Making smallholder farming sustainably viable: Workshop report

A workshop on ‘Making smallholder farming sustainably viable’ was jointly held by Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development (SPWD) and National Bank for Research and Development (NABARD) from 24th – 25th February, 2016 at India International Centre, New Delhi. The workshop dedicated to the memory of Late Lovraj Kumar, Former Chairman of SPWD, brought together scientists, academics and development professionals from across different parts of India to dialogue and present their experiences on the subject. Presentations and in-depth discussions were held on diverse thematic aspects related to climate change impacts on small and marginal farmers and what needs to be done to adapt to and mitigate risks associated with it.

Opening remarks

“Small and marginal farmers constitute 70 per cent of India’s farming community and with changing climatic trends, in terms of variations in rainfall and temperature patterns over space and time, and their impact on agriculture sector, small and marginal farmers, today, stand as the most vulnerable section facing the impact of these changes. The implications are visible on cropping patterns with regard to sowing, growing and harvesting periods in different regions of India. The difference as regards small and marginal farmers is their relationship with natural resources and their limited capability to adapt to climate change. Therefore, it becomes imperative to build their adaptive capacities and in the context, there is need to perceive them as a homogeneous group. Further, innovation, integration of vast knowledge, delivery of effective technology for increasing productivity and enhanced coordination among institutions and NGOs would help build resilience of small and marginal farmers to climate vulnerability”, said Dr I P Abrol, Chairman, SPWD in his opening remarks.

Pramod Tyagi, Executive Director, SPWD presenting the rationale of the workshop said “low agricultural productivity is partially because of poor natural resource conditions and partly because of inadequate knowledge base and other required resources at the level of small and marginal farmers. Now, with climate change, the matter has gone worse, forcing millions of farmers to struggle to maintain their yields amid crop damage from severe droughts or flash floods, with no assets in reserve to help them bounce back from a crisis. In this backdrop, the prime question is – what changes need to be brought. In this context, the workshop aims to recognize these changes for policy inputs and for development of a framework to manage impact of climate change by small and marginal farmers”.

“The issues of upscaling while dealing with local climatic adaptations and transfer of technology to farmers are very crucial and in the context, NABARD is building farmer’s capacity on technology adoption through organizing Farmer Clubs. There are 15-20 farmers in a club and about 1.5 lakh such clubs are operating across India. These clubs are being managed by District Development Managers of NABARD, said Mr. S K Dora, NABARD.


The presentation ‘Experiences on Integrated Farming Systems Approach’ by Hardeep Singh and Sharat Singh of SPWD covered four areas – (a) what is Integrated Farming System (IFS) approach, (b) defining smallholder farming, (c) SPWD’s experience and (d) issues on grounding and scaling-up of IFS approach. Depending upon resource availability and expectations about their best use, possible production systems get evolved – whether crop, livestock or tree based. This comprises of an integrated version of production system, which behaves like a new organism, generating efficiency of input usage and reducing costs.

The concept of a smallholder (whether it could be defined as a homogeneous group) is determined based on its variability or constancy for different regions on parameters like land owned, income sources & levels and expenditure patterns. A case of Bedo Block, district Ranchi, Jharkhand was presented in this regard. Data reflects that marginal farmers have a more diversified income portfolio (covering livestock, trees based income, agriculture activities and labour) and experience food shortages during July–November period (peak time being September). SPWD’s intervention for integrated production development in the region include utilizing uplands through mixed cropping, double cropping, feed and housing for livestock, improved practices for NTFP, introduction of new crops, cash crops and uses of crop residue for fuel and compost making. The economic impacts were cited using the case of a farmer Chedua Bedia, from village Dublabeda (Ranchi) in terms of better yield from paddy crop and vegetable cultivation. The speakers highlighted the challenges for integration like marketing – as production of small volume of multiple products, managing the labour cycle and the prohibitive initial investment costs. They also dealt with problems related to building a cadre for a pro-smallholder extension through capacity building of youth and introduction of training courses on sustainable agricultural practices. Finally, on grounding and scaling-up IFS approach there is a need to push for conservation technology, capacity building approach, building community institutions, collaborative approach to research and development and a conducive policy environment.

