Dryland farming

Dryland Farming in India

Owing to its unique geographical location, India has a high degree of diversity in weather conditions and patterns. As a result, very varied agricultural techniques and cropping patterns emerged throughout the country's many agro-climatic zones.

Dryland farming is one such practice that has gained prominence in light of the impending catastrophe of global warming and climate change. Dryland farming has emerged as a key approach to ensuring sustainable food security in recent years, despite a rising population and increasing demand for natural resources. 
Dryland farming is the growing of crops in natural rainfall conditions with little or no irrigation.

About Dryland Regions

Dryland regions exhibit distinct characteristics due to low and irregular rainfall, typically ranging from 375 mm to 1125 mm. This precipitation is unevenly distributed, highly variable, and unpredictable. Relying on rainfall, these areas are less productive and economically fragile, rendering them susceptible to environmental stresses and shocks. Common features of dryland regions include depleted and weak soils with limited water retention capacity, coupled with multiple nutrient deficiencies. Rainfall distribution during crop cycles is often uneven, causing excess rain at inopportune times and drought conditions when needed.

Vulnerabilities and Impact

Dryland regions face challenges due to poor soil quality and reduced groundwater levels, making them more prone to drought and drought-like situations. Late monsoons cause delays in sowing crops, resulting in lower yields. Conversely, when monsoons arrive late, crops endure drought-like conditions during crucial growth stages, leading to reduced harvests. Dryland soils often lack essential nutrients like nitrogen and phosphate. Fluctuating temperatures further affect crop quality and growth. Limited land holdings, frequent crop failures, and inadequate market facilities add to the economic difficulties faced by farmers, especially in dryland areas.

In essence, drylands grapple with both a scarcity of water and nutrients, leading to significant agricultural hardships and economic challenges.

Comparing dryland farming, dry farming, and rainfed farming 

     Dryland Farming

  • Dryland farming refers to cultivation that receives rainfall ranging from 750 mm to 1150 mm. 
  • Crops grown in the country's semi-arid regions fall under this category.
  • Nearly 80 million hectares of the country's 141 million hectares of projected crop area are under dryland farming, accounting for 52 percent of total cultivated land.

    Dry Farming

  • Dry farming is practiced in areas where the annual rainfall is less than 750 mm and the crop growing season is fewer than 200 days. It is mostly practiced in the country's desert regions. 
  • Dryland agriculture accounts for almost 44 percent of total food grain production in the country.

      Rainfed farming

  • Rainfed farming is the practice of cultivating crops without irrigation in locations with rainfall of roughly 1150 mm. The majority of its agricultural area is in the country's humid and sub-humid areas.
  • According to estimates, even after realizing the full potential of irrigation, approximately 40% of India's net planted land will remain rainfed.

    Areas with Dryland Cultivation

  • Dryland agriculture in India includes the northwestern Rajasthan plateau region, the plateau region of central India, the alluvial plains of the Ganga-Yamuna river basin, the central highlands of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh, the shadow regions of the Deccan Plateau in Maharashtra, the Deccan Plateau of Andhra Pradesh, and the Tamil Nadu highlands.
  •  However, the area covered by drylands is progressively decreasing and is predicted to be stable at roughly 75 million hectares by 2050. 
  • Drylands cover about 41% of the earth's land surface, with 72% in the developing world and the remaining 28% in developed / industrialized nations.

Dryland Cultivation as a Pillar of Sustainability

Despite multiple developmental efforts, agriculture remains the cornerstone of dryland economies. In this context, the Indian government has launched diverse schemes and programs aimed at increasing productivity, production, and marketing facilities, while enhancing infrastructure. The objective is to elevate the current dryland agriculture productivity from the average of 1.2 tonnes per hectare to 2.0 tonnes per hectare. Experts believe that this transformation is attainable through technology integration, crop diversification, adoption of drought-resistant varieties, and the application of moisture retention techniques in fields.

Essential Crops and Sectors

  • Almost 80% of Sorghum and Maize, 90% of Pearl millet, 75% of oilseeds, and around 95% of pulses are derived from dryland agriculture.
  • Beyond food security, drylands significantly bolster the textile industry, contributing over 70% of cotton to various sectors.
  • Millets, traditional and staple crops of drylands, are favored due to their suitability for the region's unique conditions.
  • Dryland pulses play a crucial role in aiding smallholder farmers in arid and semi-arid environments to tackle unpredictable weather patterns. These pulses, known as climate-smart crops, consume less water, withstand weather fluctuations, enhance soil health, and offer concentrated nutrients.

Strategies and Techniques to aid Dryland Cultivation

Dryland farming faces prolonged droughts, intense heat, and environmental challenges that can lead to partial or complete crop losses. Experts specializing in oilseed crops have devised an array of methods to mitigate the risk of crop failure, which are now being expanded and swiftly introduced to farmers.

