For ages, India has been predominantly an agricultural country. The fact that Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s population highlights its significance in our country.
However, Indian agricultural lands have been reported to be on a steady decline, both qualitatively & quantitatively. According to the recently published ‘Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India’, 96.4 million hectares – making up 29% of the country’s total geographic area – became degraded from 2011 to 2013. Almost 90 percent of the states experienced a rise in loss of agricultural land. There are several factors that have led to this. Though we cannot pin the blame on a single factor, it is safe to conclude that climate change has been the major culprit.
It can be simply defined as the change in equilibrium between different elements of the climate resulting in either increase or decrease in global temperatures. It has been happening since time immemorable due to natural forces. However, the climatic change over the last two centuries has to be mainly attributed to anthropogenic factors. The recent turnout of wide scale global events like the Industrial revolution, the drastic increase in consumption of fossil fuels, deforestation, etc., have further exacerbated climate change. This is apparent from the rising average surface temperature of the Earth that has shot up by about 1.0o F over the last century. The eleven warmest years of this century have all occurred since 1980. All these factors have cumulatively resulted in the constant erosion of Indian agricultural-lands. But how does the climate change impact India’s agricultural-lands? Let’s understand..
Climate change has a plethora of manifestations, many of which have deleterious impacts on agricultural lands directly or indirectly. For instance, climate change would often directly result in Irregular monsoons, droughts, Soil erosion, depletion of water tables, rise in sea-level (due to steric effect & melting of Polar ice caps) and would indirectly lead to aggravation of Soil alkalinity, inundation of coastal area, rendering soils infertile, etc. All of the above events individually or cumulatively would render the land uncultivable. This would shrink India’s already burdened cultivable land resources, which has to cater to the ever-increasing billion-plus population and 55% of its population whose livelihood is directly dependent on it.
Various Manifestations of Depletion of Agricultural Land Due to Climatic Change
Climate change, as we have discussed earlier, would cast its shadow in multiple ways all of which in-turn negatively contribute to the loss of India’s cultivable land independently. In this section, we will see some of the ways through which India is losing its cultivable land, which are driven by climate change.
According to the UNCCD, land degradation is the “reduction or loss of biological or economic productivity, resulting from land uses or from a process or combination of processes, including human activities. Land degradation is the loss of soil’s productivity capacity for the present and future. There are many processes that culminate in land degradation, a few of which are discussed below.
Desertification: It is defined as the process by which fertile land becomes inoperative for cultivation due to a lack of adequate moisture. Whenever a land undergoes desertification, the end result is the land turning into the semi-arid or arid region.
According to the Government’s report to (UNCCD), India lost 31% of its total land, which translates to 5.65 million hectares of grassland area in a decade. Desertification, more often than not, is an end result of anthropogenic activities. Due to the increased emission of Greenhouse gases, global average temperatures are soaring up. Increasing temperatures deplete underground water tables and soil moisture through the capillary rise. This, in turn, converts the land into arid & semi-arid regions. In addition, climate change has severely changed the rainfall pattern in India in the form of binary extremes where a few areas are getting wetter year after year while the other areas are getting drier and drier, resulting in extremities. The lack of adequate rainfall is transforming several regions into Semi-arid regions.
Erosion: One of the main processes for desertification is erosion. Soil erosion is the loss of topsoil due to various natural & anthropogenic causes. Water is about 800 times heavier than air and almost as heavy as loose topsoil. A drop of rain hits the ground hard enough to dislodge the soil, which is then carried away by flowing water. In India, the wind is the major agent of erosion only in the Thar desert. Erosion in rest of the areas happens primarily due to rain. The recent torrential rains that have exacerbated soil erosion can be attributed to climate change. It reduces the land’s ability to act as a carbon sink and natural water store while undermines food security. With water sources already at risk from extreme weather conditions, scarcity, and the progressive contamination of groundwater reserves, the loss of the water retention qualities of soil would further weaken Indian agriculture.
Salinisation: Waterlogging is believed to be one of the chief causes of salinity. The extent of waterlogged soils is about 12 million hectares in India – half of which lies along the coast and the other half in the inland area. Salinisation mainly occurs due to the following reasons;
- Increasing temperatures would Increase the capillary rise of soil moisture. This rising moisture brings up the salts onto the surface.
- Increasing flash floods would bring up the level of water table, which also results in bringing up the underneath salts onto the top layer of the soil, leaving them hostile for cultivation.
- Steric affect & melting of polar ice caps induce a rise in sea-level which inundates coastal areas rendering the fertile soils of Indian coastal plains saline.
All the above three can be safely concluded to have been exacerbated by climate change.
In India, around 6.74 million hectares of area is salt-affected. The salt-affected soils constitute almost 5 percent of the net cultivated area, spreading from Jammu & Kashmir (Ladakh region) in the north to Kanyakumari in the south and Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the east to Gujarat in the west. According to the estimates, every year approximately 10% additional area is getting salinized, and by the end of 2050, almost 50% of the arable land would be salt-affected. Saline soils occupy nearly 44 percent area accross 12 states and one Union Territory, while sodic soils cover 47 percent area in 11 states. Soil salinization alone has rendered significant chunks of land unproductive
or less productive. Soil salinization is a global and dynamic problem and is projected to increase in future under climate change scenarios, viz. rise in sea level and impact on coastal areas, rise in temperature and increase in evaporation etc.
