As Land Degrades, India Struggles to Save Its Farms

Scientific American

The impacts of development and climate change on arable land are posing major threats to India’s economy and farmers

Gurugram, India— A highway leading from Gurugram—a technology and business hub south of the Indian capital New Delhi—cuts through swaths of empty plots, land that once contained fertile green fields, but which is now mostly barren and dotted with cranes towering over unfinished buildings.

A real estate boom fuelled by India’s rapid economic growth in recent years has transformed thousands of hectares of arable land in the region into plots for glass-and-steel high-rises.

Scientists describe such land as being degraded. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines land degradation as “the temporary or permanent lowering of the productive capacity of land”.

In other words, it becomes increasingly difficult to grow crops on such land. And if it is not stopped, the process can lead to desertification.

The UN estimates that more than 3.2 billion people around the world are at risk from the effects of land degradation, many of whom live in the world’s poorest regions. And, according to an Indian government-backed study, land degradation led to a roughly 2.5 percent loss of the country’s economic output between 2014 and 2015.

This is a problem India can ill afford. Its economy is slowing, unemployment is near record highs and more than 40 percent of its workforce is engaged in agriculture. The government has promised to tackle land degradation, but critics say its proposed solutions do not go far enough.

Land degradation is a phenomenon that Pappu, a labourer who brings his cattle to graze on what vegetation remains on the outskirts of Gurugram, knows all too well. He first came here several years ago from the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, forced to move when yields on his farm fell because of the rising salinity of the water supply.

“Everything was fine and our yields were enough to sustain the family until this happened,” Pappu, who is 50 and goes by one name, told Al Jazeera. He said most of the farmers in his village in Rajasthan gave up agriculture and migrated to Gurugram where they took up jobs as security guards, construction workers and day labourers.

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Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.