Land Degradation in India: Causes, Consequences & Solutions

The 14th Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification was held in September this year. India, along with the rest of the world, is facing crisis due to land degradation and desertification. The land degradation is not only affecting India economically but is also exacerbating the climate change events in the country. This conference seeks to answer the question on how to slow down the loss of land and biodiversity that threatens the global food security and hastens the climate change. Cooperative effort to combat land degradation is essential at this juncture as it is either directly or indirectly affecting the whole of the world. Taking this into consideration, the signatories of the Paris Agreement of 2015 have requested the IPCC to study the link between the land and climate change. According to these findings by the IPCC, the land degradation and climate change are inter-linked and unified efforts must be taken by the world to resolve this issue as soon as possible.

What is land degradation?

  • Land degradation is the deterioration or the loss of productive capacity of the soil.
  • It is one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems and it may worsen if it is not addressed soon.
  • It is a global challenge that is affecting everyone through food insecurity, high food prices, climate change, loss of biodiversity etc.

Why should the world be worry about it?

  • Currently, land degradation is happening at an alarmingly fast pace leading to the decline in the croplands across the world.
  • Globally, about 25% of the total land area has been degraded.
  • This has led to harmful effects like the release of the soil carbon and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
  • Due to this reason, land degradation is one of the important contributors to the climate change.
  • According to many scientists, about 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil is being lost per year mainly due to the unsustainable agricultural practices.
  • If this continues, 95% of the Earth’s land would be degraded by 2050.
  • Due to land degradation, over 1 million species are on the verge of extinction.
  • The biodiversity loss will force up to 700 million people to migrate by 2050.
  • Three out of four hectares of land have altered from their natural states and the productivity of about one in every four hectare of land is declining.
  • Furthermore, the global food system, including pre- and post-food production activities, accounts for 37% of total anthropogenic Green House Gas emission.
  • Agriculture, deforestation and other land-use activities contribute about 23% of GHG emissions.
  • The land degradation is also caused due to other factors like climate variability and natural calamities.
  • The climate change is especially worsening the yields and income of the farmers while also threatening the resilience of the agro-ecosystems and stability of food production.
  • These problems are particularly prominent in the dry lands.
  • This landscape covers 40% of the world’s total land area.
  • The majority of the population who depend on dry lands live in the developing nations.
  • Currently people use one-fourth of the land’s production potential for food, feed, fibre, timber and energy. This directly affects more than 70% of the global ice-free land.
  • Globally, 3.2 billion people are affected by the land degradation.
  • The most vulnerable of them all are the rural population, small farmer and the poor.
  • Furthermore, the world population is estimated to increase by 35% to 9.7 billion in 2050.
  • This, as a consequence, would increase the demands for agricultural products including food, feed, fibre and fuel.
  • As a result, the pressure on the global land resources would increase exponentially worsening the already existing problem of land degradation.

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 Why should India worry about land degradation?

  • India is currently facing crisis due to land degradation.
  • Nearly 30% of India’s land area, equivalent to the area of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra put together, has been degraded due to deforestation, over-cultivation, soil erosion and depletion of wetlands.
  • The land degradation is reducing India’s GDP by 2.5% every year.
  • It is also affecting crop yield and worsening the situations due to climate change within the country.
  • India is a country that is highly vulnerable to the negative impacts caused by land degradation.
  • Over 600 million people are at risk due to climate change and if land degradation is not addressed soon, these problems may become more severe.
  • India is home to 18% of the world’s population with only 2.4% of its land.
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had released several findings under its recent report that may have direct implication to India with regards to climate change and land degradation:
  1. Forests: Forest is one of the vital carbon sinks for the world. However, India had lost 1.6 million hectares of forest cover over 18 years to 2018. This is about four times the size of Goa. According to the recent IPCC report, about 23% of GHG is emitted due to human activities like the use of chemical fertilizers, soil erosion, deforestation and change in the land-use. The Indian government had allowed the felling of more than 10 million trees over 5 years to 2015. Over 500 projects in India’s protected areas and eco-sensitive zones were cleared by the government between June 2014 and May 2018.
  2. Food Security: Nearly 60% of India’s land is used for cultivation purposes. Agricultural sector, which contributes to about 14% of India’s GDP, is highly vulnerable to land degradation and climate change. The most susceptible of all is the small and marginal farmers owning less than two hectares of land. They make-up 80% of the total farmers in India. According to IPCC report, climate change can cause food insecurities in the countries due to the low yield of crops and reduction of nutrient contents of food crops. It can even affect the growth and productivity of the pastoral animals. Furthermore, the report also stated that the cereal prices may increase by up to 23% by 2050 due to climate change. According to the UN data, India is the second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, vegetables and cotton. It is also the largest producer of milk, pulses and jute. Thus, land degradation is a major problem to India. Also, soil degradation due to salinity and erosion due to water and air has caused extreme natural disasters and other human activities have caused India losses worth Rs.72, 000 crore. This is more than the agriculture budget of Rs.58, 000 crore in 2018-19 – according to TERI study. This is highly significant as India struggles to feed its ever growing population; it is ranked at 103rd position in 2018 among 119 countries on the global hunger index.
  3. Wetlands: According to the IPCC report, the wetlands are vital for the fight against the global warming. This is because they conserve “high-carbon ecosystems” that absorb a high amount of carbon from the atmosphere. Reclamation of degraded soils, afforestation and reforestation require “more time” to create similar impact. India has about 152,600 km2 of wetlands within its geographical area. This is nearly 5% of the size India and nearly twice the size of Assam. But deforestation, climate change, water drainage, land encroachment and urbanization are depleting these wetlands every year by 2-3%.
  4. Water Scarcity: As per the IPCC report, the dryland population vulnerable to water scarcity and drought may increase to 178 million under the most ideal situation of 1.5 degree Celsius by 2050. The stressed population may further rise to 220 million at 2 degree Celsius and 270 million at 3 degree Celsius. This is of significance to India as 69% of India’s total geographical area is under dry lands that include arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid stretches. Currently, India is the 17th most water stressed country in world with 600 million people facing extreme to high water stress. This is half of the country’s population.
  5. Indigenous people: The IPCC report stated that insecure land tenure is affecting the ability of people and community to fight climate change. Recognition of customary tenure of the indigenous people who have the knowledge of the local ecosystems like forests and involving them in the decision making and governance can help the fight against climate change. India’s Forest Rights Act (FRA) which was passed in 2006 can be used during climate actions. FRA has recognized the rights of the tribal people and other traditional forest dwellers to access, manage, protect and govern forest lands and natural resources. This is of significance as these indigenous tribes have been governing these resources of forests for generations. However, the process of recognition of rights under this act is slow. The Indian government has only able to settle FRA claims over 12.93 million hectares of forests as of April 30, 2019, against the potential of 40 million hectares of forestland across the country. An on-going case in the Supreme Court is threatening to expel 2 million forest dweller families as their FRA claims have been rejected. Currently, 21 state governments are in the process of reviewing all the rejected claims.

