Business India ×

Published on: Nov. 9, 2021, 2:41 p.m.
Building on a small base
  • Gaining valuable insights: a drone judging soil condition

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

For those who have not been completely taken in by the images of protesting farmers (at Delhi’s borders and elsewhere in the northern part of the country for over 11 months now against three agri-reform laws) believing them to be a true representation of the current state of Indian agriculture, there has been no dearth of positive tidings as well in the sector especially in the last decade.

In the short span of ten years, horticulture production in the country has grown from 170 million tonnes to 320 million tonnes, eclipsing food grain production. India’s agri export is on a rise – in several commodities the country has increased its global ranking, and the sector’s share to GDP has dramatically reversed in the last two years after a consistent decline since the beginning of the reforms programme. 

Away from the public glare, there is a whole lot of new age agri-tech players who, with their superior technological inputs, are making a big difference to Indian agriculture and receiving ample funding support. Agri input and FMCG giants too have their own hand-holding programmes for farmers meant to result in a win-win proposition for the stakeholders in the value chain. It is not to say that pain points of farming community have completely vanished in terms of returns to their efforts. But yes, to say that development in agriculture sector has come to a standstill would most certainly be a myopic version. 

Interestingly, in an era where climate change is becoming the concern of the century, some noticeable actions are also visible in the Indian agriculture sector in terms of adopting practices to mitigate the adverse impact of climate vagaries, going ahead. And the drive is getting a push from all leading stakeholders even as the standardisation of such practices may be missing at the current stage. 

 Stakeholders’ participation 

There is clear evidence of stakeholders in the value chain – starting from government to agri input firms to farmers and buying firms – taking initiatives in some form to contribute to this growing awareness about streamlining their operations in the wake of climate change threats. From the government side, the baton of making decisive changes is being carried by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Way back in 2011, the apex agricultural research agency in the country launched a flagship network project ‘National Innovations in Climate Resilient Agriculture’ (NICRA).

The programme entails using its local units across the country to continuously indulge in strategic research on adaptation and mitigation, demonstration of technologies on farmers’ fields and creating awareness among farmers and other stakeholders to minimise the impact of climatic change on agriculture. 

The main focus areas for this initiative are those districts in the country which are prone to suffer from climate related vagaries and suggest innovative solutions on a consistent basis. One such instance was witnessed on 28 September when the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi dedicated to the nation 35 climate resilient crops endowed with special traits to deal with challenges posed by extreme weather conditions.

“In the last six to seven years, science and technology are being used on a priority basis to solve the challenges related to agriculture. We are focussed on more nutritious seeds, adapted to new conditions, especially in changing climates,” he said on the occasion. A premier research firm like ICRA gets ample support from other government agencies like the lesser known National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) which is making comprehensive drought proofing plans for as many as 168 vulnerable districts in the country, mostly arid or semi-arid (see interview of Ashok Dalwai, CEO, NRAA). 

  • From sun to soil: a solar pump in the field

And there are visible actions in private sector quarters too – agri input firms or FMCG majors – in terms of reaching out to farmers and helping them undertake sustainable agriculture practices. Bayer Crop Science which has launched an expansive Sustainable Rice Project is trying to reach out to three million farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh. As a methane emitter, rice is one of the biggest contributors to global GHG emissions and also one of the highest resource consumers – using around 4,000 litres of water to produce one kg of rice.

To mitigate this challenge, the company is providing farmers with end-to-end training in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute and the field teams of Bayer and partners. “We are encouraging them to adopt more carbon and water-efficient practices like the Direct Seeded Rice (DSR), Alternate Wetting & Drying (AWD) and Reduced Tillage (RT). These techniques also reduce the cost of cultivation and improve farmers’ profitability while enhancing the soil quality,” a senior official of the company emphasises. 

The hand holding of farmers by FMCG firms is a growing trend where the companies in agri-commodity-centric businesses help growers in adopting advanced practices which are in sync with responding to climate change requirements. 

