What influences how crop farmers adapt? Insights from the Indian Bengal delta

by Martin Watts

Undertaking Masters research in the delta

Crop farming provides a livelihood to millions living on or below the poverty line in the Indian Bengal delta (IBD). Crop farmers are especially vulnerable to adverse effects stemming from environmental change, as the availability and quality of natural resources for production is changing. Deltaic crop farmers have meagre adaptive capacities owing to their geographical and economic marginalisation, and thus cannot always adapt sufficiently. To understand what influences crop farmers’ processes of adaptation, and to build on my initial analysis of the DECCMA household survey, in June I visited the villages of Dulki and Sonagar to undertake interviews with crop farmers.


Martin in the delta

Three key emerging findings

Poor coordination undermines some adaptation strategies

While several government and NGO run agricultural extension services were encouraging organic farming as a sustainable approach to enable cultivation in increasingly saline soils, a fundamental constraint is that market actors did not distribute it to village shops. Instead, chemical products, which farmers recognised had adverse environmental implications, were intensely advertised and sold. This indicates a lack of coordination in the area’s governance network, which had ramifications on farmers’ and government’s goals to operationalise organic agriculture.

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Social networks are essential for equitable transmission of information required to enable adaptation through changed practices

Farmer-to-farmer social actions were found to increase the adoption of crop management strategies, such as crop diversification. This was because even the most uneducated farmers understood information communicated practically, contrasting to the approach extension services undertook that encompassed more theoretical teaching. This particularly hindered the adoption of climate-tolerant crops, meaning that most farming systems exhibited low climate resilience.

Access to financial capital enables access to adaptation options 

On a positive note, banks loan schemes specific to farmers were enabling the uptake of irrigation systems and new crop varieties due to greater financial capacity. The latter strategy was highly important, given that many farmers cultivated mono-crop. This permitting them to spread out risks of production loss that was perceived to result from an increasingly unpredictable climate.

Reflections on my first visit to the delta

For me, the field visit in general was extremely insightful. Having spent time previously analysing survey variables, adaptation strategies and quantitative associations, actually viewing the strategies and hearing farmers’ accounts was quite stimulating. As most social science researchers experience, there were challenges relating to the weather, especially the humidity, and interviewee participation. Regarding the latter, it was not simple to keep participants discussing the research agenda, since I was perceived by some farmers to be from foreign aid organisations. However, this usefully enabled farmers to elaborate on the current institutional context which can restrict the suite of adaption options available to them. Coming away from the fieldwork with 16 interviews completed, not only did I gain rich experiential data, but the survey became much more comprehensible and aided further quantitative analysis.

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