What are the solutions provided by IPCC’S special report on land and climate change?

  • IPCC’s special report of land and climate change has evaluated some solutions to use land as a tool against global warming.
  • There are two types of solutions: Those that provide immediate impact like conservation of wetlands, rangelands and mangroves to absorb large amounts of GHGs like CO2 from the atmosphere. The others include the long-term impacts like planting of trees, afforestation and reforestation.
  • Preventing, reducing and reversing desertification can enhance the soil fertility and food security.
  • Over 30% of food is wasted or lost globally. This contributes to 10% of the total GHG emissions from human activities. Increasing the food productivity, dietary choices and reduction of food losses and food wastes can reduce the demand for land conservation. This could free land and create opportunities for implementation of other land conservation measures like afforestation, ecosystem restoration programmes etc., so that they can function as green walls and green dams so as to reduce dust, sandstorms and sand dune movements.

What are the measures taken by the Indian government to solve the problem of land degradation?

  • Ahead of its preparation to host a global conference on rising desertification, India had pledged to restore 5 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.
  • This is only 1.5% of the country’s geographical area, 28.5 percentage points less than the total degraded land.
  • In order to fight the climate change, the Indian government had promised to get 33% of its geographical area under forest cover by 2022, compared to the existing 24%. This would require the government to increase the forest cover by nearly 2% every year till 2022.
  • The forest cover in India has increased only by 1% over the two years to 2017.
  • On January this year, India has become the part of the Bonn Challenge – a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of world’s deforested and degraded land under restoration by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.
  • At the UNFCC Conference of the Parties (COP) 2015 in Paris, India had voluntarily joined the Bonn Challenge and had pledged to restore 13 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and an additional 8 million by 2030.
  • India’s pledge is one of the largest in Asia.
  • The government schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, Soil Health Card Scheme, Soil Health Management Scheme and Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana are seen as an efficient tool to tackle land degradation.
  • The government is planning to integrate the existing land and water related schemes to normalize the issue of land degradation.

What should the government do or not do while solving the problem of land degradation?

  • Indian geographical terrain is diverse in nature. Its characteristics differ every few miles.
  • Therefore the government, before undertaking the measures to expand the forest cover across the country, must first analyse ecological and socio-economic repercussions of the government interventions.
  • The failure to do so may result in far reaching consequence.
  • For example, Banni grasslands, which used to look like oasis of Kutch has become a dry terrain.
  • Though it is still termed as Asia’s finest natural grassland, currently there are only few green patches amid the parched land.
  • The degradation and desertification of grasslands in Kutch region is both due to natural and human intervention.
  • At Banni, though the erratic rainfall is seen as the reason for the recent desertification, experts also blame the anthropogenic reasons.
  • In 1960-61, the Indian government had introduced Prosopis juliflora, a non-native plant into the region on the recommendation of the Planning Commission to fight the salinity and to prevent the advancement of the Rann of Kutch on the northern fringes of Banni.
  • The seeds of Prosopis juliflora were thrown from a helicopter over 31,550 hectares.
  • According to the report by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, it was done without proper evaluation of the ecological and socio-economic consequence.
  • This plant flourished in the non-saline and low-saline soils and invaded the pristine grasslands of Kutch.
  • In 1997, only 6% of the area was under P. juliflora; by 2009, it had covered 33% of the land and by 2015 about 54% of the grassland was under this invasive plant.
  • In short, as P. juliflora increased, the Banni grasslands decreased.
  • Earlier, even with less rainfall the native grass thrived. Now, P. juliflora takes in all the water without allowing the native plants to grow.
  • Thus, a detailed analysis and research of the terrain is essential for the success of India’s aim to restore 5 million hectares of land by 2030.


Though the Indian government’s plan to rejuvenate 1.5% of its geographical area is a step in the right direction, it must analyse the aftermaths of the interventions like increasing the forest covers and planting of invasive species etc. If this is not done, there is a higher risk of land degradation and desertification.

Written by: K.G.Karishma

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