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Agroecological Farming in Water-deficient Tamil Nadu

C Saratchand ( is at Satyawati College, University of Delhi.

Tamil Nadu is confronted with a water crisis that is adversely affecting agriculture, industry, services, and households. The principal crop in Tamil Nadu is rice, which is water intensive. Millets, in general, are less water intensive and more capable of withstanding drought conditions. An agroecological system of farming millets ought to take into account not only water use, but also the whole gamut of political and ecological issues that are connected to farming such as public procurement, land reform, minimum support price, subsidised credit, agricultural extension services, and so on. The publicly procured millet output may be distributed through the public distribution system, government schools, and through the network of Amma canteens in the state.

A version of this paper was presented at the International Conference on Ecology, Economy and Society, organised by the Inter University Centre for Alternative Economics, Department of Economics, University of Kerala, 16–18 August 2018.

A water crisis has been developing in the recent past all across the world, which is closely connected to the private use and control of water (Barlow and Clarke 2002; Barlow 2009, 2014). This water crisis has had a negative impact on countries that comprise the capitalist metropolis as well as the periphery. In India too, there has been a burgeoning water crisis but its impact has, however, been unevenly distributed (Poddar et al 2014). Tamil Nadu, a state in South India, is facing a water crisis that is adversely affecting agriculture, industry, services and households (Rajagopal et al 2016). In Tamil Nadu, surface water resources had been utilised substantially and a significant share of groundwater had been brought in to use. The share of total water resources of the state was only 4% of India’s total, whereas its share of the country’s population was 7%, resulting in it being declared as the region with the lowest per capita availability of water in the country among the bigger states (Rajagopal
et al 2016).

The Cauvery river in the neighbouring state of Karnataka is an important source of water for Tamil Nadu. When the south-west monsoon in Karnataka is inadequate, it has a direct negative impact on the water situation in Tamil Nadu. The legal dispute over Cauvery water began in 1974 when the water-sharing agreement (enacted in 1924) lapsed after 50 years (Rajagopal et al 2016). The judgment of the Supreme Court that was delivered on 16 February 2018 has determined a formula for sharing of the Cauvery waters among the various states. However, it remains to be seen whether this judgment can be fully implemented. In the next few decades, the water crisis in Tamil Nadu cannot be handled unless the state is provided the share of Cauvery water that it is legally entitled to as per the judgment.

While a satisfactory resolution of the Cauvery water-sharing dispute is necessary for a resolution of the water crisis in Tamil Nadu, this paper argues that it is not sufficient. Given the pattern of water use and the rise in output and population, a given amount of water would eventually become insufficient. Indeed, it is possible to argue that given the current pattern of water use in different sectors of the economy, even if the existing amount of water is made available each year, it may not be sustainable since water use has been rising over time.

Any change from the existing pattern of water use would have to encompass all sectors of the economy. Some of these would have to include water conservation through cutting wastage by households. The rich often tend to use excessive water in their household activities. One way to deal with this problem is by the use of telescopic water tariffs whereby water is supplied by the government to households at zero or economical rates up to a certain socially determined magnitude per month. Households which exceed this level of water consumption are then charged high rates of tariff that will adequately cover the entire cost of supplying water to the area in question.1

Water saving in the day-to-day activities of commercial undertakings could be undertaken also by instituting a system of telescopic water tariffs. Further efforts may be undertaken to introduce less water-intensive production processes in commercial undertakings. Besides, those commercial undertakings in which water intensity cannot be reduced may be taxed or be asked to exit the state through creation and implementation of appropriate legislation. While telescopic tariffs may result in some recycling of water, it may be promoted both in households as well as firms through the provision of appropriate infrastructure by the government. Conservation of rainwater at the social level may also be undertaken through the maintenance of public tanks, lakes, and so on. This activity may be promoted by the government through the employment of workers in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) programme. This may require an increase in the number of days of employment offered. Thus, stored water may be judiciously used in all sectors of the economy of Tamil Nadu.