Take the case of global food major Mars Wrigley. It is running a dedicated programme Shubh Mint (since 2017) aiming to train 24,000 farmers in good agricultural practices. The prime objective of this programme is to help mint farmers double their incline and reduce water consumption by 30 per cent in water-stressed areas. For this, the company is providing planting materials and has established four Farmer Producer Companies (FPCs) to drive value to the farmer and supply traceability. “Mars’ purpose of ‘The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today’ guides us in everything we do including our Sustainable in a Generation (SiG) Plan that cuts across three key areas – Healthy Planet, Thriving People and Nourishing Wellbeing in India,” says Kalpesh R Parmar, Country GM, Mars Wrigley India. 

A small scene?

The sustainable agriculture scene is also getting the additional bit of magnetism from the rising use of advanced technological applications like using solar panels for power generation in the field. Using drones to judge soil condition was started by the Indian Coffee Board on a large scale in South India but now it is increasingly becoming part of the manual of sustainable agriculture.

“The use of drones in the agriculture industry is gradually growing as part of a realistic approach to sustainable agricultural management that allows agricultural engineers, and farmers to streamline their operations, using strong data analytics to gain valuable insights into their crops,” Vipul Singh, CEO and Co-founder, Aarav Unmanned Systems points out. 

Despite all these remarkable scenes and initiatives, in a geographically diverse country like India, the sustainable agriculture practise’s universe hasn’t grown too big. A recently released report by the leading policy research institute Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) has identified 16 sustainable agriculture practices (SAPs), which includes natural farming, organic farming, precision farming, integrated farming systems, and agro-forestry. However, none of these SAPs have been adopted by more than 4 per cent of farmers. “There is a state of confusion in terms of identifying clear sustainable agriculture practices and that is creating a problem in strategic policymaking. There are 70 definitions,” says Apoorve Khandelwal, Senior Programme Lead, CEEW. 

  • The use of drones in the agriculture industry is gradually growing as part of a realistic approach to sustainable agricultural management that allows agricultural engineers, and farmers to streamline their operations, using strong data analytics to gain valuable insights into their crops

Analysts, however, feel this issue is not exclusive to India. “Not only in India, ‘sustainable agriculture’ had been a buzz word all across the world, at least until the havoc created the world over due to Covid-19,” says S Ramesh, CEO, World Food Trust. Point this out to Dalwai and he says the government’s definition has a broader scope.

“We are now promoting agro-ecology-based agriculture. We consider sustainable agriculture as something which does not charge the environment unduly. We are balancing inputs and outputs. We are not extracting more than what was put in the soil. This is what people at the research, policy or even farm level understand,” says he, while emphasising that even as the Green Revolution in the past paid great dividends, it has been very extractive in nature.

Experts like Khandelwal,, however, strongly recommend the government deploying more resources to promote sustainable agriculture. “Current central government support to the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture is a meagre 0.8 per cent of the agricultural budget, which is quite sizeable. A proper incentive led programme is needed to push it from its current nascent stage,” he comments.

Probably a valid suggestion for a practice which is both part of the problem (as per Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, agriculture is the third highest contributor to carbon emissions at 14 per cent) and is looking for implementation of effective solutions on a larger basis. 

  • Dalwai: we are promoting agro-ecology-based agriculture

    Dalwai: we are promoting agro-ecology-based agriculture

“We are making plans for 168 vulnerable districts” 

Ashok Dalwai, CEO, National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) and formerly Chairman of Government’s committee on doubling farmers income, speaks about the broader definition of sustainable agriculture which government agencies are adhering to while chalking out new solutions... 

Analysts are pointing at too many definitions for sustainable agriculture which is creating confusion. Your response... 

When we promote any specific practice anywhere, it inherently takes into the account the agro-ecological condition inputs like water, nature of soil, rainfall pattern and local temperature conditions. Today we are promoting agro-ecology-based agriculture. Secondly, sustainable agriculture is one which does not charge the environment unduly. That is, we opt for an integrated farming system that brings most of the activities together – crops, horticulture, dairy, agro-forestry, animal husbandry, off-farming, etc. We are balancing inputs and outputs. We are not extracting more than what was put in the soil. This is what people at the research, policy or even farm level understand. 

