Desertification is a worldwide phenomenon directly affecting a third of the earth and 250 million lives.
With a pledge to restore 50 lakh hectares of degraded land by 2030, India is set to host the 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought (UNCCD) in Greater Noida from September 2 to September 13.
There will be a strong focus on restoration of degraded land, gender issues and a drought toolbox/drought indicator (index), all likely to be the highlights of the New Delhi Declaration that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to announce on September 9. As much as 960 lakh ha (i.e. 29.32 per cent of the total geographic area, TGA, of India) comprises degraded land.
At a curtain-raiser to the conference, Union minister for environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) Prakash Javadekar said, “India will convert degraded land of nearly 50 lakh hectares to fertile land in the next 10 years.” Although this is over and above what India has promised as part of the Bonn Challenge, it is merely five per cent of the total land under degradation. To a specific query, Mr Javadekar said the actual figure will increase but he does not want to reveal it.
The minister also announced to set up a “Centre for Excellence” at Forest Research Institute campus, Dehradun. It will provide technical support and training to those working on land reclamation projects in UNCCD signatory countries.
Desertification is a worldwide phenomenon directly affecting a third of the earth and 250 million lives. Desertification (which is different from a desert) is land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting both from climatic variations and human activities. An analysis titled the “Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India” showed that the area undergoing the process of land degradation increased from 94.53 mha (28.76 per cent of the TGA) in 2003-05 to 96.40 mha (29.32 per cent of the TGA) during 2011-13. Around 23.95 per cent (2011-13) and 23.64 per cent (2003-05) of desertification/land degradation with respect to total TGA was in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, in that order.
Reminding the audience that India aims to double agriculture productivity from 2,509 kg/ha to 5,018 kg/ha by 2030, Umakant from the ministry of rural development’s department of land resources said impact assessment studies reveal rise in water table and increase in productivity and livelihood opportunities where watershed management has been taken up. Detailing the highlights of a study, Economic Costs of Land Degradation in India, vis-a-vis a 2018 study, both by Teri (The Energy and Resources Institute), Pia Sethi, senior fellow and area convener, Centre for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Teri, said the annual cost of degradation is greater than what would be the total cost of reclamation in 2030.
Yet reclamation is still easier said than done. Land degradation and droughts — such as those in Marathwada, Vidarbha, Telangana and north Karnataka — are accentuated by changes in the climate even as land quality is affected by the choices the farmers make in terms of fertilisers, flood irrigation or drip/sprinkler, crop pattern, and so on. In a piece for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), journalist P. Sainath showcases how crop pattern changes, waning forest cover, an explosion of borewells, death of rivers, and more, have produced dramatic effects on the land, air, water, forests and climate in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district. Filmmakers now visit it to shoot desert sequences.
Days ahead of the COP14 meeting, the government announced that it is throwing open vast tracts of degraded lands to industries that can reclaim it and give it some economic value. Anil Kumar Jain, special secretary, ministry of environment, forest and climate change, said the government offered 90 million ha of degraded land or 30 per cent of India’s total land area and urged the industry to come up with business models. At an event organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) in New Delhi on August 29, Mr Jain said, “We are not here to take money. In fact, we are here to tell you that please make money. This offer is for infrastructure, food-based, biomass, energy companies and, also, those businesses that leave a lot of environmental footprints.”
UNCCD deputy executive secretary Pradeep Monga echoed the sentiment. “Investing in land restoration makes economic sense. We have done economic studies around the world and we feel if we invest $1 in land restoration, you can get $5-$7 back. Every 10 hectares can give you two direct jobs and there can be many indirect jobs,” he said.
But M.V. Rama Chandrudu from Watershed Support Service and Activities Network (WASSAN), a Hyderabad-based not-for-profit, said involvement of the private sector in land restoration is not desirable. “There were similar initiatives in the name of special economic zones (SEZs) in Andhra Pradesh in the last decade. Results were obtained only in a few places.”
WASSAN has ample examples of watershed management. Another example is of the Ecological Task Force (ETF) battalions raised to carry out afforestation in difficult terrain, enrolling ex-servicemen and using the technical expertise of the respective state forest department. There are 22 operational companies, the latest being an ecological battalion for Maharashtra raised in 2017 for drought-hit Marathwada. Till date, the ETF has planted 6.88 crore saplings over 72,741 ha.
Anuradha Singh, director, desertification cell of MoEFCC, said the government has started an exercise to identify a budget for all land and water schemes. It is thinking in terms of a “convergence” for optimum output.
India will, as a host for this event and during its two years of COP presidency, lead from the front and "move the world in a positive direction, taking into cognizance the support of other countries" on the likely agreement on about 30 decisions to ensure Convention's goals for 2018-30 are achieved, according to Mr Javadekar.