Hyderabad: Frustrated with mounting debt and crop loss due to heatwaves and drought-like conditions, 37-year-old Kanakaiah K. says he had contemplated suicide. He belongs to Pamulaparthy village in Siddipet district of Telangana, the state which reported the fourth highest incidence of farmer suicides in India in 2021.

His life, however, took a turn two years ago when he was introduced to greenhouse farming by a Hyderabad-based NGO Kheyti, one of several organisations working to create a change in the agricultural sector. Setting up a greenhouse facility in 4 guntas (0.1 acre) of his land radically improved farming for Kanakaiah.

Earlier, even as he and his wife toiled in the fields for months, they would incur losses with the onset of the parched summers, as it would mean dried up borewells. Despite being in the occupation for generations, Kanakaiah was unequipped to deal with the uncertainties of weather, and now climate change.

Erratic climate conditions, subsequent crop loss, and bankruptcy make some of the major causes of suicide among farmers in India.

“India’s still mainly rain-fed agriculture is severely impacted by the erratic monsoon pattern and extreme temperatures,” said Roxy Mathew Koll of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

The trend in monsoon rainfall in India is changing. The country has been experiencing lengthy dry stretches interspersed with brief periods of heavy rain, as opposed to moderate rains evenly distributed throughout the monsoon season. These alterations could see a region receive a month’s worth of rainfall within a week or suffer from delayed rains--both of which damage crops. Occasionally, this also causes both floods and drought in different parts of the country during the same season.

In some regions, following the monsoon, extreme weather events in the Rabi season, like cold or heat waves, and even hail storms, affect crop productivity and quality.

Extreme Weather In India

Map from Roxy Mathew Koll, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology

In addition, “the lack of understanding and knowledge of the issues at various levels--policies and development programmes--is inconspicuously leading to increased farmer vulnerability to climate change”, said Bhavana Rao Kuchimanchi of the Foundation for Ecological Security, working for conservation of land, forest, and water resources.

This is aggravated by a lack of access to crop insurance and disaster compensation for a majority of the farmers, G.V. Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, told IndiaSpend. “In agriculture the effort from the government should be to reduce the risk and cover the risk with proper compensation.” In 2021, however, only 22.47% of crop area in India was insured, according to government data.

The diverse challenges faced by the agriculture sector in India require more localised actions and adaptation, said Koll. “Villages and communities should come forward to monitor and work towards adaptation measures.” That is where organisations like Khyeti come in.

Local, affordable solutions

Kheyti’s greenhouse-in-a-box kit consists of a modular greenhouse with a drip system, which costs Rs 1 lakh--50% less than regular greenhouses. The setup uses 90% less water, grows food faster, keeps the heat out and helps in providing a steady income to farmers.

“The greenhouse requires very less water and doesn’t need as much labour input. Now, only me and my wife work in the greenhouse, which has helped me save Rs 50,000 per season on water and labour expenses,” said Kanakaiah. Since the use of the greenhouse kit, farmers such as Kanakaiah have seen their profit grow exponentially, Kheyti says, as farmers have been protected from weather vagaries, such as hail storms and extreme heat.

Ravinder Perumandla from Telangana has benefited from greenhouses designed by Kheyti.

Ravinder Perumandla (56) at Gudampally village in Telangana’s Jaishanker Bhupalapally district said, “I have set up a chilli nursery in the greenhouse on a land of 3 guntas (less than 0.1 acre). This gives me an income similar to any one-acre land. Moreover, if I face issues related to farming, I contact Kheyti officials and they advise me what to do.”

Khyeti says it has so far assisted around 1,000 farmers, while about 1,500 more have enrolled in its programme. The NGO also trains farmers in using mobile-based advisories to their advantage, in retailing their produce, provides them with seeds, and assists in availing bank loans.

“By providing farmers with a climate-controlled greenhouse and technological support, Kheyti is not only helping them increase their income, but also helping them make informed decisions about their land, yield, crops, seeds and finances,” said Kaushik Kappagantulu, chief executive and co-founder of Kheyti. For its greenhouse kit, the NGO won the Earthshot prize in 2022, an award for contribution to environmentalism, and Kappagantulu won the Elevate prize in 2021, for leaders creating an impact for the social good.

Using technology to battle climate uncertainties

Seema Khandade uses the Farm Precise App to check weather forecasts and local crop prices.

Seema Khandade (35), who had just harvested her soybean crop, sat on a jute cot outside her home, checking the local market rates for her produce on the Farm Precise app. A resident of Pasodi village in Jalna, Maharashtra, she has been using the app since 2021 to check weather forecasts and local crop prices to determine the optimum time and rate for selling her produce.

