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Despite India’s economic growth, poverty and malnutrition are rife. The rural poor are particularly vulnerable. Agriculture in the semi-arid tropical regions of India is mainly rainfed and suffers from water shortages and drought. Investment in infrastructure, tools and technologies will boost productivity and improve livelihoods. Driving the transition from subsistence agriculture to an inclusive market-oriented agriculture will help reduce rural poverty and improve food security. 

1 in 3 - Of the world’s poorest people live in India

Almost 300 million - Live in poverty, many of them in rural areas

60 million - Almost half of India’s child population are underweight

Agriculture contributes to about only 14% of GDP


General context

India covers 3.3 million square kilometers in southern Asia, bordering the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, between Myanmar and Pakistan. It is the world’s second most populated country (1.27 billion in 2013). Almost 300 million of its people live in poverty. The majority live in rural areas where poverty and malnutrition is a chronic condition. Almost half of India’s child population (60 million) is underweight.

India was successful in reducing the proportion of poor people from about 55% in 1973 to about 27% in 2004. However, this figure has not fallen much further in recent years. In fact, a 2013 World Bank study concluded that 1 in 3 of the world’s poorest people live in India – a paradox when considering the country's high economic growth over the last two decades.

Many of India's poorest people live in the country's semi-arid tropical region which suffers from shortages of water and recurrent droughts. Agriculture, particularly dryland or rainfed agriculture, currently constitutes 60% of the arable land. Yet, it remains at a subsistence level where a large proportion of farmers are not able to meet their own demand for food, feed, fibre and fuel.

India is classified as a low income, food deficit country. With the economic boom and rapid expansion of the service sector, the contribution of agriculture to the GDP has declined dramatically to about only 14% of GDP.  Yet India has enormous potential to become a major player in the global agricultural industry.

Big untapped potential for agricultural growth

ICRISAT’s scientific assessments indicate that current farmers’ yields particularly in the dryland/rainfed areas of India are lower by four- to five-folds than the achievable potential yields. To achieve full productivity, there is a need to adopt innovative science-led approaches supported by enabling policies and mechanisms, and increased investments for extension as well as research for development. A high level of investment is needed to drive the transition from subsistence agriculture to an inclusive market-oriented agriculture to help the rural poor escape poverty.

Investment in financial and social infrastructure is also vital as a big cause of poverty among India’s rural people is lack of access to productive assets and financial resources. Studies conducted by ICRISAT in dryland villages of India since 1975 provide empirical evidence on the vulnerability of the poor to various risks and shocks, and their inability to access physical, financial and social resources.

High levels of illiteracy, inadequate health care and very limited access to social services are common among poor rural people. These have to be addressed alongside agriculture to achieve a sustainable improvement in livelihoods.

Importance of agriculture sector

In India, rainfed agriculture is pivotal to the economy and food security. About 60% of the total cultivated area is rainfed. Coarse cereals (87.5%), pulses (87.5%), oilseeds (77%), rice (48%) and cotton (65.7%) are predominantly grown in rainfed areas. India’s agriculture sector shows massive potential. The country is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses and spices.

Smallholder agriculture suffers from low productivity and natural resource scarcity as well as poor access to financial and extension services, appropriate technologies and inputs. Particular attention needs to be given to the role of women, especially their access to credit, training and tools.

A long term strategy is needed to address the current constraints of rainfed agriculture not only to boost productivity and yields but also to improve the conditions of rural communities living in these regions.

Working with the government and national partners

The Government of India is a major supporter of ICRISAT research.  For instance, in 2012 India invested approximately US$ 57 million in collaborative projects with ICRISAT.

ICRISAT and its partners have developed a four-pronged science-based strategy to tackle poverty, drought and land degradation:

Growing drought-tolerant and climate-resilient crops to match the available length of the growing season and low soil moisture. ICRISAT and its partners from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and state universities have developed and released several varieties of sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut, all of which are more drought tolerant than currently grown varieties. ICRISAT's genebank with almost 120,000 accessions collected from 144 countries, is the world's biggest repository for the genetic traits required to develop drought tolerance in these crops. The Government of India (GoI) has supported ICRISAT in developing an advanced biotechnology laboratory to enhance breeding on drought tolerance in its mandate crops. As a result, ICRISAT and partners have sequenced the genome of pigeonpea and chickpea.