The use of water in the agricultural sector of Tamil Nadu is the principal concern of this paper. The approach adopted here is based on two premises: the water crisis in Tamil Nadu is a social problem wherein the solution requires a social change; and that a reorganisation has to take into account the fact that agriculture is inseparable from ecology.

Agroecological Farming

Agricultural practices under the present social formation where the capitalist mode of production is dominant can be classified as: (i) landlord-dominated farming; (ii) capitalist farming which may be dominated by corporate agribusiness; and (iii) peasant agriculture.

In the United States (US), agriculture is increasingly being dominated by corporate agribusiness (Burbach and Flynn 1980; Magdoff and Flynn 2000), has not only been deleterious to the environment, but has also been racially oppressive (Leslie and White 2018). The domination of corporate agribusiness has negative ecological consequences even if corporate big business does not significantly own agricultural land as in the case of India.

The methods of cultivation adopted under conventional farming, which is profit driven, does not take into account the full consequences and costs of agriculture. Corporate agribusiness exacerbates the negative ecological consequences of conventional farming. The large scale of operations often results in the adoption of conventional industrial methods in agricultural production, extension and so on.2 Further, the owners of corporate agriculture are often not socially integrated into the communities practising agriculture.

Agroecological farming emerged to provide an alternative to conventional farming. It has been pointed out by Wojtkowski (2016) that intercropping and crop rotation are agroecologically superior to monoculture.3 However, when farming is profit driven, a particular process will be adopted only when it is more profitable. Let it be assumed that there are two crops and let them be denoted as 1 and 2. Let us consider the case of intercropping versus monoculture. There are three possibilities: monoculture of crop 1 denoted byα, monoculture of crop 2 denoted byβ, intercropping of crops 1 and 2 denoted byγ. The expressions for profit involved in the three situations may be denoted as by the following equations:

πα = pα1xα1 – Cα

πβ = pβ1xβ1 – Cβ

πγ = pγ1xγ1 + pγ2xγ2 –Cγ

Here xji is the output of crop i = 1,2 in situation j = α, β, γ. Similarly pji is the price of crop i = 1,2 in situation j = α, β, γ. Further Cji is the total cost in situation j = α, β, γ.

Clearly, the type of cultivation that is chosen would be the most profitable one. It may be noted that even if intercropping (represented by situationγ) costs less than either type of monoculture, it may be the case that it is less profitable than at least one type of monoculture:

Cγ < min(Cα,Cβ)

πγ< min(πα, πβ)

When farming is undertaken privately, private costs and not social costs enter the profit calculation in the absence of government intervention. Therefore, even if private costs of crop monoculture are lower than that for intercropping, the social costs may be higher for the former as compared to the latter. Further, the deleterious consequences of crop monoculture may accumulate over time, that is, intercropping may cost less than any type of crop monoculture in the long run.

But, the time horizon of private farming driven by profit is not long, especially when it is dominated by corporate agribusiness. This would be the case because unlike peasants (labour), capital in agriculture may migrate at least partially to other avenues if they are expected to be more profitable. Further, when corporate acquisition of agricultural land is carried out by coercive means, peasants are unlikely to undertake long run activities on their land that are conducive to agroecological farming.

If there is corporate acquisition of some agricultural land, then an agroecological spatial spread of crops that was previously possible now becomes non-viable. As a result, the residual agricultural land becomes less viable agroecologically. Therefore, the peasants who cultivate this land are likely to become progressively pauperised. This, in turn, may result in the expansion of the ambit of corporate land acquisition and therefore, a reproduction on an increasing scale of the agroecological unviability of land.

Likewise, capitalist farmers and/or landlords who anticipate that acquisition of their land will allow them to acquire vast sums of money are unlikely to acquiesce in the undertaking of agroecological practices on their land. Further, the corporate acquirers of agricultural land are unlikely to be interested in the agroecological infrastructure that may be present in the agricultural land they acquire since the purpose of such acquisition is the setting up of real estate or making capital gains through speculation in such land.4

By definition, an agroecological farming process is less water intensive when compared to conventional farming processes in order to produce a given vector of crops. Capitalist farmers, especially agribusiness, are unlikely to adopt water- saving methods of cultivation unless these are more immediately profitable as compared to water-intensive methods of cultivation.5 When landlords and/or capitalist farmers dominate agriculture and are employing water-intensive methods of cultivation, an increase in the cost of water due to state intervention would squeeze peasants, especially poor peasants and possibly the middle peasants, since they may not be able to break even.