“This app has become a friend to me. Last August, because I checked the weather forecast, I was able to save my crop, while many others lost their crop to heavy rains,” she said.

The Farm Precise app developed by a Pune-based NGO, Watershed Organization Trust (WOTR), offers personalised, weather-based, location-specific forecasts and crop management information to farmers to increase their crop yield and cut costs.

Crop Advisory on the Farm Precise App
Picture Credit: Watershed Organization Trust

Founded in 1993, WOTR has been working to conserve water and soil, and promote climate-resilient agriculture by concentrating on soil health and cultivating indigenous crop varieties.

In 2012, WOTR collaborated with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) to develop a mechanism to provide village-specific forecasts to the farmers and based on these forecasts, pasted wallpapers with advisories on walls and bus stops, and text messages to them on a weekly basis. After working with the IMD and various agriculture scientists for about four years, WOTR developed an agro advisory and handed over the application to IMD, and they have integrated this advisory into the national system.

Based on this experience, in 2018, WOTR also developed the Farm Precise app, the one that Khandade uses, with the help of Qualcomm’s wireless reach programme that aims to bring wireless technologies to underserved populations.

WOTR’s app is used to help the cultivation of more than 28 crops across Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana, the organisation said, adding that it has been used by 70,000 farmers till now, with the majority in Maharashtra.

The organisation also did a quantitative and qualitative study of the impact of its programme, in 68 villages in 4 districts of Maharashtra. It found that the proportion of farmers who followed different advisories in different blocks varied considerably. On reduction in inputs cost, between 21% and 81% of farmers said that costs reduced by 25% for the Rabi crop, and between 38% and 100% said it reduced for the Kharif crop.

Demonstration of the Farm Precise App

Using indigenous knowledge for healthy crops

“When I first visited this region, I noticed that either many of the farmers used chemical pesticides, or they migrated to the cities for better opportunities as irrigation was close to impossible in this arid region which was rain-fed,” recalled Valliammal Krishnaswamy, co-founder of NGO Anisha that world in the Martalli area of Karnataka’s drought-prone Chamarajanagar district.

The food security and rural development NGO trains farmers to return to traditional methods of farming, as practised before the intense fertiliser and pesticide use popularised during the Green Revolution in the 1960s. They teach farmers to make their own natural pesticides and herbicides to promote development of healthy plants, conserve water, restore degraded soil and cultivate climate resilient crops.

Since 2006, the organisation says it has helped around 2,000 farmers shift to organic farming. They say they have also helped more than 400 families in over 20 villages to set up their own kitchen gardens. Krishnaswamy said her goal is to help the farmers become self-sufficient.

Mahadev S. grows multiple crops through the year, radish, cluster beans and okra along with the main crop, to reduce his dependence on one crop which might fail because of erratic weather or other reasons.

One of the farmers who has benefitted from Krishnaswamy’s endeavour, is Mahadev S., 58, of Kadabur village. “I grow vegetables like radish, cluster beans and okra along with the main crop. This is helping me be self-sustained, as I am not depending on only one crop.”

Another farmer of the village, Chinathayi, said that with the help of the NGO Anisha, she has started vegetable intercropping even in the dry season. “I never dreamt that I could grow crops even in the dry season. I grow intercrop vegetables and now I have a good crop yield.”

NGO Anisha also distributes native seeds from the project's seed bank, offers credits from a revolving fund, and urges project members to support one another in self-help groups (Sanghams).

WOTR also promotes organic farming and the use of natural pesticides like jivamrut, amritpani, composting and vermicomposting, which helps in reducing the effects of moisture stress, and also reduces the cost of using fertilisers. Jivamrut and amritpani are prepared with ingredients easily available at a farm, such as cow dung, cow urine, jaggery and gram flour. The mix is fermented for 5 to 7 days before it is ready for use.

“Organic farming has saved me money on expenses towards fertilisers and my crops also showed resistance to pest and disease infestation. My chickpea crop is now much healthier and of good quality,” said Lakshman Khamkar (45), a farmer from Anandwadi village in Osmanabad, Maharashtra, who has learnt about organic farming through the Farm Precise app.

The NGO also suggests farmers to grow drought-resistant crops besides their main crops. In Marathwada, for instance, where cotton, soybean and maize are the main crops, WOTR advises farmers to grow either black gram, green gram or pearl millet along with the main crop. This intercropping ensures alternate income for farmers in case the main crop fails.

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