The regions that have been significantly hit by Soil salinity are majorly concentrated in four clusters across India;
- The Semi-arid Indo-Gangetic alluvial tracts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, western Bihar and Southern West Bengal
- The Arid and semi-arid tracts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and fragmented parts in Maharashtra
- Southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa.
- Coastal tracts of the entire eastern peninsula and Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
Inundation of Coastal Areas due to the Rise in Sea Levels
India, which boasts a lengthy coastline of 7,516.6 km, of which 5,422.6 km is in the mainland, has been pro-actively gauging the readings from four Indian ports between 1993 to 2012. The readings show that the sea level has risen by 4.8 cm, which equates to about 3.2 mm per year. At this rate, sea-levels are poised to rise by 16cm and 32 cm by the end of 2050 & 2100 respectively. Thus, India stares at an impending climatic threat as 73 districts, comprising 17% of national population reside along the coastline. What’s more alarming is the fact that nearly 25 crore population of the country lives within 50kms from the coastline.
The rise in Sea-level triggers a plethora of deleterious phenomena like submergence of low-lying regions, salinizing the coastal soils, coastal lands turning into wastelands, impacting the livelihood of marine-based communities, etc. So, India runs the risk of losing out on valuable coastal plains due to inundation which could have otherwise been cultivated extensively.
North-Ward Shift of Cropping due to Increasing Temperatures
As agricultural regions are threatened by climate change, warming of the regions and increasing food demands may lead to northward shifting of agriculture to achieve agro-climatic equilibrium. While socio-economic demands and economic conditions may govern the shift, the climate remains a key driving factor. Climate change is highly likely to result in an elevated temperature, which is above the stress thresholds for many crops, especially during nights. This would force the cultivators to move north to find the temperatures that are conducive for the crops which are temperature sensitive. This would render the tropics more and more hostile for the crops that cannot tolerate the increasing tropical temperatures. This again, is a kind of land loss as these lands will no more support the cultivation of certain crops due to the drifting of temperatures from their usual range.
Repercussions of Loss of Agricultural Land
In a country where more than half of its population’s livelihood is dependent on land resources, loss of agricultural land has inevitable repercussions, some of which are as follows;
Food security is the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. It can be viewed from two aspects, i.e., quantitative and qualitative.
Quantitative aspects: Though India is plush with 18% of the world’s population, it has only 2.4% of the world’s land to feed its mammoth population. So far, India is managing its food security within the available meager land resources. Various reports caution that India’s food supply would merely grow at 2%-3%, whereas the demand outweighs the supply by 2035. According to estimates, yields of major crops of India may dip by 25% by as early as 2030. Even the yields of staple crops of India i.e., Rice & Wheat are projected to decline by atleast 6-10 percent. A recent IPCC reaffirms the widely believed notion that India’s food security stands seriously threatened by the combined effect of climate change and increasing demand.
Food security is one of the leading concerns that emanate from climate change. Livestock, vegetation, fisheries, and aquaculture have all been the victims of climate change. Any disruption among these can cause grave social and economic consequences in the form of diminished incomes, disrupted livelihoods, Health hazards, etc. However, one should note that the impact of climate change does not solely depend on the intensity of climate change but also on the vulnerabilities of the eco-systems and populations.
The ever-increasing global temperatures have further worsened the already ailing Indian agriculture. The extreme weather events, irregular monsoons, flash floods, increasingly frequent droughts, desertification of lands have compounded the woes of Indian food production. The recent IPCC report brings to light how Maize and Wheat yields have declined in the lower latitudes that are exposed to elevated temperatures. Even the Ministry of Agriculture brings out the new data that throws some light on the potential impacts on the production of Milk, Grains and vegetables in the backdrop of changing climate. Statistics clearly point towards the fluctuating Agricultural production levels and its GVA (Gross Value Added) share in the national economy in the recent past. What makes climate change even worse is the socio-economic vulnerabilities of the communities exposed to climate change. Food security of the marginalized sections, children, and indigenous communities are likely to be hampered disproportionately. With such a bulk of starving population, achieving SDG goals would remain an arduous goal for India.
Qualitative aspects: Any change in atmospheric Carbon dioxide levels has been found to negatively correlate with the nutritional quality of foods. Proteins, Zinc, Iron, etc., have been found to have been in lesser than usual amounts in food crops that have been exposed to higher CO2 levels. In a country like India, where most of the populace draws their protein source from pulses rather than from meat, any increase in CO2 levels would pose a serious threat to food security. Lack of adequate nutrients would leave vulnerable sections prone to various diseases.
Studies from Botswana suggest that changes in climate that lead to an increase in temperature and a decrease in precipitation are associated with an increase in nutrition-related diseases in children. India is already burdened with nutritional challenges, with half of its population lacking adequate nutrition, is in no position to afford any more nutritional catastrophe.
