfall and back-to-back heatwaves across the country from March to May delayed sowing and affected the pre-Kharif crops. After that, the excessive rainfall in the post-monsoon period also presented farmers with huge losses. The lack of sufficiently cold weather during the winter, followed by spells of intense unseasonal rainfall has threatened the future of Rabi crops as well.

“We can see drastic changes in the monsoon, in fact the overall weather, over the last 10 years. We had unseasonal rainfall in the past as well. But its intensity was not as we have now. There would be light rainfall lasting a couple of days,” Prof. Ghanashyam Darne of Savitri Jyotirao Samaj Shikshan Sanstha in Yavatmal said.

Moreover, as the unseasonal rainfall often comes around the time of harvesting, the losses become even more unbearable for the farmers.

“If you see the pattern in the last few years, you will see that it rains at a time the crop is almost ready, about to be harvested. The wheat crop was about to be harvested in most places when it rained this month, the same happened with Soybean and Cotton last year. Earlier, we saw some rainfall in the month of May, but never a hailstorm,” says Pankaj Mahalle, young farmer and entrepreneur from Yavatmal.

Climate experts and scientists have also pointed out this change time and again, stating how difficult it has become to predict the exact impact of the changing weather.


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Darne further says, “Now, it rains for at least five-six days, with cloudy weather persisting even longer. There are strong winds and even hailstorms in many places. It is difficult to save crops, especially in the Rabi season. Even the produce that farmers manage to save is often degraded.”

The weather has instilled fear in the minds of the farmers, who have almost no assurance of what the crop will turn out to be.


Why is reflection of climate change in policy necessary?

While India’s compensation policy revolves around excessive or deficient rainfall, farmers and activists have been demanding changing these parameters with reference to climate change.

“We need to define different parameters of changing weather that affects agriculture based on the impact, region, etc. As of now, we have very generalised parameters to address crop losses due to excessive or deficient rains across the country. In a country like India where the weather as well as impacts of climate change vary as per region, the criteria for defining crop losses and compensation should also be different. But for that to happen, climate change must be recognised as a factor,” Darne explains.

In the context of rain-fed agriculture, in order to protect farmers from climate change, they need to be provided with immediate support.

Ramakumar says, “It comes in the form of crop insurance, immediate cash assistance, rehabilitation, etc.”

“However, we know what is the actual situation of this assistance,” Darne adds. 

“In any business/occupation, it is said that the higher the risk, the higher the profits. Agriculture is the only occupation where the risks are always high, there are always uncertainties at every stage, which are related to the environment, be it weather or diseases. However, there is no protection to the farmers against these environment-related risks,” Bindu says.



Last year, in the month of October, farmers' organisations in the state demanded that the government declare the losses caused by the excessive unseasonal rainfall a wet drought. However, the government refrained from making any such announcement, offering farmers compensation based on the existing norms.

The term wet drought does not exist in the government terminology. The government either recognises deficient rainfall, which occurs when the rainfall is 10 percent lower than average or excessive rainfall, when the precipitation is 10 percent above normal. However, the farmers' organisations have been pushing for the government to recognise the term wet drought.


Need to develop resilient farming

While compensation and quick assistance will help farmers sustain in the short term, there is a need to bring about a shift in Indian farming to make it as climate-proof as possible.

“We need better climate change adaptation measures implemented in agriculture so that losses are minimised. We need better seeds for the crops to sustain the impact of climate change. For this, more research is necessary, definitely,” Ramakumar says.

However, Darne alleges that several seed companies do not encourage or indulge in the Research and Development (R&D) required for the same.

“The seed companies do not behave like producer companies, but like traders. They are not interested in R&D. Moreover, even choosing the best variety of seeds is not in the hands of the farmers. Take Soybean for instance. A variety called Phule Sangam is known to be yielding better produce than the previous JS335. But the seed companies still sell the latter due to their vested interests. Farmers are manipulated, denied access to better varieties,” he says.

He adds that the ball is in the court of the government, to bring policies to bring about this difference.


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India’s climate change policy and farmers

This has raised the question of whether Indian farmers are a priority for India’s climate change policy.

“We often see our government using the language of the world when it comes to climate change. Climate change policy in India cannot just be about carbon emissions, aforestation and plastic. We need to develop our own language based on our own necessities,” Darne says.

However, it is not that simple. “India’s stance on is not really wrong. There are two responses to climate change - mitigation and adaptation. Emission reduction is a mitigation measure. However, since the majority of the emissions were made by the Western countries, the developed countries, it is their job to mitigate. All the developing countries can do is adapt,” Ramakumar says.

But the climate change financing, which has been shaking the global conferences on environmental crisis for years, are making this difficult.

“The climate change financing focusses on mitigation forcing the hand of the developing world to bring in mitigation measures instead of adaptation,” he adds.

We need more people talking about these issues, Kshirsagar says, adding that AIKS is one of the few organisations demanding government attention to attributing farmers’ losses to climate change and taking action.

Bindu also says that most protests and demands by farmers are need-based as there is a lack of awareness.

“More farmers need to be made aware of the issue and mobilised,” he adds.

Exactly 36 years ago, on March 19, 1986, Sahebrao Karpe, a farmer from the drought-prone Yavatmal district, died by suicide along with his family. In the suicide note that he left behind, he had written that it is impossible to survive as a farmer. With the changing weather, increased cost of production and the lack of adequate farmer-friendly policies, the situation has only worsened.