By S Vijay Kumar
The Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India released by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) shows that 30% of the country’s land is degraded. India is currently hosting the Conference of Parties (COP14) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) from September 2-13, and has announced a voluntary target to achieve land degradation neutrality by 2030.
Land, water and agriculture are all State subjects; forest is a Concurrent subject. However, land degradation assumes national importance because of its overwhelming impact on the economy and the well-being of all the citizens. The governance architecture for addressing land degradation needs to follow a ‘cooperative federalism’ principle—that enables state governments to access technology and R&D benefits developed through central investments, jointly generate and use data and information, share best practices in policy as well as at the ground level, and enables the states in need to build capacity (financial, technical as well as management) with central assistance.
The adoption of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and development by the UNCCD of a 10-year strategy to implement the SDG target 15.3—‘By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world’—creates a new urgency to address the issue of land degradation in India in a systematic manner.
Based on the past experience of more than 40 years of wasteland and watershed development programmes in India, it is easy to discern the main elements to address the challenge:
An effective nodal institution: A body that can set a time-bound national agenda for reversing land degradation, coordinate the efforts of central government ministries and state governments, and help manage trade off with other SDGs (notably with respect to Goal 1: removal of poverty, and Goal 2: food security) is urgently needed at the national policy level.
Policy framework and regulation for sustainable land management: There are several existing policies relating to land use that need to be kept in mind. These include the National Water Policy 2012, National Land Use Policy Outline 1988, National Forest Policy 1988, National Livestock Policy 2013, National Agricultural Policy 2000, National Policy for Farmers 2007, National Policy on Biodiversity 1999 and National Biodiversity Action Plan 2008, and National Environment Policy 2006. Clearly, there is a need to harmonise these policies at the central and state levels, and a mechanism is required that can take a composite view of the land resource base and the competing and conflicting demands thereon.
Focus on rain-fed areas, fragile ecosystems, problem soils, common pool resources (CPRs) and drylands: In 2006, the government created the National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) with the mandate of networking and coordination with the key ministries of agriculture & farmers’ welfare, rural development, water resources, environment & forests, and panchayati raj. The NRAA published the Common Guidelines for Watershed Development Projects 2008, to coordinate and unify approaches to sustainable land management under the various central and state programmes. The NRAA needs to be a key stakeholder in all the programmes addressing land degradation. The Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP) aims to comprehensively address land degradation in all its forms. A policy change effectively makes the IWMP a part of the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana for irrigated areas. The MGNREGA, which is expected to fill the void in rain-fed and dry-land areas, does not have the kind of design elements that had been incorporated in the IWMP after four decades of learning. Also, MGNREGA activity is highly correlated with areas of higher land degradation, since it is the poor land resource base that drives demand for MGNREGA work. It is, therefore, necessary to further evolve the MGNREGA so as to align it with the Common Guidelines 2008.
Local as well as community institution building: The Common Guidelines 2008 envisage a substantial role for panchayati raj institutions in planning and in self-regulation of resource use as well as operation and maintenance of all assets created under the project. In many states, the panchayat size is too small for them to effectively manage land improvement programmes at the micro-watershed level. On the other hand, without the participation of local and community institutions, the sustainability of interventions to reverse land degradation, particularly of common pool resources including forestlands, is limited. The capacity constraint of panchayats can be critical and needs to be addressed timely, since MGNREGA works are executed by panchayats.
R&D networks: Over the years, many R&D institutions, including the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad, state agricultural universities, Indian Council of Agricultural Research and its specialised institutions—Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute Jhansi, Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture Hyderabad, Central Agroforestry Research Institute Jhansi—and Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education Dehradun and its institutions have developed technologies and practices that help improve land quality. These research efforts need to be brought together to halt and reverse land degradation, and investments in R&D need to be made to be able to meet new challenges.
(The author is distinguished fellow, TERI)