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Managing drought for mitigating desertification

Degradation of land due to desertification has a serious compounding effect on drought and the people dependent on it. It reduces the chances of the local people to cope with difficult periods. Measures aimed at sustainable resource management and building the capacity of the vulnerable communities can go a long way in making droughts more bearable.
A farm family in their sorghum field in Jaffergudem cluster
A farm family in their sorghum field in Jaffergudem cluster

The relation between desertification and drought on the one hand, and human influence on the other, are complex. Droughts are both caused and aggravated by the influence of man on the environment.Human influence can hasten desertification and aggravate the negative consequences. It reduces the chances of the local people to cope with difficult periods. Unless serious efforts are made, the process of desertification is difficult to reverse.

Large parts of India, particularly in the semi-arid region, are under the threat of desertification. Unprecedented human and livestock pressure on land is in fact accelerating desertification.

There have been many efforts to address this complex issue, more from technology application point of view, resulting in mixed outcomes. Although very little could be done to prevent droughts from occurring, measures aimed at sustainable resource management and building the capacity of the vulnerable communities can go a long way in making droughts more bearable.

As a part of National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP), a focused attempt was made to emphasize the role of supporting institutions and processes that will aid communities in adopting better resource conservation technologies. The project aimed at testing a new model of sustainable rural livelihood (SRL) strategy, which is focused on innovations in technology transfer, support systems and collective action with the overall goal of improving the income and livelihoods of people. The project titled “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods through Enhanced Farming Systems Productivity and Efficient Support Systems in Rainfed Areas” was implemented in Adilabad, Anantapur, Kadapa, Khammam, Mahbubnagar, Nalgonda, Rangareddy and Warangal districts of Andhra Pradesh during 2007-2012.

Name of hamlet/village No. of farmers Yield (t/ha) Net return
B:C ratio
Grain Fodder
Jalmalkunta Thanda 14 0.78 2.4 16601 2.2
Seethamma Thanda 5 0.63 2.1 12140 1.6
Peda Gorekunta Thanda 8 0.51 2.0 8354 1.1
Banjara hills 7 0.85 2.5 18929 2.5
Peda Seetharam Thanda 3 0.65 1.6 11745 1.5
Table 1: Performance of sorghum as a contingency crop in Dupahad cluster, Nalgonda

The project adopted a cluster approach. The entire population belonging to around 4754 households in a cluster of 3-4 villages in a block participated in the programme. Both the farmlands and the common pool resources (CPR) including forests, hills and wastelands were considered as areas for intervention (17297 hectares). This was advantageous in terms of scale of operation and it facilitated marketing of the products/services created to support livelihoods within the cluster.

During the course of the project implementation, many of the project sites faced droughts, at least twice. There was a severe drought during Kharif, 2009 across all the clusters, except Adilabad and Khammam. In clusters like Jamisthapur (Mahbubnagar) and Dupahad (Nalgonda) no Kharif crop could be sown, as there was no rainfall until the end of August. In other clusters, drought affected the initial growth phase and the crop wilted for want of moisture. Due to better soils, however, crops in Seethagondi (Adilabad) and Thummalacheruvu (Khammam) managed to survive and give some yield. This period though challenging, was an opportunity to enhance the capacity of the communities to cope with intermittent droughts.

Coping with drought

Sorghum, a contingency crop during drought
Sorghum, a contingency crop during drought

To help communities cope with droughts, a set of options for dealing with droughts were promoted. Contingency crop plans were prepared along with the communities. The plan was to identify water resources and common land resources for raising feed and fodder resources in a big way. Significant crop based interventions were promoted. As a contingency strategy, transplanted pigeonpea was taken up instead of direct sowing, cluster beans was inter cropped with cotton, hardy crops like sorghum and horsegram were taken up, and mulching was followed in cotton crop.Besides, common lands were identified in public or private domain for fodder cultivation. Select farmers from Telugugudem, Jamisthapur and B.Y.Gudi clusters were encouraged to convert their lands into horti-pastures. Farmers were discouraged in growing water demanding crops like paddy and were encouraged to save groundwater by providing life saving irrigation to the existing rainfed crops. Borewell owners were persuaded to share the water with neighbouring farmers for saving the crop. Also, landless community was mobilized to participate in construction of water harvesting structures through NREGS by coordinating with the block and district level officers.

