The sound of the pied crested cuckoo’s shrill metallic calls in the late summer is the harbinger of the monsoon season in India. It is an auspicious bird in Indian mythology who arrives at the shores of the Indian subcontinent and waits for the first showers to quench its thirst. For centuries, monsoon has been the time to rejoice. It provides a whiff of fresh cool air and respite from the sweltering heat, fills the rivers, wells and dams, and waters the crops. Several festivals across India celebrate monsoons, harvest and the life-sustaining properties of water – Onam in Kerala, Adiperukku in Tamil Nadu and Minjar in Himachal Pradesh, to name a few.
Yet, in the past two decades, the arrival of the monsoon has caused tremendous apprehension. Torrential rains, even record levels of rainfall, have flooded large parts of the nation. Last monsoon, these heavy spells of rain wreaked havoc in 11 states, killing 1,200 people and eroding the livelihoods of millions. Increasingly, the monsoon is arriving late on the heels of a drought, exacerbating farmers’ anxieties. At the heart of these fluctuations and extreme weather is climate change. The disturbances in the weather system directly affects the food and water security of many living in extreme poverty.
The monsoon season lasts three months, from June to September. More than 70% of the total rainfall falls in these months. Monsoons are of particular strategic importance to India because of its agriculture sector. While irrigation systems have been expanding since independence, 60% of crops remain rain-fed, and are hence entirely dependent on the monsoon season.
Further, employment in agriculture accounts for close to half the population in India, and 15% of its GDP. Perhaps even more pertinently, the monsoons hold a tight grip on economic development. A poor monsoon causes a declining agriculture sector, food inflation, farmer distress and political agitation. The monsoon season is so pivotal, that Guy Fleetwood Wilson, a finance minister from 1909, declared that the “budget of India is a gamble in rain“.With climate change affecting the natural variability of monsoons, this statement is even more true today.
There are several reasons scientists assert that climate change has made India’s monsoons more erratic. Sunil Amrith, a history professor from Harvard University, and author of the book Unruly Waters, explains how on the most basic level, monsoons are caused by two factors: (1) the level of moisture in the atmosphere and (2) the difference in heat between the land and the ocean. Scientists observed that the warming of the ocean’s surface due to climate change has increased the amount of moisture that monsoon winds pick up while heading to South Asia.
As a result, climate models predict increases in rainfall, and thus increased flooding. The planetary warming of the oceans is in turn increased by emission of aerosols, domestic burning of biomass in the absence of electricity, and crop burning. Finally, increased use of land for agricultural production affects soil moisture and its capacity to absorb and reflect heat, both of which contribute to climate change.
The impact of climate change on the variability of monsoons has a high human cost in an economy that is so dependent on the monsoon season. Arvind Subramanian, the former chief economic advisor to the government of India, has estimated that climate change can reduce farmer’s incomes by 15-18%, and by as much as 20-25% in un-irrigated areas. Given this high level of human suffering, addressing climate change is paramount.
What policy prescriptions can help the suffering of the rural poor? There are two broad approaches that are currently prevalent to resolve this issue: (1) concerted efforts to reduce aerosol emissions, domestic burning of biomass, and crop burning, that is, factors causing climate change and (2) making farmers less dependent on climate. The first method tackles the problem from its source, that is, they are curative strategies, and the second shields farmers from the impact of climate change, that is, they are alleviation strategies. Curative strategies eliminate the source of the problem but take a long time to come into effect. Alleviation strategies provide short-term relief but fail to address the source of the problem. I believe it is imperative to work on both in tandem.
Unfortunately, economists and policy advisors have focused entirely on alleviation strategies. These typically include expanding irrigation so that fewer farmers rely on rain-fed crops, more precise flood modelling, sophisticated flood management, switching from less climate-resistant crops (such as rice) to more climate-resistant crops (such as maize, millet, and sorghum), and insurance. While these are important in the short run and must be looked into, one cannot neglect that climate change is the source that is driving all these problems.
No amount of flood management can resolve how glacier melts have massively increased runoff to the rivers fed by the Himalayas, for instance. An apt example of the costs of neglecting curative strategies comes from the state of Uttarakhand. In 2013, devastating floods killed more than 4000 people, uprooting roads, dams and bridges in the Hindu pilgrimage town of Kedarnath (Chandrashekhar). The economic losses were $3.8 billion. As climate change increases, such natural disasters are more and more likely to occur, and no alleviation strategies would help eliminate these. It is important to understand that after all, addressing climate change is not just an ecological issue, but fundamentally a poverty alleviation programme.
India was among the birthplaces of the Green Revolution. It brought India out from the brink of a mass famine in 1961 and began an era of increased agricultural productivity. It remains among the big achievements of modern Indian and is testament to how the government can implement effective policy. In the aftermath of the recent COVID-19 crisis, when the economy starts afresh, the time will be ripe to take concrete action on climate change. The sooner climate change is seen as a poverty alleviation tool, as much as an ecological problem, the faster progress will be made towards redressing the issues of farmers in India.
Siddhant Gokhale is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration and international development at the Harvard Kennedy School, Massachusetts.