It may be argued from the standpoint of neoclassical economics that a rise in the cost of using water will reduce the water intensity of agricultural production, that is, result in the use of less water for producing the existing type of crops or shifting towards the cultivation of less water-intensive crops. However, if as a result of a rise in the cost of using water peasants are squeezed, then the share of landlords and/or
capitalist farmers in the output of water-intensive crops will increase which may result in price increases of these water-intensive crops. This, in turn, may enhance the profits of landlords and/or capitalist farmers from producing water-intensive crops. Even if the output of water-intensive crops remains unchanged, rural inequality would have increased. But if the landlords and/or capitalist farmers use more waterintensive methods to produce a given volume of a crop, then even if crop output is unchanged, water use or demand would have increased. However, if the profitability of cultivating
water-intensive crops increases for landlords and/or capitalist farmers, then they will increase the output of those crops which would further increase water use or demand and
exacerbate the water crisis.6

Therefore, government intervention in favour of agroecological farming in a set-up where agriculture is profit driven, has to influence prices, output levels, output mix, costs and demand. However, even then a contradiction between profit-driven private farming and agroecologically desirable practices may remain. For instance, consider the case of intercropping. Suppose intercropping is to be carried out in m units of agricultural land which are divided into n compact private units. Now the agroecologically desirable mix of intercropping in this m units of land may not be the one which provides the maximum expected profit for each of the m cultivators because the spatial spread of the two (or more) crops may not coincide in both cases. If prices of all crops and the cost of production of crops under different processes are fixed or change in ways that can be adequately foreseen, the government may intervene, through a system of tax and subsidy, to equalise the profit per unit of land irrespective of the actual crop mix on each unit of land.

However, prices (both agricultural and non-agricultural) often vary in unpredictable ways when the capitalist mode of production is involved. Moreover, there is likely to be inequality among the cultivators in terms of land cultivated and bargaining power. As far as that area (of m units of agricultural land) is concerned, the landlords and/or capitalist farmers are likely to establish such a vector of prices and other economic magnitudes whereby they corner disproportionately, the benefits of any government programme to promote agroecological farming.

Besides, the implementation and design of any such programme may also primarily benefit the landlords and/or capitalist farmers. Thus, not only profit-driven private agriculture but also its domination by landlords and/or capitalist farmers militates against agroecological farming. In other words, the process of establishing agroecological farming is not independent of the agrarian question of the democratic movement.7

The adoption of agroecological farming in Cuba in the 1990s was due to the intensification of the blockade instituted by the US on account of the collapse of the socialist experiments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (Altieri and Funes-Monzote 2012). The rapidity with which agroecological processes diffused in Cuba is not dissociated from the fact that the capitalist mode of production is not dominant in that country. However, to the extent that agriculture is profit driven, even if partially, the possibility that conventional farming may be re-established in future cannot be ruled out (Nelson et al 2009). However, an examination of the historical experience of farming in Cuba (Palma et al 2015) allows one to surmise that the development of agroecological farming has strong roots in Cuba since it is organically interrelated with the socialist mode of production in the country.8

Agrarian Crisis and Agroecological Farming

The different dimensions of the agrarian crisis in Tamil Nadu have been documented (Athreya 2015; Rajagopal et al 2016; Vivasayigal-Sangam 2017). According to Vivasayigal-Sangam (2017), the immediate problems that afflict agriculture in this state include the water crisis, rural indebtedness, the cut back in government support to agriculture, coercive land acquisition and so on.