Anand Kumar, Development Alternatives, New Delhi in his presentation ‘Mainstreaming Climate Change Adaptation into Development Planning of India’ said that this entails the alignment of government programs with adaptation strategies that are being evolved by local farmers and other local communities in different regions of the country. Further, there is a need for identification and incorporation of best practices of adaptation relative to different regions (local specific), particularly in the context of small and marginal farmers, who constitute 80% of India’s total farming force, and which now stands as the worst hit community against climate change. The mainstreaming process would facilitate in scaling-up of locally evolved adaptations (and their finetuning) through planning for their potential implementation in different regions of the country. Towards this end, National Action Program on Climate Change (NAPCC) as formulated by Government of India under which 8 mission plans have been covered provides an adaptation plan to mitigate the impacts of climate variability on sensitive sectors like agriculture.

Anand Kumar shared Development Alternative’s experiences in Bundelkhand (Madhya Pradesh), which is a very fragile region as far as climate variability is concerned and where existing agriculture holdings are very small and farmer’s migration rate is very high. In this backdrop, for pursuing effective development planning, mainstreaming of adaptation mandates comprehensive coordination across multiple sectors, integration of standalone responses (initiatives by local communities) and strategies for adaptation at pan-India level. As of now, the strategies are broadbased and require improved approach for devising local specific solutions for different regions. Anand Kumar discussed the need for project based capacity building approach, which envisages identification of projects that have demonstrated productivity and development benefits in the backdrop of climate variability in different regions of the country. This would help identify strategies for scaling up. Further it entails removing institutional gaps at sub-national and local-level for implementation of capacity building programs as formulated under prospective planning process that mainstream adaptations. Anand Kumar shared that the process entry point would help in evolving a robust strategy for upscaling. For a potential strategy, the challenge, therefore, lies in assessing as to how it is dealing with climate change and monitoring the data required for it. Successful entry point (launching) for a strategy requires capacity building by planning at district and panchayat level. Based on experiences in Bundelkhand, Kumar presented the format used for assessing vulnerability of the region based on parameters like rainfall, topography, low adaptive capacity and level of collective action.

Karthikeyan Muniappan, Program Leader, DHAN Foundation speaking on ‘DHAN’s Experience on Rainfed Agriculture and Millets’ said that the thrust is on making rainfed farming a viable livelihood. He suggested flexible approach viz. program implementation by farmer’s community themselves on climate change adaptation. As part of DHAN’s learning’s, he shared DHAN’s crop productivity enhancement in Karnataka against local constraints, development of livestock, meeting financial requirements of farmers – providing for three types of credit lines to farmers for — general (non-agriculture), agriculture and working capital (for high value crops). DHAN has initiated program on mutual insurance scheme for farmers of three types, namely — crop insurance against pests, insurance against groundnut crop failure, deficit rainfall insurance for millets, cotton and groundnut. Farmers themselves conduct survey of the affected farms and decide compensation on farm to farm basis.

DHAN is promoting small millets in the region to address malnutrition issues of rural people. Millets are climate-smart crops and provide ecological as well as livelihood security to the poor community in the region. However, he stated that there is inadequate policy support for millets. Some of the issues for development of millets are: varietal diversification, development of package of practices for millets (small millets) and problems related with processing – threshing and harvesting of small millets. For formulating a better policy on millets, he suggested that stakeholders should tell what is required for its development. This would help in learning as to what is required for research, innovation, finetuning of current initiatives and meeting nutritional requirements.

Navin Patidar, AKRSP, Ahmedabad in his presentation ‘Adoption of Conservation Agriculture in Central India’ brought out the importance of soil health in the context of it being a complex organic entity, which is a bigger concept, defining soil’s productive capacity than simply its fertility. He shared AKRSP’s experiences in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Bihar on large-scale soil erosion and how conservation agriculture could help mitigate such adverse events. There are three principles of conservation agriculture (CA) (a) No mechanical disturbance of soil (b) Organic cover (mulch) and (c) Diversification. In central India, due to high rainfall (intense but of short duration) heavy soil erosion takes place and this also disturbs soil. Therefore, the importance of mulch to arrest such soil erosion and conserve soil moisture is paramount. Besides, in the context of climate change, principles of conservation agriculture (CA) are imperative to build resilience among famer’s (small and marginal).

