There is no institution to take care of long-term sustainable management of land resources and to take measures to rejuvenate the land to increase its productivity on a sustainable basis. Land use boards in the States are non starter
Land is the precious resource for any country, more so for India because India is a tropical country with largely monsoon dependent agricultural economy where over 70 per cent of the people depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
Land is a finite resource while natural resources can vary according to uses or misuses over a period. Hence, whenever and wherever there is unsound management of land, it is reflected in decline in production of all the natural resources and allied functioning of ecosystems like riparian ecosystem, grassland ecosystem, forest and soil ecosystem.
Hence, the management of land in India requires careful husbandry, but unfortunately over the years, the land management has never received the attention it deserves.
A land resource department under the Rural Ministry exists, but land being the State subject, technical policies regulating the land use are being dealt at the level of States, which are mostly engaged with short-term needs and generally do not concentrate on long-term policies of the management of land on a sustainable basis.
Sustainability is not a part of 5-year cycle of the electoral need. Land-related institutions are distributed at the Central and State Government’s levels but these are fragmented and scattered. This results into short-term measures to address the pressing needs like law & order, land distribution, consolidation, digitisation of land record mapping.
There is no denial that these things are most important in the short run, but strategies for sustainable management of land are not in place. There is no institution to take care of long-term sustainable management of land resources and to take measures to rejuvenate the land to increase its productivity on a sustainable basis. Land use boards in the States are non starter.
Most of the suicides have occurred in areas of cash crops like cotton and sugarcane, which is high input, high output gambling, not based on principle of sustained and resilient high yield.
Manifestation of these is reflected into many of our woes and maladies. Gradual decline of productivity of land has largely led to farmers’ suicide. Besides host of other factors, the main factor being attributed to a large number of such suicides is sickness of our soil, steep decline in groundwater table, deteriorating discharge of rivers and flooding due to mismanagement of land in the catchment and riparian areas.
These are pointers to poor land husbandry. In the nutshell, by and large Indian soil is sick and requires revamping of policy, institutions, and policy instruments. Besides, the absence of integration and harmonisation of the land use policy with other sectors of economy leads to counterproductive measures like cultivation of potato on the slopes of Himalayas, encroachment in the flood plain areas. These lands are suitable only for specific tree species but we hardly find any landscape with trees in these areas.
Farmers’ suicide has become a matter of serious concern for the Supreme Court of India. The court observed, “It is not possible for the court to grant compensation every time a farmer commits suicide.”
The court also frowned upon the lack of seriousness on the part of Governments to address the core issues.
The use to land is determined by its owners, farmers, Government, institutions and other user agencies according to their own perception of needs, understanding and available information. This in turn leads to environmental pollution and neglect resulting into poverty and related problems. Application of input like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) cannot substitute for natural trace elements that can give us a wholesome perfect nutrition in their crops.
Besides, indebtedness, decline in water table, failure of conservation measures, drought, flood and pest infestation are a few reasons for the spate of farmers’ suicide. Increasing quantity of inputs with continuously decreasing uncertain output and risk due to climate change in the rainfed areas makes agriculture less resilient and more risk prone. The factors that matter most in soil management is regular supply of humus and maintenance of soil fertility which is fundamental basis of human, plants and animal health.
The action of compost is not due to supply of plant nutrient, but its biological reaction, which has the effect of modifying soil microflora. Role of microbes around root zone of plants in soil in maintaining fertility of the soil is seldom appreciated; widespread application of herbicide and pesticide kill the microbes.
Dr Terosse Wiesner, Science Counsellor to US President John F Kennedy, had said, “Use of pesticides is more dangerous than atomic fallout.”
We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation. How microorganism in the soil is truly engines of life? How microbes control ecological balance of nature, how humans and technology is disrupting. It is very often not a part of our education. Life on earth is much more than plants and animals. The overwhelming majority of life on earth is microbial. Association of trees with soil environment is seldom a part of our biology education in schools, much
less at primary level to widen our understanding of environment and change in attitude and aptitude of our young inquisitive minds.