Rajagopal et al (2016) point out that in Tamil Nadu, agriculture is substantially dependent on rain which is erratic and occurs only during short periods each year. Further, evapotranspiration is quite high in a state which is subtropical and also semi-arid, resulting in the need for irrigation to support cultivation. In the absence of adequate water supply through irrigation, only cultivation of millets, which is low-yielding and of short duration, would be possible.

There are seven agroclimatic zones in Tamil Nadu with different soil types (GOTN 2016). As of 2014–15, the distribution is as follows (GOTN 2016): cultivated (37%), fallow (21%), forest cover (16.3%), non-agricultural purposes (16.9%) and other purposes (residual).

According to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI 2018), for the period 1990–91 to 2014–15, the gross sown area peaked at 7.158 million hectares and subsequently remained below 6 million hectares after 2006–07. Likewise, the trend in net sown area in this period is also declining. The gross irrigated area in this period has stagnated while the net irrigated area has declined. The production of rice has fluctuated a great deal, with years of acute water shortage usually being associated with lower rice output. The productivity of rice has fluctuated significantly between 1990–91 (3,116 kilogram per hectare [kg/ha]) and 2014–15 (3,758 kg/ha) with the increase in yield being 642 kg during this entire period.

The output of millets (coarse cereals) declined from 1990–91 to 2005–06 and has risen subsequently. According to the RBI (2018), the area under cultivation of millets declined from 1.1814 million hectares in 1990–91 to 0.6244 million hectares in 2012–13. It rose later, and as of 2015–16, it stands at 0.8672 million hectares. The productivity of millets (or coarse cereals) has also fluctuated between 1990–91 (1,107 kg/ha) and 2014–15 (3,928 kg/ha) with the increase in yield being 2,821 kg during this period. Thus, the increase in the yield of millets in this period exceeds that of rice. Further, the yield of millets in Tamil Nadu as of 2014–15 is second among the states in India after West Bengal (GOTN 2016).

Unlike Kerala, in Tamil Nadu, there has been little or no land reform (Athreya 2015). As a result, the concentration of agricultural land is high and its ownership and control is in the hands of landlords and big farmers. As pointed out, the use of water (per unit of land or output) need not be the same for big farmers and peasants even when the same crop is involved. Therefore, increasing concentration of agricultural land may exacerbate the water crisis in agriculture.

The principal crop in Tamil Nadu is rice which is a water-intensive crop (RBI 2018). Public intervention could work towards the adoption of less water-intensive methods of rice cultivation. The area under cultivation of millets in Tamil Nadu, which is less water intensive in general, is relatively small because of limited public intervention (RBI 2018).

However, public intervention, say, public procurement or support for water-intensive crops, may contribute to the exacerbation of the water crisis in Tamil Nadu. These interventions are likely to lead to a lower share of less water-intensive crops in the area under cultivation. This is not an argument for reducing the minimum support price (MSP) for water-intensive crops like rice, since that would immediately accelerate the pauperisation of peasants. Some measures that could deal with this situation without adversely affecting peasants are set out here.

It is well known that climate change has a significant impact on agriculture especially in rain-dependent states like Tamil Nadu. Jayaraman et al (2011, 2014) point out three ways in which climate change and agriculture are related: climate change may cause greater variability in the magnitude and time pattern of rainfall; climate change tends to cause an increase in mean temperature as well as result in extreme weather events; and conventional agriculture along with the other types of ecologically unsustainable production processes are part of the cause of adverse climate change.

It is the agricultural workers and peasants, especially the poorer ones who operate at the margin of subsistence (or more precisely, simple reproduction) who are the primary victims of adverse climate change. Any fluctuation in output or prices may render them incapable of even simple reproduction and quite often on a permanent basis. This would be the case if agricultural debt is involved especially from non-institutional sources. Such debt default is often accompanied by distress land sales and a rise in the concentration of agricultural land.9 It follows that the water crisis that afflicts agriculture in Tamil Nadu may be tackled by augmenting the supply of water and by reducing the use of water.10 Let us consider them seriatim.