However, we can look for a clearer definition of sustainable agriculture even as it can’t be uniform. It can only be a guiding principle because ecology varies across the country and India is a very diverse country. It has got 121 agro-ecological sub-regions. 

Can you cite some of the major programmes addressing this issue? 

Based on the explained parameters, most of our programmes are designed these days. For instance, what we call conservation agriculture, includes different types of agriculture systems – natural farming, organic, integrated nutrient-based agriculture, etc. Each will depend upon the particular local requirement. For instance, if our soil has become barren, we will require natural farming. Plus, under the ICAR system, our centres have developed different models suitable for different agro-ecologies. 

On the solution side, how would you explain the broader strategy? 

It has been advocated for many decades. But now it has become more relevant because of various reasons. One is the impact of the green revolution which was more extractive in nature. It depended on the intensive use of agro-chemicals, water, etc. Due to that some regions had become barren, less productive and organic carbon in general, has come down. Climate change has further worsened the situation. Climate change manifests in two-three forms – variation in temperature, variation in rainfall pattern and extreme weather conditions like high floods, high droughts, etc. We also have to look at it from the prospect of raising farmers’ incomes.

If we are promoting natural agriculture, we only give the inputs that are required. For instance, on the basis of the soil health card which recommends what should be the nutrient management. Practising soil management on the basis of evidence is also sustainable agriculture. Or micro-irrigation – when we use it the quantity of water comes down by 25-30 or in some cases even 50 per cent. This means the rationalised use of resources. The cost of farming can come down. 

Several reports suggest a substantial volume of districts in the country are vulnerable to climate change vagaries and this will have a serious bearing on agriculture production in these places. How are you planning to deal with this kind of situation? 

Earlier there was a study done by NICRA (conducted by ICAR). They had identified 151 districts, considered as vulnerable. After that NRAA has developed a composite index that takes into the account two factors – livelihood index and natural resources index – climate, temperature, soil, etc. Taking these two dimensions we have found 168 districts which are highly vulnerable to drought. We have taken the target of drought proofing these areas. We have prepared a plan for 24 districts. We hope to complete the exercise for all districts by 2024. It will suggest specific action and interventions to promote sustainable practices. 

Cover Feature

Modi's coalition challenge

A shrunk mandate for Modi means compromises and problems in governance

Corporate Report

RPEL undergoes a metamorphosis

RPEL focusses on innovation in high-value stainless-steel products for growth

Corporate Report

How SLMG became a force to reckon with

India’s largest independent Coca-Cola bottler SLMG Beverages plans for a future ready organisation

Special Report

PSU shares: Back on investors’ radar

With markets stabilising, PSU shares are again being favoured by investors

Coalition Challenge
Up, Up and Up
Indian Elections and Markets


Private Equity




Corporate Report


The introduction of black pepper as an inter-crop in the sopari and coconut orchards, has enabled farmers to cultivate crops simultaneously

Skill Development

In 2020-21, the programme reached over 112,482 girls in urban and rural locations across six states in India, including 10,000 across Delhi


The event brought together stakeholders and changemakers to participate in a series of conversations on global trends and recent developments


The programme will focus on educating children on oral health and building awareness around the dangers of tobacco use


German BioEnergy enters Indian market

Published on Aug. 17, 2023, 11:54 a.m.

BioEnergy will showcase its innovative biogas technology in India


Ather looks to double its market share

Published on Aug. 17, 2023, 11:26 a.m.

Ather aims to produce 20,000 units every month, soon

Green Hydrogen

‘Kerala Hydrogen ecosystem a model for all states’

Published on Aug. 17, 2023, 11:06 a.m.

German Development Agency, GIZ is working on a roadmap for a green hydrogen cluster in Kochi

Renewable Energy

Adani Green eyes 45GW RE

Published on Aug. 17, 2023, 10:45 a.m.

AGEL set to play a big role in India’s carbon neutrality target