How then we could be indifferent to the same effects of farm chemicals used freely in the environment. The toxic farm chemicals are radiomimetic in that they ape the character of radiation. No doubt how the incidence of cancer is rising in India particularly in States like Punjab, where pesticide is used indiscriminately. It has been rightly said by Alan N Edison that modern technology owes ecology an apology.
Agroforestry-agrohorticulture, Silvipastoral system for sustainable resilient agriculture is an answer to efficient land management
Further, the issue of conservation, management and development of land resources assumes significance in a situation where as much as about 174 million hectare or approximately 53 per cent of geographical area of the country is estimated to be affected by various problems of soil erosion and land degradation. Out of the total problem area, about 83 per cent suffers from water and wind erosion and rest suffers from problems like- water logging, alkalinity, salinity, shifting cultivation.
An estimate shows that about 6,000 million tonnes of top soil is lost annually from original site. If present
trend is allowed to continue, about one third of arable land of our country will be lost within 20 years.
From various studies, it is established beyond doubt that much glorified agricultural development results in high production growth. Massive food production, several times increase in yield and increase in per capita food availability have not made farming attractive to potential farmers. The ratio of agriculture population to general population is going down. The National Commission on Agriculture, 1976, also called for an integrated development approach for building a forward looking, dynamic diversified agriculture with livestock, fisheries and forestry.
The commission has warned against indiscriminate interference with ecological balance in the quest of increasing food production.
In this context, it is emphasised that trees which are the only natural means of sustaining and increasing the productivity of the land is missing in most of the landscapes that are required to be restored on an urgent bases. Hence, there is a dire need to push the programme of agro and farm forestry with utmost seriousness to check the fast deterioration of soil and water resources.
It is reiterated that there is no other natural means other than the trees or the perennial vegetation that can restore the nutrient, carbon and nitrogen recycle. Century back someone observed that the relationship between agriculture and forest is like husband and wife: dark, stern and strong but protecting and cherishing; agriculture, bland, benignant and bountiful, may be described as wife.
The trees protect the agriculture in absence of which agriculture pines and languishes and becomes barren and unfruitful. But unfortunately land use patterns are an expression of deep political, economic and cultural structure; they do not change when an ecologist or a forester sounds the alarm that a country is losing its resource base.
Agroforestry programme in shape of wind and shelter belts can restore or even improve soil fertility. The problem is that scientific data on actual changes taking place in soil fertility is scarce.
Again there is no good substitute for local scientific research. The main question to be resolved is the rate at which the soil loss is taking place.
Decline in soil fertility reduces the gross value of the crop and livestock activities but the farm land is taken out of production even when
the net value of farm output becomes negative.
The Ministry of Agriculture had constituted a committee of experts to prepare the draft outline of National Land Use Policy to fulfill the socio-economic objective of the country. The committee recommended that all existing legislations in the primary production sector as well as nonagricultural sector dealing with land resources should be reviewed to determine that no conflicting provisions exist.
Efforts should be made to bring out a single legislation to ensure protection, optimum management and continued productivity of available land resources while meeting increasing demands from various sectors. Land is a subject of State list of schedule-7 of the Constitution of India and the importance of such a comprehensive, single legislation was emphasised at several occasions by the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India.
It has become imperative that we should have an effective land use policy and institution to watch the health of our land. A few important recommendations of this policy could be:
1) A committee of experts should be constituted to prepare a draft outline of national land use policy in order to bring out a single legislation to ensure protection, optimum management and continued productivity of available land resources.
2) Efforts should be made to ensure a healthy debate through people’s participation in implementation of the soil and water conservation Act.
3) Land Acquisition Act should be given a relook and non-scientific exploitation of groundwater be stopped.
4) Land requirement norms for different development schemes should be evolved.
5) Steep slopes, flood plain and fragile water-shed should be reserved for trees, grass and perennial vegetation.
(The author is former Indian Forest Service officer)