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India must get land-usemanagement right

IN PERSPECTIVE
Last Updated : 31 March 2022, 19:15 IST
Last Updated : 31 March 2022, 19:15 IST
Last Updated : 31 March 2022, 19:15 IST
Last Updated : 31 March 2022, 19:15 IST

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India has diverse biodiversity, climate, topography, socio-economic conditions and land-use patterns. Pollution, climate change and groundwater scarcity are impacting the soil resource across the nation. The expansion of urban conglomerations is adding to this problem.

As per Niti Aayog, urban settlements occupy 3% of India’s geographical area but contribute 60% of the national GDP. The rate of urbanisation is continuously rising with time. This rate of increase was about 3.36% between 2000 and 2011. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs reported 2,774 new townships across the country in this period.

It is estimated that India’s population will surge to 1.52 billion by 2036. With that, the paucity of livelihood options and shortages of residential spaces, people are migrating toward nearby villages in almost all cities in India. As per the agriculture census 2014, about 86% of Indian farmers own less than two hectares each. Hence, most Indian farmers are ‘economically marginalised’ and they are unable to earn enough profit to run their families. This dearth of liquid cash forces them to seek refuge in rapidly industrialising urban centres across the nation.

Air, water, land pollution, unorganised waste dumps, and overcrowded alleyways in cities are reducing the quality of life in the cities. These constraints are fuelling a reverse migration of effluent urban population to shift to less polluted and less crowded suburbs or villages on the fringes of the megacities.

Thus, the demand for houses in townships in remote areas has risen in the last couple of decades. Technological advancements, good road network and transport facilities have improved over the years. Due to the high demand for these remote townships, Indian villages are slowly converting into small towns. It is estimated that urban areas will account for 70% of human settlements in the near future.

New houses in a clean environment improve the quality of life and are good for social welfare in these rapidly developing urban satellite centres. Unfortunately, construction processes are not environment-friendly, as these activities change the land-use pattern, destroy existing biodiversity, and decrease the groundwater recharge.

The construction of buildings in fertile and arable lands is not permitted in India. However, there is a loophole in this policy. There is a provision by town planning departments to convert land from agricultural to residential use and build on it.

Changes in the land-use pattern impact environmental conditions. The buildings and building processes cause 40% of the total global CO2 emissions. In contrast, agriculture contributes only 14% of greenhouse gases, basically in the form of methane and nitrous oxides. Apart from this, the dense construction and concrete flooring cause urban heat, which results in higher daytime temperatures, lower cooling at night, and subsequent air pollution and heat-related mortality.

On the other hand, agriculture demands huge irrigation water. It is estimated that single-time irrigation requires one lakh litres of freshwater per hectare. About 70% of the available freshwater is used for irrigation. Thus, water-intensive crops are causing water pollution and water scarcity in many areas of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Poor agricultural practices also pollute land and groundwater. The extensive usage of chemicals degrades the land and makes them infertile.

Hence, both urbanisation and agricultural practices have massive environmental footprints that require immediate redressal in the wake of climate change and environmental degradation.

Land-use management plays an important role in settling urban and rural populations as well as in maintaining the natural resources, ecosystem and biodiversity. Unsustainable townships and buildings on fertile lands will cause a scarcity of arable land which, in turn, will force farmers to apply more chemical-intensive methods to increase crop production. Eventually, other land types, such as forests, will be cut and converted to agricultural land. All-round environmental degradation follows. About 328.72 mega hectares of land underwent degradation during 2018-19, up from 94.53 mega hectares in 2003-5. Although desertification and erosion also contribute to the degradation of fertile lands, townships and unsustainable land use have had the bigger impacts in past decades.

Policymakers need to pay attention during the allocation of land. Sustainable land-use management options are needed in order to minimise the shrinkage of fertile lands and the formation of urban heat islands and pollution. Keeping the concrete cover to the minimum will look aesthetic as well as allows us to have healthy vegetation. Building high-rises, instead of villas, can help accommodate more people and cover lesser land. In this way, we can avoid converting arable land and the environment and biodiversity can be saved.

(The writers are, respectively, an independent researcher and Dean at Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, O P Jindal Global University, Haryana)

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Published 31 March 2022, 18:37 IST

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