Action to replace affected crops with those that are more drought tolerant. Farmers should grow crops that mature earlier to escape drought. Short-duration crops thrive and yield well even with scarce water as they mature before soil moisture gets depleted. For instance, in sorghum growing areas, farmers can plant pearl millet instead. Likewise, an action plan to produce seeds of drylands and other alternate crops for emergencies and natural calamities should be put in place.

Efficient management of natural resources, arresting land degradation, conserving soil moisture and harvesting water in the rainy season for supplemental irrigation. This involves the adoption of integrated genetic and natural resource management to grow improved crops on soils conserved through natural means and pursued through community participation.

Empowering stakeholders through capacity building, enabling rural institutions and formulating policies supportive of dryland agriculture. Capacity strengthening builds social capital through knowledge sharing and strategic partnerships. Suitable institutional mechanisms for credit, market linkages, rural infrastructure and other support services need to be ensured. The effectiveness of drought mitigation strategies depend on institutional arrangements available to provide regulation as well as technical and financial assistance.

Diversification is key to resilience. This means growing a wide range of crops, livestock and other (including non-farm) income-generating activities that can lessen the risks of total crop failure and enhance farm income.

ICRISAT research in the country

Four major areas of research in collaboration with the Indian national agricultural research and extension system (NARES):

  • Genetic resources conservation, evaluation and utilization
  • Enhancing crop productivity and sustainability under favorable and dryland stress environments
  • Improving system productivity and livelihood for fragile and dry environments including socio-economic and policy options
  • Strengthening research-development farmer linkages.

Major impacts

During 976-2011, 206 improved varieties of sorghum (41), pearl millet (80), chickpea (38), pigeonpea (21) and groundnut (26) were released by Indian partners (using breeding material from ICRISAT), raising production and incomes of millions of smallholder farmers. About 41,796 national germplasm accessions have been repatriated from ICRISAT to the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR).

Of 100 pearl millet hybrids marketed in India, at least 60 are based on parental lines or derived from ICRISAT, and are cultivated on more than 4.5 million ha (50% of pearl millet area in the country) contributing to cultivar diversity and increasing the crop's national productivity. Pearl millet hybrid HHB 67 Improved (India’s first public marker-assisted variety), annually saves US$ 8 million that comes from downy mildew damage.

Of the more than 30 sorghum hybrids cultivated during the rainy season on 3 million ha in India, 55% are based on ICRISAT-bred parental lines or derivatives. The first sweet sorghum hybrid CSH 22SS was released in 2005 by the National Research Center for Sorghum (NRCS), which used the ICRISAT-bred female parent ICSA38.

Legumes like chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut can play a significant role in enhancing productivity and sustainability of rainfed cropping systems. Not only do they provide an essential source of protein to help fight malnutrition, but they also improve soil fertility and are important in intercropping and crop rotation. One-third of chickpea breeder seed in India during the past 10 years have come from varieties developed by the ICAR-ICRISAT partnership. Clear impacts can be seen - eg, Short-duration, fusarium wilt- resistant varieties have led to increases in area and productivity of chickpea in central and southern India.

The world’s first CMS-based commercial hybrid pigeonpea ICPH 2671 was released as ‘Pushkal’ in collaboration with a private seed company in 2008. This is a medium-duration, high-yielding and disease- resistant hybrid. Pushkal has 51% superiority over existing varieties.

