Mandya and Kolar, two agricultural districts in Karnataka, couldn’t be more different. While the former is lush and green thanks to being fed by the Hemavathi and Cauvery rivers as well as an extensive network of canals, the latter lacks irrigation projects and deals constantly with erratic rainfall and its fallouts. Groundwater levels are at 1,800 feet below ground level, causing many to abandon agriculture. Ironically however, it is Mandya that has seen a spate of farmer suicides over the past the past few years, much to the surprise of their counterparts in Kolar.
“They hang themselves despite such excellent irrigation facilities. We have managed to survive so far, even if we have to go down 1500 feet in search of water. If we had access to the services they do, we would have been incredibly successful,” farmers said during a focus group discussion held in Hulibele village, Bangarpet Taluk, Kolar.
Their view echoes the dominant discourse in climate change adaptation literature – those with better access to irrigation, endowments and ownership of material assets are best positioned to deal with disruptions to their livelihoods due to climate change. So why then has Mandya, a relatively prosperous region with close to perennial irrigation, seen such alarming levels of farmers’ distress?
Kempegowda M.L., vice president of Mandya Organic Foods Pvt. Ltd., an agricultural enterprise that supports a farmers’ cooperative asserts, “The distress amongst farmers in Mandya is inextricably linked to volatility in crop prices, especially sugarcane”. A resident of the Nagamangala taluk in Mandya and an agricultural scientist, he thinks that perennial irrigation has actually exacerbated the market-induced vulnerability of farmers in Mandya.
“The farmers are too dependent upon irrigation,” he continues. “Since they are assured of water, they undertake large scale cultivation of a single water-intensive crop – sugarcane – and this often leads to a glut in the market causing prices to crash.”
He adds that there is another significant reason why farmers have failed to diversify their crop mix. The average size of the landholdings in Mandya is amongst the lowest in the state at 0.62 hectares. Consequently, farmers choose to cultivate sugarcane, a coping mechanism that is potentially maladaptive because it exacerbates the long-term vulnerability of farmers by locking them into the production of a single crop.
There exists, however, substantial variability within Mandya as well. Some of the taluks such as Mandya and Srirangapatna are almost entirely irrigated while others such as Nagamangala are relatively much drier. Kempegowda adds, “Farmers in the drier regions are far more enterprising. They have diversified their crop mix and, as a result, are less vulnerable to market forces.” Even in Kolar, water-intensive crops such as paddy and sugarcane were phased out in most regions almost ten years ago.
This view is supported by ecological research, which asserts that exposure to stressors encourages farmers to optimise and builds resilience to similar shocks in the future. Therefore, conditional on their capability, they are better prepared to cope with drought. However, as the situation in Kolar illustrates, when there is persistent and unrelenting exposure to these stressors, the system reaches its threshold and even resilient farmers may find agriculture unviable.
The scenario in both districts is one in which the overall resilience of the agricultural system has been continually eroded. Adaptation is a process that involves behavioural change to negotiate transformations in coupled human and ecological systems. The challenge for policymakers is to establish a robust policy architecture that is flexible, forward-thinking and focused on the iterative learning of farmers, enabling them to adapt to disruptions.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese statistician and author has rather compellingly described the property of being ‘Antifragile’. “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness and stressors will harm them.”
As Taleb would argue, there needs to be a conducive environment for the farmers to be ‘antifragile’.
Arjun Srinivas is a researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore and works with the ASSAR consortium, an international research project that studies adaptation to Climate Change in the semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa. An economist by training, his research deals with the development implications of climate change.