Patidar said that in Madhya Pradesh region cultivation of vegetables has benefitted from CA. And, crop of pigeon peas has benefitted through CA in the Gujarat region. He brought forth some challenges in promotion of CA. The source of ‘mulch’ is crop residue or grass/vegetation etc., which is also a source of fodder for livestock, therefore, requirement of fodder is always in competition with mulch requirement. CA requires direct seeding on large plots in the region, so requires machines which are unviable for smallholdings of half to one acre plots. Also, CA is prone to occurrences of rodents due to mulch (particularly for plots near forest area). Patidar ended by saying that government has no program on promotion of CA, while support is required to meet challenges for its promotion.

Dr. Sarala Khaling, ATREE, Darjeeling in her presentation ‘Mountain agriculture and resilience to climate change’ brought forth new problems that are arising and affecting the ecology of the mountain region and in particular agriculture of the region due to climate variability. She said that there is less information on impact of climate change, and models to assess and project these impacts on mountain regions. Therefore, it is imperative to talk to farmers and understand how they are reading into these changes or at least, they should know that these changes that are very critical to their livelihoods are due to climate change. Moreover, land is very less for doing agriculture activities in mountain regions due to terrain, so whatever smallholding remains is also at the peril of climate change impact.

On impacts observed on agriculture farms in mountain regions, Dr Khaling pointed to increase in new pests, variations in temperature and precipitation, which are causing advancement of normal growing seasons (agriculture) and adversely affecting the flowering phase of crops. These variations are changing crop calendar of farmers and generating low yields from crops. Though, farmers have been observing these variations and are trying to address at their level, yet it requires comprehensive and integrated management of resources against these adverse impacts due to climate change. Dr. Khaling dealt with adaptation process in the region through multi-cropping and diversification. As land is less for undertaking agriculture activities in the region, so farmers are doing multi-cropping. Given the impact of climate change, communities are diversifying their farming activities towards growing ethnic plants like medicinal plants, raising beehive, growing vegetables, growing cardamom, ornamental plants etc. She further stated that the uniqueness of this adaptation lies in it being based on a biodiversity and ecosystem approach.

A Ravindra, Director, WASSAN, Secunderabad in his presentation on ‘Framework for a National Rainfed Farming Systems Program’ suggested the need for a dynamic policy that is “sustainable and growth oriented” and which should guide the formulation of public investment architecture for development in rainfed regions. In this context he cited the case of Prime Minister Irrigation Scheme. Further, he provided inputs for developing framework for a National Rainfed Farming Systems. Investments should promote extensive area irrigation (protective irrigation) as it is through water that security could be provided to marginal and small farmers in rainfed regions. In this context, he suggested that “soil moisture is more important than soil card, which is more for providing nutrients requirements of soil”. Investment have not been in water harvesting structures and in building contingency seed system as part of a contingency plan for rainfed system. There is a need to have block as a unit of planning and not a district. It is important to build institutional framework to provide critical inputs: seed system (establish nurseries) and service delivery as appropriate to a block.

Dr Jagdish Purohit and Pran Ranjan, SPWD in their presentation highlighted how SPWD has been providing technical backstopping to PRIs for planning, implementation and management of other development programs and schemes apart from MNREGA. Earlier the planning process emphasis was sector based, which was a top-down approach, and so spatial aspect was needed for providing a bottom–up approach to the planning process. Geographical Information Systems (GIS), as part of spatial aspect of planning, helps in understanding of local resources on a habitat based approach. Natural resources are characterized based on ownership, uses and their accessibility, which helps in generating a perspective plan for decision making. Purohit stated that earlier perspective plans were imported from plans for other programs. Technical skills for local level planning are required. The challenge is to provide financial help for planning. It should be demand-driven plan; otherwise plans are tilted towards relief provisioning. GIS will facilitate in knowing as to what intervention is required, and how to implement it. It provides knowledge to local community. There would be knowledge of local reasoning in planning development programs on crop, pastoral systems and forestry.

