An underrated ecological crisis
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, on Monday, reiterated that the world needs to come together to combat land degradation as a “collective responsibility” as it threatens the foundation of societies, economies, food security, health, safety, and quality of life. The United Nations (UN) defines land degradation as “the temporary or permanent lowering of the productive capacity of land”. It estimates that one-fifth of earth’s land area — more than 2 billion hectares — is degraded. More than 3.2 billion people worldwide are at risk from the effects of land degradation, many of whom live in the world’s poorest regions. The loss of land productivity contributes to the climate crisis (as the loss of plants makes it harder to draw excess carbon dioxide from the air). Desertification has occurred throughout history. But what’s alarming is that its pace has accelerated 30 to 35 times the historical rate in recent decades.
According to Desertification and Land Degradation of Selected Districts of India, an atlas published by the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2018, 96.40 million ha, or about 30% of the country’s total area, faces degradation. In 2019, the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change tasked The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) to assess the cost of land degradation in India. TERI’s conservative estimate shows land degradation costs $48.8 billion to the exchequer annually. That’s a staggering sum. In many parts of India, a vicious cycle of land degradation, governance failure, and absence of knowledge is leading to environmental chaos.
The PM has declared that India is working to restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. To reverse land degradation, India needs to revive its watershed management programme, which includes afforestation and programmes aimed at conserving soil and water to check soil erosion, improve soil moisture, increase recharge, and stabilise river basins. States have to be strict about land-use change policies, focus on sustainable agricultural practices, and involve the communities in the greening process. The time required to reclaim degraded lands can be lengthy, and, therefore, the programme needs to have sustained fiscal and human resource support from the State. Otherwise, India is staring at a massive ecological and livelihood crisis. The issue of land degradation does not get enough attention, but India has done well in making it a high-priority policy objective with repeated commitments on international platforms to tackle the issue.