Regulating Water Supply and Use

The augmentation of the supply of water to agriculture depends, in the first place, on water sharing between the states that neighbour Tamil Nadu, namely, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Given the existing legal provisions on water sharing, any increase in the water that these states will provide to Tamil Nadu will depend on permanent increases in rainfall in these areas. This is unlikely to be a sustainable source of water for agriculture in Tamil Nadu. Likewise any presumption about permanent increase in the magnitude of future rainfall in Tamil Nadu would be clearly untenable.
Desalination of seawater could be a new source of water (Shaffer et al 2012).11 However, there are important concerns about this process concerning financial costs (Burn et al 2015) and ecological issues (Sadhwani et al 2005).12

There is also the issue of storage of water. Extreme weather events that are a result of adverse climate change give rise to episodes of high rainfall that irregularly alternate with seasons of deficient rainfall (Jayaraman et al 2011, 2014). As a result, water storage assumes greater significance. The MGNREGA programme may be augmented or supplemented with similar measures so that year-round work on maintaining adequate water storage facilities (lakes, tanks, and so on) may be carried out. Such a programme will also increase the bargaining power of agricultural workers and enable them to demand higher wages.

Apart from this, there remains the issue of reducing water use in agriculture which could either involve the use of less water to produce the existing type of crops or a shift towards less water-intensive crops. Since rice is the principal crop in Tamil Nadu, in terms of area cultivated, a brief illustrative discussion of alternative methods of rice cultivation needs to be set out. One method of alternative cultivation is the system of rice intensification (Thakur et al 2016). It has been seen that the system of rice intensification is capable of reducing water requirements during cultivation. The Indian experience has been reviewed in Glover (2011). However, even if the system of rice intensification is successfully diffused throughout Tamil Nadu, it does not necessarily follow that the water crisis will be adequately tackled.

The cultivation of millets is an alternative mode of saving water. After a fall in area under millet cultivation, there has been some rise in the area under cultivation in the recent past. But, a significant rise in the cultivation of millets requires public intervention, which could take the following forms:

(i) A system of provision of msp for millets ought to be provided on the lines of rice and wheat, but at a rate that ensures a rate of return which is not less than rice and wheat. This would not only provide income support to all who cultivate millets, but also ease the issues in transition from existing crops such as rice to millets. This would be of particular significance to the poorer sections of peasants.

(ii) Subsidised credit could be advanced on a regular basis to those who undertake the cultivation of millets which would reduce their cost of production. This would once again be of particular significance to the poorer sections of peasants since they are currently largely outside the ambit of rural institutional credit. If the likelihood of crop failure is lesser for millets as compared to rice (due to factors such as water shortage) then the cultivators of millets are less likely to default if they are supported in terms of price and procurement.

(iii) Public procurement follows logically from the institution of a msp for millets. The millets that are procured by the government can be distributed through the public distribution system, the government school system through mid-day meals and related measures and the network of Amma Unavagams (or canteens). This measure can be sustainable if a participative redefinition of food preferences in favour of millets-based food is undertaken (Bergamini et al 2013). Such an effort can draw on the long history of consumption of millets in Tamil Nadu by people as well as for use as fodder. For instance, a number of food items that are consumed in Tamil Nadu may also be made from a blend of rice and millets. Such a process has to successfully overcome the cultural hegemony that is sustained by those who profit from the current pattern
of consumption.

(iv) Agroecological methods of farming, including of crops such as millets, require planning, agricultural extension and so on that often extend beyond the agricultural land owned by one cultivator. Therefore, the adoption of agroecological methods of cultivation would necessitate the institution of a system of agricultural cooperation among the cultivators.13 But, the unequal system of agricultural landownership is skewed in favour of landlords and capitalist farmers. Any attempt to adopt and extend agroecological farming will tend to disproportionately benefit landlords and/or capitalist farmers. For instance, intercropping of two crops 1 and 2 may result in the poorer peasants being saddled with the lower priced or higher cost crops (say 2), or both. Thus, land reform that reduces land concentration is required to ensure that agroecological farming does not further marginalise the poorer peasants. Peasants, unlike landlords and/or capitalist farmers, are unlikely to have other sources of income and, hence, are more likely to respond actively to government measures to promote agroecological farming.