Pran Ranjan, SPWD shared that woman farmers lead in formulation of farmer livelihood plan through spatial analysis in SPWDs MKSP programme in Jharkhand. There are 225 SHGs and MNREGA investment pattern has changed with less thrust on infrastructure. He said that we need to understand resources and their usage and interventions should be based on these. Villages develop holistic plans (agriculture and social) and there is block level coordination. He stated that 200 villages are participating in such planning in Jharkhand. The benefits of spatial based planning is removal of duplication in implementation of schemes on agriculture, NREGA, social welfare etc. People can monitor the plan and local people could connect better with their resources. GIS maps are accessed and water resources data are also available with them. He stated that condition of ponds etc., under NREGA was not good, so is the condition of pasturelands.

Rajiv Ahuja, Technical Expert, MGNREGA-Environmental Benefits Project, GIZ, New Delhi in his presentation ‘Integrating Adaptation to Climate Change into Sectoral Policy Decisions and Rural Development Programmes’ stated that GIZ’s Natural Resource Management Program and MGNREGA are synergistically oriented, both aiming to build rural livelihood, ensure sustainable use of natural resources, protect against adverse effects of climate change and build capacities on program delivery. MGNREGA-EB joint initiatives aim for creating awareness on environmental benefits, showcasing technically sound MGNREGA works, maintenance of MGNREGA works, M&E system/MIS for environmental & gender impacts, Capacity Building and Training. He highlighted MGNREGA-EB joint activities in partnership with technical and implementing partners that are being undertaken in 6 districts (13 Gram Panchayats) in the three states of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Most (70%) of it is for soil and water conservation works, rest of it is for plantation, irrigation and providing demonstrations.

Climate Change Adaptation in MGNREGA-EB initiatives are taken up in demonstrations covering the following aspects, like on best practices (through M&E and knowledge management), implementation arrangement (in a participatory mode/convergence of schemes), climate adapted projects (cost/benefit), vulnerability assessment (sector-wise/ population sub groups),  impact assessment (historical trends/ future projections), risk screening and scoping – climate proofing/ environmental benefits/ gender empowerment/ sustainability of assets. Ahuja shared the planned outcomes of MGNREGA-EB initiatives on climate change that include enhanced groundwater recharging, retention of soil moisture, creating water for irrigation, improving drinking water availability and enhancing soil quality. He also covered reclamation of degraded land for agriculture, improvement of soil fertility, thus improving crop productivity and resulting in higher crop yields. Conservation and regeneration of biomass and carbon stock is also a part of the project.

Dr. Ramesh Sharan, Ranchi University in his presentation ‘Multi-pronged Strategy for better Convergence between Government Programs for NRM and Livelihoods’ brought forth impacts of micro-climate changes (site specific, like around industrial areas/mining) as well as overall macro-level climate change. Mining has led to degradation of natural resources, like land and water and has adversely impacted agriculture, which has further marginalized farmers. Besides, there are issues related to dumping of sand near water resources. Sharan stated that Jharkhand has undulating topography, poor soil capacity as almost 60% of the area is upland and medium land and 40% is good quality paddy land. The region is highly vulnerable to rainfall fluctuations, low irrigation and climate change including microclimate change.

On how we move ahead, Sharan suggested building up of common property resources (CPRs) through strengthening of and better implementation of FRA Act and PESA Act. Maintenance of groundwater structures should be slowly handed to community bodies. Access of CPRs to small and marginal farmers should be improved and CPRs be utilized for fodder production for small and marginal farmers. Institutional overcrowding should be lessened. Rights and entitlements must be ensured, he said.

Padam Jain in the presentation ‘Income Enhancement through Agriculture and Horticulture Value Chain’ shared how SRIJAN India has been benefitting small and marginal farmers, who have been organized in SHG Federations and Producer Company, for cultivating, processing, and marketing of soya in Bundi district and custard apple in Pali district of Rajasthan. SRIJAN India’s community based activities have also benefitted farmers out of rice, maize, dairy and horticulture products in Rajasthan. For developing custard apple value chain, SRIJAN India has connected Agriculture University for technology facilitation, formed Federation to collect custard apple and also formed Producer’s Company. It is also providing input purchase and developing market linkages. Now, Producers Company for soya processing is generating better results; earlier farmers used to get Rs 4/kg and now they get Rs 8/kg. They have provided training to farmers for better productivity and they monitor farmers as well. They have done partnership with Vodafone for collecting data information.

