Govts must focus on Agri productivity, land reclamation

Govts must focus on Agri productivity, land reclamation

The main reasons for land degradation are deforestation, unsustainable agriculture, soil erosion

Representative image. Credit: iStock Photo

On the occasion of desertification and drought day (June 17), the focus was on turning the degraded land into healthy ones and pledging to conserve biodiversity for saving poor and vulnerable communities from drought, desertification and increasing salinity. Degraded and saline lands are unsuitable for supporting healthy plants and thus lose their capacity to absorb CO2, a greenhouse gas, the biggest factor in worsening global warming.

The main reasons for land degradation are deforestation, unsustainable agriculture, soil erosion and/or contamination, excessive irrigation, and flooding of land on account of sea surges/cyclones.  

While addressing 'High level dialogue on Desertification, Land degradation and Drought’ in his capacity as president of the 14th session of the Conference of Parties(COP14) of United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 14 said India was on track to achieve its national commitment of land degradation neutrality “while country is working towards restoring 26 million hectare degraded forests lands to meet its goal by 2030, which would contribute India’s commitment to achieve an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 Giga tons of CO2 equivalent”.

He also emphasised the country’s good track record on afforestation and said, “In India, over last 10 years, around three million hectares of forest cover is added, enhancing the combined forest cover to nearly one fourth of country’s total area”. He also said that land degradation poses a challenge to the developing world and a ‘centre of excellence’ is being set up in India to promote a scientific approach towards this.

There are two issues here to be understood in some detail. These are: the claim of the country to have added three million hectare of forest cover in the last 10 years and our preparedness to reforest 26 million hectare degraded forest areas by 2030. So far as our progress in adding forest cover is concerned, biannual reports from Forest Survey of India (FSI) reveals that the country has gained forest cover outside notified forests in this period, which is a very good signal for checking desertification.

The increase in tree cover outside notified forests may not be entirely due to the efforts of the forest departments, but a number of agencies including individual farmers have contributed their might in growing trees of timber, fruits and horticulture species.

The reports of FSI also indicate that we have been consistently losing forest cover in notified forest areas. The deforestation is on account of diversion of forest lands for development projects and unauthorised encroachments. The governments at the Centre and the states must focus on this and put a moratorium on diversion. Officers must toil hard to prevent unauthorised loss of forest lands. Encroachment on forest lands is double whammy. Usually, tree growth is removed and burnt in clearing land for occupation, causing CO2 emission in the atmosphere. Further, we lose the potential of the area for carbon sequestration.

Removal of encroachment is always a very difficult task, if not impossible. The Supreme Court recently ordered the Faridabad Municipal Corporation to clear encroachments in Aravali forest land within six weeks duly demolishing around 10,000 houses built unauthorisedly in Lakkarpur Kori village. This case has been in the pipeline for nearly two decades and top court had to order for eviction thrice. Such attention is not received in all encroachment cases.

Political will

Politicians across the party line are engaged in lobbying for the regularisation of encroachments. Unless there is political will, encroachments on forest lands cannot be checked. Reforestation of 26 million hectare land, which the country has committed to accomplish by 2030, is quite a big task. Where is the road map for this? Do states know their annual targets of growing seedlings, preparing lands, taking up the planting and other post planting operations? Annual targets must be broken down at the level of a forest division. Total cost of this mammoth task at the rate of Rs 75,000 per hectare.

Speaking at the climate session, Modi called on the G7 countries to meet their unfulfilled promise of $100 billion annually in climate finance. These countries have so far avoided making the payment and the dues is 1100 billion dollar from each, as the base year for payment is 2010. This could be an important source for funding our ambitious planting target of 26 million hectare till 2030. Growing trees over vast stretches of such lands will check desertification and degradation of lands and would also provide us all important and cheapest ‘carbon sink’.

Excessive irrigation and flooding of agricultural lands along the coasts during cyclones increase the salinity of the area and causes land degradation. Usually, the productivity of coastal agricultural land is restored in about three to four years of cyclone. But the frequent cyclones on the east coast have left vast stretches of farmlands degraded, impacting the livelihood of the communities. Very recently, the country faced cyclone ‘Tauktae’ on the west coast and ‘Yaas’ on the east coast. The latter was the fourth cyclone West Bengal and Odisha have faced in two years - Fani in May 2019, Bulbul in November 2019, Amphan in May 2020 and Yaas in May 2021.

The bunds provided for protection of settlements and farmlands are breached. Repeated submergence of farmlands in saline water resulted in complete loss of productivity. An eight sq km Ghoramara island has been reduced to less than half. People are migrating from Sundarbans islands.

Only global action, as resolved at the Paris climate accord, is needed to cut emissions and cap the rise in temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial era, will help cut the frequency of cyclones. Saline agriculture lands can be reclaimed by application of gypsum, but it does not work when the region is faced by frequent cyclones. Mangrove forests reduce the severity of cyclones, which must be conserved and developed.

(The writer is Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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