Several nations are now reconsidering the aspects of degraded land within their geographies and assessing how they could restore it. According to Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), at a time when thousands of jobs are being lost, investing in land restoration could hold the key to the creation of new jobs and ensuring economic returns. Globally, the quantum of degraded land amounts to 800 mn hectares. The UN panel has set a target of restoring these landmasses by 2030.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently highlighted India’s focus on addressing land degradation at a UN meeting. The plan for India involves restoring as much as 26 mn (2.6 crore) hectares of degraded land by 2030, the PM said. The failure to do so could affect the quality of our lives significantly, in matters of food security, health, and economic wellness too. The stakes are extremely high as far as India is concerned.
A release from the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare made public last year, paints a harrowing picture. According to the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India, pertaining to 2011-2013, 96.4 mn hectares or 29.32% of the country’s Total Geographical Area is undergoing the process of desertification or land degradation. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) released the Special Report on Climate Change & Land. It said that change in land use, land-use intensification, and climate change have been significant contributors to the phenomenon of desertification.
Deforestation, over-cultivation, soil erosion, and depletion of wetlands are the usual suspects in India’s case. Add in the elements of uncontrolled population growth, rapid urbanisation, and agricultural stressors like overgrazing and the excessive use of pesticides, and you have all the ingredients for an environmental disaster. The economic impact of such wasting of arable lands chips away at 2.5% of our GDP annually. Also, 600 mn people in India are at risk from the impact of climate change and water scarcity, which could be aggravated if land degradation continues. Deforestation in the Western Ghats has even adversely affected the rainfall in Tamil Nadu and other southern states.
Government laxity is a driver of many such phenomena. Over 500 projects of an infrastructural nature to be built within India’s ecologically sensitive areas had been cleared by the National Wildlife Board within the first four years of the NDA government. The nation’s forest cover has also been depleted as we lost 1.6 mn hectares of forest cover over a span of 18 years since 2000. The Centre had previously pledged it would get 33% of India’s geographical area under forest cover by the year 2022. Having added 30 lakh hectares of forest cover over the past decade, we have 25% forest cover as part of India’s total area.
The National Afforestation & Eco-Development Board (NAEB) Division which falls under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has set up a National Afforestation Programme (NAP). This will aid in the restoration of degraded forest areas. Under this plan, an area of over 2 mn hectares has been approved for afforestation and a sum of Rs 3,874 crore is earmarked for this. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) has also introduced climate-resilient technologies including drought-tolerant short-duration varieties, crop diversification, integrated systems of farming, and measures to conserve soil and water in 151 of the most vulnerable districts pan-India. As per the PM’s recent remarks, a Centre of Excellence is also being set up in India, and it will approach the issue of land degradation scientifically. The imperative of restoring India’s green cover can no longer be assigned to the backburner. It’s an issue that will garner even more gravitas in the days to come.