Dr. Lalit Mohan Sharma, Sehgal Foundation, Gurgaon in his presentation ‘Tackling water salinity in Mewat, Haryana’ stated that about 78% of Mewat district’s underground water is saline and salinity is increasing day by day, while fresh water (underground) is mainly available near foothill region. In India, about 2 lakh sq. kms. of area is affected by saline water. And with climate change, salinity will increase. Lalit Sharma presented a case study citing application of extracting fresh water from a zone of underground saline water. With undulating topography in the region there was lot of run-off during monsoons and water flowed down very fast off steep slopes, so hardly any fresh water recharge was there near the foot hills. With passing of time and extraction of fresh water by people, it was getting depleted faster, while saline water was progressing more into underground fresh water region. The intervention here comprised of creation of check dams near foot hills.

Though problem was solved by 70%, yet depletion of freshwater was prevalent. The cost of treating saline water is very high; therefore, recharging of underground freshwater was a more viable solution. The underlying scientific principle of this is that freshwater density is lower than saline water, therefore, it forms a thin layer over underground saline water and it was thought to make this thin layer get concentrated in form of a pocket extending deep into the saline water zone, and thus, this pocket forms as a kind of underground fresh water reservoir for extraction by people. Pressure recharge wells were used to generate underground fresh water pockets (reservoirs) within saline water zones. Now, water from these pockets was available for extraction by hand pumps/underground pipes etc.

For drinking purpose the extracted water is proposed to be filtered, mainly for bio-contamination, and also as public supply is erratic. Sharma shared features of bio-sand filter (invented by Sehgal Foundation), which consisted of different layers – diffusion plastic (static charged), antibiotic layer on a sand layer. Water gets filtered through these layers. It is cost effective and is now in a steel cover version. Sharma also shared that Sehgal Foundation has done a study in NCR (capital region) to provide solution for underground fresh water, which was fast depleting due to its extraction by construction industry, while saline water underground was taking the space left by extracted fresh water zones.

Dr. Veena Khanduri, Global Water Partnership (India), Gurgaon dealt with issues related to promoting Integrated Water Resources Management in India. She highlighted key constraints in the area related with water management: availability and quality. With climate change these two aspects are going to throw challenge. And, in order to cope with these two challenges we need to have integrated water resources management (IWRM) in India.

IWRM is not a panacea providing for water availability but it is a process towards that direction. It covers issues (apart from water), related with land and natural resource management (NRM) and analyses them in the realm of social and economic factors towards seeking an equitable solution for water usage by industrial and agriculture sectors.

Dr. Khanduri proposed development of small basin and sub-basin approach for management of water resources. There are interstate issues related to its political adoption as water comes under state list. IWRM process requires reforms in water sector that mandate multi-sector dialogue (not only focus on agriculture the largest user of water), institutional empowerment and political adoption of small basin and sub-basin approach for water management. This would facilitate issues on required finance, good technologies/options for technologies. Now, IWRM as a strategy is engaging with disaster management activities. The challenges in implementing IWRM are  — climate change induced issues on water availability (geographic/national), no state has prepared IWRM plan so far, government departments do not want to share data (they seem to not prepare the plan), inordinate delay in creating river basin agency/authority (very few states have done so).

Other suggestions include cross-sector planning to manage water (like flood situation), new water institutions and reorientation of water institutions, national informatics center on water, data for planning process from grassroot to basin level), water planning with agro-climatic regions and technology systems. There is a need for development of water allocation based on projecting systems. Guidelines for water availability should be there to tell farmers that water is going to get scarcer and hence the need to develop low-cost water saving technology. There is a need for development of a National Framework Law as an overarching framework for Integrated Water Resource Management.

In all, the participants agreed that coordination among institutions, government departments, and development organizations is required to find out effective measures and for implementing them effectively, so as to mitigate the vulnerability of small and marginal farmers against climate change. Besides, a suitable mechanism is required for up-scaling of local level adaptations being evolved and pursued by small and marginal farmers in different regions of the country.