In Anantapur, a particularly drought prone district in Southern India, where over 50% of farm income comes from groundnut, ICRISAT’s new variety ICGV 91114 increased yield by 23% compared to the previous variety. ICGV 91114 is characterized by its drought tolerance, highervalue large seeds, more uniform harvest maturity, disease tolerance and greater palatability of haulms (straw) for livestock. An estimated additional 42,000 tonnes of groundnut is being produced annually, worth US$ 3.7 million to 30,000 farm households. Cows fed on these haulms produce 11% more milk. By 2020, the impact of this variety in Anantapur is projected to increase to 35% from 0.75 million hectares of groundnut.

ICRISAT has been instrumental in developing pest-resistant varieties in sorghum (ICSV 745), chickpea  (9ICSV 10), and pigeonpea (ICPL 332WR), and Integrated Pest Management technologies to reduce pest associated losses in rainfed crops.

The Hybrid Parents Research Consortium (HPRC) of ICRISAT has been providing diverse genetically improved breeding lines and hybrid parents to Indian public and private partners.

The ICRISAT-Government of Karnataka’s Bhoochetana program is a farmer participatory model that emerged from the scaling up of our long-term strategic on-station research on natural resource management in collaboration with local partners. It aims to improve rural livelihoods and attain food and nutrition security by increasing crop productivity through sustainable intensification and market-led diversification of systems leading to an increase in farmers’ income. The results in Karnataka state, India in the first 4 years included:

  • 20-66% crop yield increase
  • 5.6 to 11% rise in food production across the state over 3 years as compared to stagnant growth the 5 previous years
  • US$ 1 invested = US$ 3-14 return
  • 3 million farmers over 3.7 million ha, made up to US$ 500 net gain per ha in one season
  • Total net benefits of US$ 230 m.

The innovative community watershed management model, developed by ICRISAT with ICAR-CRIDA, improved the overall condition of natural resources and doubled the income of 6,000 households from US$ 133 to US$ 533 in five years. It is now being outscaled in 300 watersheds in 13 states. Widespread micronutrient deficienciesin the dryland areas of India have also been alleviated, and crop yields have increased by 30-100%.

ICRISAT, along with ICAR institutions, demonstrated that rainfed agriculture in India has vast potential, and that current farmers’ productivity can be doubled by adopting an integrated genetic and natural resource management (IGNRM) approach using available technologies. The Comprehensive Assessment (CA) showed that watershed can become a growth engine of sustainable development in dryland areas by adopting a holistic livelihoods approach with increased investments and enabling policies. New common watershed guidelines were released by GoI in 2008.

For the first time, ICRISAT in collaboration with the Government of Uttarakhand, has successfully introduced an extra-early-maturing pigeonpea variety ICPL 88039 (VL Arhar 1) in the hills, and farmers have harvested >1000 kg/ha of grain even up to an elevation of 3000 meters. This will help in soil conservation and serve as a source of protein to the poor.

Dryland farmers need broader technology options that increase the productivity and profitability of coarse grains, cereals and pulses. This higher productivity and profitability can be actualized through:

  • Biotechnology and new science tools for the development of drought-tolerant and resistant cultivars
  • Increased productivity of the crop-livestock system
  • Better management of water and other natural resources
  • Massive upscaling and commercialisation of the Bhoochetana experience.

Gender: The role of women in agriculture in India must be supported and strengthened.  In 2013, the ICRISAT Village Dynamics Studies in South Asia (VDSA) project began collecting new data to examine change over time on key gender-related and health, nutrition and institutional issues.  Data collection has started in 8 villages of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Overall, there are 487 households and quantitative and qualitative data on gender and nutrition will be collected up to 4 times a year for an initial period of one year.

Capacity building:  ICRISAT builds the capacity of national partners and extension services.

Important documents

BBC photo story on success of Bhoochetana NRM program.
Media  article on India’s Kothapally watershed management as a role model for Europe.
BBC photo story on how rural women are fighting poverty in India with support from ICRISAT and partners.
New groundnut variety raised yields as well as milk yields in India.
Media article ICRISAT germplasm promoting food security in India.
Women enumerators collecting data  as part of the 24-hour dietary recall survey in Kinkhed village, Maharashtra,India.
Mobile phone advice provides rural communities with vital information.