South Asia radius

India’s ‘Green Revolution’ at risk from El Niño and climate change

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Related tags Climate change

Shortly after a train carrying 500,000 litres of water arrived in the drought-hit Maharashtran district of Latur, a report has revealed the extent to which India is “drying out”, and how this trend is not just a result of freak climatic conditions brought by the last year’s El Niño.

Today nine states are reeling under drought. India has seen two back-to-back droughts. It is drying out​,” the study, by industry group Assocham, warned. 

A prominent increase [in mean annual air temperatures] has been observed in the number of hot days and day and night temperatures from 1951 to 2013​. 

The overall temperature has been increasing while the all-India monsoon rainfall has been decreasing from 1960 onward​.”

Although meteorologists have predicted a normal monsoon this year, it is still a long way off, and rains in recent years have been far from sufficient.

We are perpetually witnessing El Niño in the Pacific​,” the paper continued. “There is a known inverse correlation between El Niño and the Indian summer monsoon​.” 

The report illustrated this point by highlighting that an average of just one drought per decade had traditionally been expected over the whole of the last century, whereas between 2000 and 2015, there have already been five.

We have situations like the Latur water crisis or floods in some other parts which cannot be ruled out in the next few months​,” said DS Rawat, Assocham’s secretary-general, adding that climate change has had a severe impact on Indian agriculture, so much so that it is “undoing a lot of the achievements of the ‘Green Revolution’.​”

Rice crop yields, for example, decrease with any rise in average temperature: an increase of just 2C will result in a grain yield that is 15-17% lower, according to agronomists.

It is an alarming situation because the paddy and wheat production in northeast India has already been stagnating or even declining. Short-season crops [vegetables and fruits] are the worst affected by changes, particularly during critical periods of their growth​,” the report said.

Fluctuating weather patterns are increasingly manifesting themselves in stronger and more formidable ways, according to Jatin Singh, chief executive of Skymet Weather Services, which contributed to the study. 

The recent Chennai deluge, El Niño-induced back-to-back droughts and heat records setting new standards every year—all of these herald bigger calamities in the future unless we treat climate change as a serious threat to the environment and to humanity.​”

While the government has been taking measures to help make Indian agriculture more resilient to climate, the current challenges mean there is still much more that needs to be done, according to one senior Ministry of Agriculture official.

The adverse impacts of climate changes can be devastating for agriculture, disproportionately affecting the poor​,” said Shobhana Pattanayak. A rise in temperatures would affect tropical countries like India much more as these are already at the higher end of the temperature band. 

To minimise the impact of climate variabilities, the government has developed contingency crop plans based on models on projected climate conditions for about 600 districts which take into account 126 agro-ecological zones of the country, said Pattanayak. 

To focus on sustained production of specific commodities to meet the projected consumption demand, a National Food Security Mission has been launched to address the production and productivity with respect to major crops such as rice, wheat and pulses.

Jonathan Addleton, USAID’s mission director in India said that a lack of reliable climate data at local level has made it difficult for farmers to make decisions over their crops. 

There is a critical need to improve access to good scientific data and a comprehensive approach to utilising this data, supported by appropriate risk mitigation approaches​,” said Ambassador Addleton.

To fill thus void, USAID has joined with Skymet to establish a network of automatic weather stations in 31 districts across nine states in India. 

The programme will send daily crop advisories to farmers via text messages to alert them of the day’s weather conditions. It will also promote the purchase of crop insurance, which most Indian smallholders do not normally have the means to buy.

This programme will not only strengthen the agricultural sector in India, but also create stories of success and resilience that will replicated across Asia and Africa​,” added Ambassador Addleton.

Also from South Asia…

Dynamic Agarwal opens up FSSAI to new PPP lab approach

India’s increasingly proactive food regulator, the FSSAI, intends to upgrade the infrastructure of its laboratories network through partnerships with private companies, which will be charged with running them.


Chief executive Pawan Kumar Agarwal said the FSSAI had set aside INR5bn (US$753m) for the modernisation of government-owned labs over the next 2-3 years.

Of the 84 labs in the country, all but two are owned by the states, while the government’s facilities, in Kolkata and Ghaziabad, have seen better days.

We are now trying to revive our Ghaziabad laboratory, which is almost defunct, through a public-private partnership arrangement​” that would see the government providing capital support to companies in return for control of their operations and maintenance, said Agarwal while speaking to Livemint​.

We will ensure that the private partner gets business so that the lab is viable… we’ll soon float an expression of interest​.”

Certain lab functions, such as food analysts, will continue to be handled by government-appointed officials in a service that will be paid for by the FSSAI.

Building laboratory infrastructure is easy. Running them professionally is not,” ​Agarwal said, shortly after revising the regulator’s testing charges which were previously “abysmally low​”. 

The FSSAI has seen a flurry of activity in the months following its censure by the courts for its role in last year’s Maggi instant noodles fiasco, whereby it ordered the removal of the popular Nestlé-owned snack in June after a state lab in Uttar Pradesh reported that some samples had been found to contain excess lead and traces of monosodium glutamate.

Last September, a month after Bombay high court overturned the ban, the regulator’s chief executive, Yudhvir Singh Malik, who was widely seen as an unpopular and inaccessible figure, made way for Niti Aayog in a temporary capacity; in December, Agarwal was appointed to take up the role full time.

Widely criticised by the media, manufacturers and even ministers for its “inspector raj​” approach to regulation that had seen widespread—and unlawful, based on court rulings—advisories issued to the industry, it seems that the FSSAI is changing tack.

Agarwal, a lifelong bureaucrat who was formerly a senior official in the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, has since been featured in numerous interviews in what appears to have been a deliberate charm offensive intended to get manufacturers back on side with the regulator, while clearer advisories are seen to have heralded a brighter climate for the industry.

We don't want food safety officials to be a nuisance to businesses​,” Agarwal said recently, “Rather we want citizens to have confidence in them​.”

He has also said that the FSSAI was now keen to encourage more self-regulation.

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