Agronomic Innovations

  • Agronomic systems are primarily designed to preserve soil and water to achieve optimal yields.
  • Selecting an appropriate cropping strategy for the location is a pivotal tactic, which becomes more profitable with effective sowing time management.
  • Implementing efficient tillage, fertilizer management, weed control, and plant protection measures all contribute to enhanced production.

Resilience Strategies

The selection of drought-tolerant or resistant crop varieties, capable of enduring extended dry periods, is a critical strategy.

  • Planting cover crops, which shield soil from erosion, enhance soil health, improve water availability, manage pests and diseases, and offer various advantages, plays a pivotal role in enhancing soil conditions.
  • Cover crops, grown to cover soil rather than for harvest, bolster resilience against drought and irregular rainfall.

Integrated Farming and Diversification

Crop diversification and integrated farming approaches have yielded remarkable changes in both land area and productivity within dryland regions.

  • Lands that formerly grew Pearl Millet and Sorghum have transitioned to more profitable crops.
  • Climatic and socioeconomic factors have contributed to shifts in pulse cultivation areas between agro-climatic zones.
  • Enhanced irrigation systems have spurred dramatic growth in cotton and maize cultivation areas.

Engineering Techniques

In dryland settings, engineering techniques such as contouring and compartmental bunding effectively preserve moisture and minimize soil erosion.

In navigating the harsh terrain of dryland farming, these strategies and techniques serve as essential tools to enhance resilience, productivity, and sustainable agricultural practices.

Additional Strategies

  • Mulching: In dryland farming, mulching is a crucial technique to retain soil moisture by minimizing evaporation. It involves covering the soil with materials like straw, leaves, or plastic to shield it from sunlight. Mulch also keeps plant roots cool during droughts.
  • Shelterbelts and Windbreaks: Rows of trees and shrubs placed around fields prevent evaporation and protect crops from wind damage.
  • Weed Management: Essential to prevent competition for water between crops and weeds.
  • Crop Rotation: Annual rotation maintains soil fertility, while deep tillage and contour plowing improve water penetration.

Government Initiatives

The Government of India has taken significant steps to support and uplift dryland farming through various initiatives:

  1. Rainfed Area Development Programme (RADP)

Implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY), RADP addresses the concerns of rainfed and dryland farmers. This program aims to enhance the productivity and sustainability of agriculture in these regions.

  1. Major Development Programs

Prominent development programs, including the National Food Security Mission, National Horticulture Mission, and National Mission on Micro Irrigation, prioritize the needs of dryland and rainfed areas. These programs are geared towards improving crop yields, food security, and water management in these challenging agricultural landscapes.

  1. Research Initiatives

Research projects focused on dryland agriculture are actively being executed by institutions like the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). These projects aim to develop innovative techniques and technologies tailored to the unique conditions of dryland farming.

  1. Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP)

Managed by the Ministry of Rural Development, IWMP is designed to uplift rainfed and degraded areas. The program focuses on implementing rainwater harvesting structures, as well as adopting drip and sprinkler technologies. Central assistance through the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme contributes to creating irrigation potential in ongoing projects.

These government efforts demonstrate a committed approach to addressing the challenges of dryland agriculture and promoting sustainable practices for the benefit of farmers and the nation as a whole.

Past Experiences

The success of dryland agriculture in India dates back to the 1950s when the government recognized its role in food production and initiated R&D efforts to improve stability and productivity. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) launched the All India Coordinated Research Project for Dryland Agriculture (AICRPDA) in 1970, which led to location-specific adaptive research. 

The Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) was established in 1985 to further strengthen basic and adaptive research. CRIDA has developed rainfed farming technologies, such as rainwater management, watershed development, soil health management, and cropping systems. However, climate change and increasing climatic variability have posed new challenges to dryland agriculture, necessitating adaptation and mitigation strategies. 

The National Innovations in Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA) project focuses on developing climate-resilient technologies, including crop varieties, intercropping systems, crop diversification, agroforestry systems, and integrated framing systems. These technologies have been popularized for wider adoption in various fields and are being demonstrated on farmers' fields in 151 clusters covering 446 villages.

Way Forward

CRIDA's 'The Vision 2050' outlines future challenges, network strength, and strategies for sustainable dryland agriculture. The vision emphasizes location-specific research, rainwater harvesting, soil health management, integrated farming modules, remote sensing, GIS applications, nanotechnology, resource efficiency, small farm mechanization, energy efficiency, precision agriculture, and renewable sources like solar power. These efforts aim to protect small and marginal farmers and improve resource efficiency in rainfed areas.


Dryland farming is challenging but achievable with a proper understanding of climate, soil conditions, and crop selection. Integrated farming models enable multiple crops in a single season, conserving water resources, minimizing soil erosion, and promoting sustainable agriculture. Dryland farming reduces greenhouse gas emissions and promotes soil carbon sequestration. It also increases organic matter in the soil, improves fertility, and addresses issues in pulses and oilseed production. This approach can boost the agriculture-dependent economy and address hunger and malnutrition in disadvantaged communities.

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