This paper advocates agroecological farming of millets as one component of a response to the water crisis in Tamil Nadu. The role of women in the production of millets and its social context and consequences also deserves further study (Finnis 2009). This effort can draw on the initiatives to promote millet production and diffusion as in the past (Gruère et al 2009; Takeshima and Nagarajan 2012).

For such a process to be socially sustainable, it must be accompanied by land reform that reduces the concentration of agricultural land and suitable measures to promote agricultural cooperation. Government intervention that could support such a process could include subsidised credit for producers undertaking the cultivation of millets, institution of a system of msps and government procurement for such crops. These efforts would have to be complemented by organisation and maintenance of water resources of the state through a suitable extension of the MGNREGA.

However, the development of agroecological farming of millets in Tamil Nadu is likely to face hurdles from the political and economic realities therein. The principal political parties and public discourse are quite distant from many of the issues that have been the concern of this paper. Therefore, it follows that the promotion of agroecological farming of millets in Tamil Nadu cannot be carried out within the existing sociopolitical set-up. For instance, any extension of the MGNREGA will face opposition from landlords and/or capitalist farmers because such a move may increase not only agricultural wage rates but also bargaining power of agricultural workers, which may lead to a rise in solidarity among the different communities that comprise the latter class. This will work to undermine the hegemony of the rural elite. Likewise an extension of subsidised credit and government procurement will weaken the dependence of the classes that comprise the rural poor on landlords and/or capitalist farmers.

The principal hurdle to the development of agroecological farming of millets and related practices is the role of the rural elite (including agribusiness) and the bourgeoisie (both domestic and foreign) in state power. The overcoming of the water crisis in Tamil Nadu will become possible only if the workers and peasants through political action are able to make solutions such as agroecological farming of millets a part of public discourse. The experience of states such as Kerala demonstrate that such efforts are in the realm of the possible even in India (Franke and Chasin 1992; Patnaik P 1995; Isaac 2014).


1 In case no household exceeds its socially determined monthly quota for water, then effective water saving would have been achieved in the residential area under question. The socially determined monthly quota would equal the quotient of the total sustainable water supply and the number of households.

2 It does not follow that large-scale agriculture is always conventional and therefore ecologically deleterious. Agarwal (2018) has argued that, under certain circumstances, group farming is superior to individual farming.

3 Altieri (1995) provides a detailed exposition of agroecology.

4 Patnaik P (2014) examines the significance of corporate land acquisition of agricultural land for the agrarian question.

5 Neither peasants nor capitalist farmers or landlords are likely to adopt a long time horizon when making decisions about agriculture when corporate land acquisition and cut back in government support to agriculture have become inalienable components of the neo-liberal project in the capitalist periphery. The latter point is discussed in Patnaik et al (2011).

6 If the consumption of the landlords and/or capitalist farmers is water intensive, demand for water would rise when their share in income rises.

7 Several authors (Patnaik U 1986; Patnaik et al 2011; Patnaik P 2014) discuss the agrarian question in the social formation where the capitalist mode of production is dominant.

8 China’s experience of agroecological farming is set out in Shiming and Gliessman (2016). Here, too, a move away from profit-driven agriculture is likely to enhance the sustainability of agroecological farming.

9 This also has given rise to an increase in suicides of farmers (Patnaik U 2004).

10 Future work in this direction could examine econometrically the relation between water availability and output of crops in Tamil Nadu.

11 Zarzo et al (2013) examines the experience of water desalination for agricultural use in Spain.

12 Manju and Sagar (2017) discuss the role of renewable energy in water desalination.

13 Surjeet (1992) has pointed out that unauthentic agricultural cooperatives were set up in Tamil Nadu in order to evade the provisions of land reform legislation in the state. A solution to problems such as these is the political self-empowerment of workers and peasants.


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Updated On : 16th Oct, 2018


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