Some of the contingency measures taken up in the project area are described. However, the support systems and the innovative institutions that were promoted to help communities cope with drought which are much more important than the technology, are not discussed in this paper.

Alternative crops as contingency

Sorghum and horse gram were promoted as contingency crops in different clusters. Seeds of these two crops were purchased from the local market and were broadcasted on the field. Minimum quantities (10-20 kg N) of fertilizers were used in sorghum and no fertilizers were applied to horse gram crop, to reduce the risk factor further.

As the monsoon got delayed, farmers in Dupahad cluster cultivated sorghum. Sowing was done during the second fortnight of September and the crop was harvested in January, 2010. There were prolonged dry spells during grain filling and maturity stages. On an average, the grain yield of sorghum ranged from 0.51 t/ha to 0.85 t/ha (Table 1). Similarly, the fodder yield also varied from 1.6 t/ha to 2.5 t/ha. The farmers of Banjara hills obtained highest net return (Rs 18929/ha). The entire tribal population in this cluster used sorghum grain for making rotis and crop residues as fodder for livestock.

In Jaffergudem cluster of Warangal, majority of rice fields were kept fallow because of deficit rainfall during kharif 2009. Farmers were anticipating severe fodder shortage. Hence, fodder sorghum cultivation was encouraged. About 20 farmers took up fodder sorghum cultivation over an area of 2.5 acres. The intervention became popular with farmers having milch animals.

Similarly, cultivation of Maghi jowar (sorghum) was introduced in rice fallows, which can grow with the residual soil moisture. Trials were conducted on 4 acres. Sowings were taken up in the last week of September, 2009. On an average, about 2.5 q of grain yield and 4 cart loads of dry fodder per acre was obtained.

Cotton+ red gram
(regular cropping)
Cotton+ red
gram+ cluster bean
Area (Ac) 0.5 0.5
Cotton Yield (q) 2.5 q (Cotton)
1q (Red gram)
2.5 q (Cotton)
1q (Red gram)
1.3q (Cluster bean)
Income (Rs) 7500 (cotton)
2400/- (Red gram)
2400/-(Red gram)
1894/-(Cluster bean)
Income (Rs) 9900/- 11794/-
Table 2: Comparative yields and returns

With delayed monsoons during kharif 2009, about 120 farmers from all the 6 districts cultivated horsegram as a contingency crop in 53 ha. Horsegram is a hardy, drought resistant annual crop, grown extensively in peninsular India as a poor man’s pulse crop. Farmers harvested grain ranging from 126-680 kg/ha across different clusters.

Changing the planting method

With rainfall becoming very erratic of late, pigeon pea sowing often gets delayed. But late sowing has many disadvantages, such as, less vegetative growth, early flowering, exposure of crop to terminal drought and incidence of more pests and diseases. Transplanting of pigeonpea is one of the ways to overcome this problem. In this method, pigeon pea seedlings are raised in nursery during the first fortnight of June and transplanted in the main field when conditions are favourable.

About 10 farmers in Jamistapur (Mahbubnagar) and Ibrahimpur (Rangareddy) clusters raised pigeonpea seedlings in a nursery and transplanted. The results were encouraging. Farmers who adopted wider spacing got the highest yield with 1100kg/ha.

On the other hand, ten cotton farmers from Seethagondi cluster of Adilabad district took up cluster bean as intercrop in cotton along with red gram (usual practice) during the drought period in 2009. An additional income of Rs1894 was got by each farmer from his half acre land without any decline in the yields of cotton and redgram (Table 2).


Droughts are here to stay. May be they will be more frequent in the changing climate scenario. With the kind of pressure on our lands to produce more, there is little scope for resting our lands so that regeneration takes place. These are the options which offer diversity as well as reduce risk against crop failure. These need to be prudently accommodated in cropping options. This will serve the twin objective of meeting our production needs as well as addressing concerns of soil degradation. The options promoted as part of the project are only a few examples that can be emulated elsewhere in similar situations.

Sreenath Dixit, K.A.Gopinath and B.Anuradha

Sreenath Dixit
Principal Scientist (Agril. Extension),
Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA),
Hyderabad 500059 India.
E-mail: sdixit@crida.in