Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that India would increase its target for restoration of degraded land is a welcome move, as it would bring a large chunk of unproductive land back into use and also serve as a check on global warming and climate change. The prime minister made the announcement at the recent 14th Conference of Parties (CoP) of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) at Noida near Delhi, and it marks an enhancement of the country’s global environmental commitments. The promise means a commitment to restore 26 million hectares by 2030, five million hectares more than what India had pledged at the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015.
Of the 196 countries which are parties to the UNCCD, 122, including India, have agreed to become land degradation neutral by 2030. It means that the extent and quality of land resources will be kept stable or will be improved by 2030. Land degradation is a major problem in the country, as in most other parts of the world. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation’s 2016 land atlas, over 96 million hectares, or about 30 per cent of the land area, is getting degraded or decertified now. The reasons include deforestation, wetland losses, over-grazing, wrong land-use practices and the expansion of agricultural, industrial and urban areas. Climate change is another factor. Degraded land cannot support even plant life as it loses the ability to conserve water. Agriculture is badly affected as productive land area recedes and deserts expand. It is estimated that the annual economic loss due to degradation and change in land use was INR 3.17 lakh crore in 2014-15, which was about 2.5 per cent of the country’s GDP. The social cost also is high. The annual cost of degradation is expected to outstrip the cost of reclamation in 2030, and so there is the need for urgent action. Specific strategies to prevent degradation and to reclaim lost land will have to be implemented. These will include creation and expansion of green cover, afforestation, improved watershed management, biodiversity conservation and improvement of ecosystem services and soil health. Since all these will take time to show results implementation has to start immediately.
The prime minister also said that India will focus on a landscape reclamation policy with an emphasis on conservation and recharge of water. Land degradation is at the same time a cause and result of climate change, and so the need for its reversal is self-evident. The positive impact of restoration of land on agriculture and allied activities and livelihood will be considerable. The programme will cover vast areas, and its implementation will have to be closely monitored as the time at hand is short. While India has seen a severe heat wave in the past few years and a haphazard weather cycle, hence it becomes not only the government, but everyone’s prerogative to think about the forest cover of the nation. Over the years, rapid infrastructural development has seen deforestation at a massive scale. At such a juncture, this move by the Prime Minister comes as a respite for many environmentalists and nature lovers alike.