Of the 141 million ha of net sown area in the country, 78 million ha is rainfed that contributes 40% of foodgrain production and supports two-thirds of the livestock population. Despite considerable progress made in irrigation development over the successive five year plans, 85% of coarse cereals, 83% pulses, 42% rice, 70% oilseeds and 65% cotton are still cultivated as rainfed. In rainfed regions, the annual precipitation is lower than the evapo-transpiration rates particularly in arid and dry semi-arid zones. However, rainfed agriculture is considered as a high risk venture being dependent on monsoon. Moreover, soils in these regions are deficient in nutrition. Evidently, rainfed agricultural scenario is influenced by both bio-physical and socio-economic factors as well as their interaction.
Major challenges of rainfed agriculture include managing climate/weather risks, particularly droughts and floods, bridging yield gaps, unabated land degradation, soil-health and productivity, balancing soil carbon, managing water resources for higher water productivity and stable yields, increasing employment opportunities and income, small-farm mechanization in view of rising labour scarcity for agricultural operations and as a whole, enhancing the livelihoods of the smalland marginal-farmers. The challenge, therefore, lies in balancing land use and cropping pattern as per the resource endowment and the shifts in the crop choice due to market scenarios.
Currently, productivity of rainfed crops is around 1.1 tonne/ha, and in a few cases beyond 2 tonne/ha as in pearl millet and finger millet. However, the yield gap is still wide which needs to be bridged by addressing regional imbalances in natural resources and technology, intake capacity of farmers, up-scaling doable technologies and in convergence with ongoing national/regional programmes. For yield maximization, selecting genotypes and ensuring their availability at village/farmer level with wide adaptability and resilience to climate variability remain a challenge. Together with enhanced production, biofortification of rainfed crops, particularly millets would be an opportunity as most of the tribal people and farm labourers of dryland areas are suffering from protein and micronutrient malnutrition.
Frequent occurrence of mid-season and terminal droughts of 1 to 3 weeks consecutive duration during the main cropping season happens to be the dominant reason for crop failures and low yields in the rainfed areas where managing rainwater both in situ and ex situ (through farm ponds) is the key strategy for achieving higher water productivity at farm level. The available runoff can be harvested and utilized broadly for two purposes, i.e. to provide supplemental irrigation to the standing summer (kharif) crop to offset midseason dry spells/terminal drought (flowering- grain filling stage) or facilitate sowing of the next winter (rabi) crop. Provision of critical irrigation during this period has the potential to improve the yields by 29 to 114% for different crops. Further, to mitigate in-season droughts in situ moisture conservation practices can be implemented with low cost and energy efficient implements.
Preparedness and implementation of crop contingency plans on real time basis is to be emphasized first to achieve desired crop acreage and second to enhance productivity during weather aberrations. District level agricultural contingency plans developed by the CRIDA in collaboration with other ICAR institutes, State Agricultural Universities and line departments need to be implemented at field level on a real time basis. Development of protocols for weather-based crop advisories at block level is also necessary, given the diversity in land use and crop diversity. Enhancing insurance coverage for rainfed crops using weather based indices is also being contemplated with farmercentric viewpoint. On-farm generation of employment is the overall goal with enabling policies and convergence national programmes such as MGNREGA, NMSA etc.
Soil-health card (SHC) based nutrient application improves nutrient use efficiency, input cost and higher net returns in rainfed agriculture. At the same time, conservation agriculture, though currently at research level in rainfed areas, is an upcoming strategy to deal with soil carbon and resource management on a longterm basis. In particular, integrated farming systems (IFS) for higher resource use efficiency, enhanced productivity, diversified and staggered income, greater employment generation through diversification and high-value crops, for horticulture- and livestock-based enterprises is critical in rainfed agriculture as the farm holdings are generally small. Integrating agroforestry into IFS models has great potential in stabilizing farm income and supporting livelihoods through simultaneous production of food, fodder and firewood. Livestockbased Livestockbased systems are critical in arid regions and developing fodder systems is essential to livelihood security in less developed and tribal regions. In high rainfall sub-humid to perhumid rainfed regions, IFS approach can be through farm-pond based farming systems with higher crop intensification, pisciculture, horticulture etc.
Technology transfer is one of the weakest links in rainfed agriculture. The public sector extension system is unable to meet the demands of the rainfed agriculture, which is quite diverse and challenging. Although integrated watershed development programmes are already in implementation with soil and conservation measures put on a landscape, the utility of these programmes for improvement of productivity of rainfed crops is not at the desired level. The only way is to enhance the productivity, and efficiency of the IWD program is to enable the capacities of the community based organizations and farmers groups so that the knowledge acquiring and transfer processes can go hand-in-hand. From kioskbased information dissemination, we need to move towards mobile-based personal communication. With the provisions of high speed mobile technologies, detailed text and pictures can be transmitted through mobile phones. In this regard, research programmes on use of ICTs for monitoring and developing early warning systems for hazards such as drought, floods and other extreme weather events being taken up by the Council. Sensitization and capacity building of primary and secondary stakeholders about doable rainfed technologies leading to skill development and widening the knowledge base form a critical area as far as managing resources in rainfed agriculture is concerned.
A National Rainfed Agricultural Policy linking state dryland farming missions is necessary to drought proof the rainfed areas at microlevel. At the same time, the current nutrient-based fertilizer policy should be farmer-friendly. Promotion of small millets through public distribution system which not only will have focused policy in enhancing their productivity but also contribute to food security of the people in rainfed areas. There is a need for redesigning support system and incentives for upscaling successful experiences. The policies should focus on both seed and natural resource management technology centered agriculture that will contribute towards achieving safety-nets in agriculture as well as the nation's aspiration of achieving a second green revolution from the rainfed areas of the country.