Kharif Season in India – Changing dynamics and emerging perspectives

The cultivation of the 4 Ms - Millets, Maize, Mustard and Moong - is crucial for mitigating climate change due to their resilience to rising temperatures, heatwaves and dry spells, as well as their water efficiency and adaptability to various agro-climatic conditions, ensuring food security in the face of climate change. 

Kharif Season in India – Changing dynamics and emerging perspectives

India, being a sub-continent, has long relied on the predictable rhythm of El Niño for its seasonal rainfall. However, shifting weather dynamics caused by climate change have disrupted this reliable pattern. Erratic weather conditions cast a shadow of uncertainty over Kharif crops, leaving farmers vulnerable. Yet, amidst this situation and changing dynamics, some emerging opportunities should be ensured to minimise the impact of climate change and ensure food security. 

Every state in our country has a different Kharif season, typically from June to September. The crop is planted in June, right at the start of the monsoon season and harvesting is done in September or October. Kharif crops include rice, maize, cotton, soybeans, groundnuts and bajra. In their final area coverage report for Kharif crops, dated September 29, 2023, the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India, stated that, aside from key crops like rice, the area sown for crops like pulses, oilseeds, cotton and jute declined in 2023 compared to 2022. 

Impacting Sowing Patterns

The decline in the area cultivated for vital Kharif crops reflects the impact of climate change. This phenomenon extends beyond India, illustrating challenges posed to global food security by erratic rainfall, heightened droughts and soaring temperatures. Indeed, the shift in Indian monsoon patterns, primarily attributed to the El Niño effect in recent years, has not only led to drought-like conditions but also disrupted sowing patterns in numerous states.

Data from the Drought Early Warning System (DEWS), India's inaugural real-time drought-monitoring platform managed by IIT Gandhinagar, depicts a concerning picture. As of the first week of September 2023, approximately 30% of India's land area grappled with varying degrees of drought. This worsened the already precarious situation for farmers reeling under crop failure and amplified their concerns regarding food security. At least, 11.5% of the land faced severe, extreme dry conditions, while 18.9% experienced abnormal to moderate dryness. 

Farmers are facing more difficulties as a result of such drought stress. Firstly, they had to postpone planting in June and July due to insufficient rainfall. Secondly, they had to deal with crop failures and lower crop yields, particularly during the vegetative and reproductive stage when rainfall is either low or excess in some regions. For example, the area under the Kharif crop has decreased marginally by 2.72 lakh hectares in Maharashtra alone. 137.50 lakh hectares of land were sown in 2023–24, compared to 140.22 lakh hectares over the same period in the previous year. 

In addition to the decrease in area under Kharif cultivation, the productivity of food grains has also decreased, directly impacting the income of farmers. The Deccan zone has witnessed a surge in drought frequency since 1986 and there has been a substantial monsoon rainfall deficit of approximately 21.25% during the critical June to September period, coinciding with the tillering and grand growth stage of sugarcane. This imposed drought during crucial growth phases emerges as a significant obstacle in achieving optimal cane productivity in sugarcane-growing states. Such statistics underscore the urgent need for proactive measures to mitigate the impact of drought on agricultural productivity and ensure the stability of food supplies in the face of increasingly erratic climatic patterns. 

Harnessing technology

Harnessing technology in agriculture is pivotal for sustaining production levels, fortifying food security and bolstering resilient agricultural practices. A prime example is the micro-irrigation sector in India, poised to be a game-changer in mitigating the adverse impacts of unpredictable Indian monsoons. Despite a total sown area of 140.13 million hectares, only 68.38 million hectares benefit from irrigation, leaving a substantial 71.74 million hectares dependent on rain-fed agriculture. The adoption of micro-irrigation stands at a mere 19%, significantly lagging behind many other nations. This underscores the urgent need to accelerate the adoption of innovative irrigation technologies to optimize water usage, enhance crop yields and safeguard agricultural livelihoods in the face of climatic uncertainties. 

Presently, the only states with more than half of their net cultivable area using micro-irrigation systems are Sikkim, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. By comparison, 27 states in India have less than 30% of their area covered by micro-irrigation, with 23 of them having less than 15% of the total. Interestingly, just 1.5% of the land in Uttar Pradesh, the state that produces the most water-intensive sugarcane, is covered by micro-irrigation; Punjab, another major agricultural region, falls even farther behind with just 1.2%. So there is ample scope to enhance micro-irrigation and the good news here is that by focusing on micro-irrigation we can slowly turn the tables on climate change. 

Water conservation is also an important element in this fight against climate change. The government has been proactive in launching various schemes like Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY), Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA) and Atal Bhujal Yojana (ATAL JAL) to enhance water access, improve efficiency and promote sustainable practices. To combat climate change, the government must tackle erratic monsoons and incentivize private participation to increase the adoption of water conservation technologies. 

The cultivation of the 4 Ms - Millets, Maize, Mustard and Moong - is crucial for mitigating climate change due to their resilience to rising temperatures, heatwaves and dry spells, as well as their water efficiency and adaptability to various agro-climatic conditions, ensuring food security in the face of climate change. 

The Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) analysed monsoon trends at the sub-divisional (tehsil) level from 1982-2022. They found that approximately 11% of India's 4,400 tehsils witnessed a decrease in rainfall. Within these tehsils, about 68% experienced reduced rainfall throughout all four monsoon months, while 87% observed a decline during June and July, crucial for Kharif crop sowing. The majority of these affected tehsils are located in the Indo-Gangetic plains, North-eastern India, and the Indian Himalayan region, regions that collectively contribute to over half of India's agricultural production.

Factors like seasonality, management practices and climate change could severely compromise crop production. Another aspect is that the indirect consequences of Climate Change, such as uncertain rainfall, droughts, floods, irrigation changes, soil alterations, crop-pest competition and coastal submergence, pose greater threats to agricultural sustainability than direct effects on crop growth. Simulation studies suggest that immediate impacts on Indian agriculture may be manageable if the nutrition level of the soil is maintained and biotic and abiotic stress is monitored and controlled by adopting integrated pest management solutions. 

Long-term impacts of global climate change may take decades to unfold, but other drivers such as shifting demands, markets and agricultural technologies are poised to rapidly transform Indian agriculture in the near future. The pace of these changes is expected to escalate over the next decade or two, reshaping the agricultural landscape significantly. Therefore, it is crucial to embrace the latest practices and deploy advanced technologies amidst climatic uncertainties to sustain production and ensure food security goals for the nation.

(Author is Managing Director of Crystal Crop Protection Limited. The views expressed in the article are personal.)





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