The agricultural sector employs around 44% of the Indian workforce, with more than 70 % of Indians depends on the sector as a source of income despite accounting for less than 20 % of the economy. If we delve a bit deeper into the causes of farm suicides, most of them emanate directly or indirectly from climate change. Various effects of climate change, i.e., Floods, degrading soils, depletion of underground water, and loss of crops due to floods and droughts, have all been aggravated in the recent past due to climate change. TERI study evaluates the costs of land degradation at 48.8 billion USD, which is about 2.5% of India’s GDP. Soil degradation due to salinity and erosion due to water and air caused by extreme weather events and other human activities in India incurred losses of Rs 72,000 crore ($10.68 billion), which is more than the agriculture budget of Rs 58,000 crore ($8.54 billion) in 2018-19, according to the TERI study. As per the Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Household 2013, an average Indian farming household earns a meagre sum of Rs 77,124 in a year, translating to Rs 6,427 monthly. Any further depreciation in their incomes due to climatic vagaries would push them down to below poverty levels.
Moreover, crop failures would have a domino effect on entire India’s macro-economy. It would result in decreased incomes of farmers, increasing non-performing assets of banks, increased interest rates, rise in food inflation, reversal of reduction in poverty, etc.
Land is a crucial element of the environment and thereby the health of the land is of utmost vitality to conserve the ecological balance. Loss of vegetation due to land degradation would trigger series of events like reduction in absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide, reduced transpiration and thereby lesser rainfalls, loss of food for grazing animals, destruction of biological diversity, the disappearance of habitats and niche for several avian and terrestrial creatures, excessive nutrient runoff into lakes etc. Moreover, any degradation in the land may choke bio-geochemical cycles resulting in imbalanced nutrient flow in the ecosystem.
Taking cognizance of the impact of climate change on our cultivable lands, the government has initiated several measures to reverse the land degradation.
- India being a party to United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), has pledged to reach land degradation neutrality targets by 2030. India has determined to restore 5 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.
- India has embarked on a mission to increase the green cover to 33% of the total land by 2022. Right now, India’s green cover is around 24.5%.
- Being obliged to The Bonn Challenge, an international afforestation commitment, India has pledged to restore 13 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and a further eight million by 2030.
- ISRO has taken up the task of mapping India’s land between the period 2003-2013, using satellite technology. It is primed to detect changes that occurred between the said period in terms of desertification, degradation, erosion, salinisation, etc. It also validates the satellite data with on-field physical verification.
- India has been a party to the recently launched “The Global Initiative on Reducing Land Degradation and Enhancing Conservation of Terrestrial Habitats to prevent, halt, and reverse land degradation by G-20 leaders, etc
The government also took up various initiatives to directly fight climate change like Declaration & commitment to its INDC targets, Ratifying Paris deal & Kigali agreement, International Solar Alliance, the launch of National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) etc.
Shortcomings and the Way Forward
Though it would seem that there has been very substantial development about the national imperative of checking land degradation, the visible impact of programmes on the ground is clearly less than impressive. A provisional diagnostic would suggest:
- India has pledged to restore 5 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. However, this is merely 1.5% of the country’s geographical area, whereas the total under degradation is roughly around 30%. UN had recently voiced its reservations about the adequacy of the pledge. It says India needs to restore at least 30 million hectares in the next 10 years to reverse land degradation by 2030.
- Funding, management, and technical capacity constraints have resulted in insufficient coverage by the government initiatives in addressing land degradation. At the COP14 summit in New Delhi, the UN pointed out that the funds made available by governments to restore land globally are insufficient and called for more investments from the private sector.
- To achieve the afforestation targets that India has set for itself, it requires the government to increase the forest cover by nearly 2% every year till 2022. Forest cover in India, however, increased only by 1% over two years to 2017.
Fighting the perils of climate change has to be done by and in close collaboration with local communities. It is no coincidence that the few outstanding examples of sustainable management are all traceable to visionary local leadership supported by the local communities and assisted by public policies. The best way to shield food security from the shadows of climate change is to make them resilient to CO2 level fluctuation, increased temperatures, soil salinity. This would require dedicated research to invent new crop varieties that are genetically modified.
At the same time, we should work on fighting climate change by adapting technologies that contribute to the lower emission of greenhouse gases. Again, this needs enormous investments in research. The nation today stands at cross roads and we need to sort out our priorities as to where we need to invest. Climate change is a rapid phenomenon, and thus, without wasting further time, we must act now. Every stakeholder should take note of the gravity of the impending threat. A climate-friendly lifestyle needs to become the new normal.
Even the policymakers should move beyond the token reforms. UN has been cautioning us about the inadequacy of allotted financial resources. The central government should take on-board all the stakeholders like state governments, local self-governing institutions, local communities, indigenous tribes to counter the climate change. First-hand knowledge of the local communities should be heeded in the policy-making chambers. Telangana government has already heralded a pathway, which could be the model that the rest of the states can emulate. Similarly, Governments at both central and federal levels should constantly engage with agencies like UNCCD, FAO, etc, to make informed choices.