Need for Significant Improvement of Degraded and Wastelands #RESEARCH

By Dr. Amrit Patel:

Land has been a stock of renewable resources and a source for human survival as well as improving the quality of human life. Since it has competing demand and multiple uses the rate of land degradation far exceeds its natural rate of regeneration. This means the degraded land is not naturally replaced within a human lifetime resulting in a loss of opportunities for the next generation. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says, “For thousands of years, people have modified, degraded and destroyed natural ecosystem. In 1950, some 115 million square kilometers of the Earth’s surface were “undegraded and vegetated” land. Just 40 years later, almost nine million square kilometers were classified as “moderately degraded”, with greatly reduced agricultural productivity. A further three million square kilometers were “severely degraded”, having lost almost completely their original biotic functions. Almost 100,000 square kilometers are beyond restoration”. Degraded and Wastelands pose a threat to survival and quality of human life.

Extent of degradation

According to National Remote Sensing Agency’s district-wise mapping of wastelands, using satellite data, the wastelands in India is 63.85 million hectares. Besides deserts, drought-prone, flood-prone and tribal areas have been subjected to severe forms of degradation. Estimates of the cost of soil degradation during 1980s and 1990s ranged from 11% to 26% of GDP. The cost of salinity and water logging is estimated at Rs120 billion to Rs270 billion. The Working Group on “Watershed Development, Rain-fed Farming and Natural Resource Management”[WDRFNRM] for the Tenth Five Year Plan [2002-07] constituted by the Planning Commission had assessed that 88.5 million hectare degraded wasteland including rain-fed areas would need development. The Working Group envisaged to cover the entire 88.5 million hectare land in four successive Five Year Plans, commencing from the Tenth Plan to Thirteenth Plan at an estimated cost of Rs727.5 billion [at 1994 price].

Causes and Consequences

India has only 2.4% of the world’s geographical area and 0.5% grazing area but supports over 16% of the world’s population and over 18% of world’s cattle population. The degradation of environment in the fragile Indian sub-tropical eco-system is basically attributed to increasing biotic and abiotic pressure; absence of adequate investment and appropriate management practices; high rate of population growth and high incidence of poverty in rural areas; over exploitation of natural resources; the break-down of traditional institutions for managing common property resources and failure of new institutions to fill the vacuum and faulty land use practices. All these have resulted into soil and wind erosion; depletion of natural resources; lower productivity; groundwater depletion; shortage of drinking water; reduction in species diversity and increase in the extent of wastelands.

Ninth Five Year Plan

The programs for the development of degraded and wastelands got a major boost during the Ninth Plan. Two centrally sponsored schemes for soil conservation and integrated watershed management in the catchments of flood-prone regions introduced in 1961 and 1982 aimed at enhancing productivity of degraded lands, minimizing siltation of reservoirs and chances of floods. During the Ninth Plan both these schemes were merged into a new one- soil conservation for enhancing productivity of degraded lands in the catchments of river valley projects and flood prone rivers. The scheme is being implemented in 53 catchments having a total area of 113.40 million hectare spread over in 27 States. The scheme for reclamation of alkali soils introduced in 1985-86 was extended to all States in the Ninth Plan. It attempts to improve land and crop productivity by taking up production of crops, including horticulture, fuel wood plantation and fodder species suitable to the soil conditions. Integrated wasteland development project being implemented, since 1989-90, is based on village/micro watershed plans, which are prepared after taking into consideration the land capability, site conditions and local needs of the people. The scheme also aims at rural employment besides enhancing the contents of people’s participation in the development process at all stages, which is ensured by providing modalities for equitable and sustainable sharing of benefits and usufructs arising from such projects. The major activities undertaken are [i]in situ soil and moisture conservation measures like terracing, embankments, trenching, vegetative barriers and drainage line treatment [ii] planting multipurpose trees, shrubs, grasses, legumes and pasture land development [iii] encouraging natural regeneration [iv] promotion of agro-forestry and horticulture [v] wood substitution and fuel wood conservation measures [vi] drainage line treatment by vegetative and engineering structures [vii] development of small water harvesting structures [viii] afforestation of degraded forest and non-forest wasteland [ix] development and conservation of common property resources.

The mid-term appraisal of the Ninth Plan highlighted the immediate and pressing need for the successful implementation of the programs, such as projects should devote significant resources to social issues, a high proportion of staff should have experience and requisite skills in social mobilization, project leaders need to be fully committed to participation and officials must motivate users to participate, project monitors must explicitly check whether local organizations of users have been formed, senior staff should have capacity to influence users and field staff to work in close coordination.

Working Group

The Working Group on “Watershed Development, Rain-fed Farming and Natural Resource Management “constituted for the Tenth Plan projected that 107 million hectare of land were subject to degradation, of which 88.5 million hectare would have to be treated under watershed programs during Tenth to Thirteenth Plan.

New approach

The Integrated Wasteland Development Program is being implemented since 1 April, 1995 on the basis of new guidelines for watershed development recommended by the Hnumantha Rao Committee, which envisages the bottom up approach whereby the User Groups themselves decide their work program. It aims at creating a scenario where the Government acts as a facilitatorand the people at the grass root level become the real executioner of the program. Its strength lies in the flexibility approach followed in the method of release of funds, the area to be covered in each watershed as well as choice of components. It attempts to make the projects sustainable by establishing watershed development fund and involving people in deciding equity issues and usufruct sharing mechanism. It is not just a technical project but encompasses a social program as well. It, inter alia, emphasizes on greater flexibility in implementation, well-defined role for State, district and village level institutions, removal of overlaps, a greater role for women, an effective role for the PRIs, involving Self-Help-Groups comprising rural poor, especially those belonging to SC/ST categories, seeking credit from financial institutions, transparency in implementation and most effective use of remote sensing data furnished by the National Remote Sensing Agency.

Peoples’ participation

Since it is the man who is primarily responsible for degradation of environment, regeneration and conservation can only be possible by creating awareness and seeking participation of the people who inhabit the watershed. The entire watershed community should be involved to implement Integrated Watershed Development Program [IWDP] and maintain the assets created to ensure sustainability. It emphasizes that the IWDP would have to become a people’s movement in order to succeed. It is people’s own program, which aims at giving them actual decision making powers in terms of project implementation and fund disbursal. Its implementation seeks to empower people so that sense of collective responsibility can be inculcated among them. It aims at decentralized decision- making process by involving local people, PRIs, NGOs, Government departments and watershed community at the grass root level and promotion of locally available low cost technology.

The new approach, also, recognizes the need to involve the community as a necessary condition for the sustainability of the program. Activities under the community organization include organizing Self-Help-Groups and User Groups, Participatory Rural Appraisal exercise, awareness camps, exposure visits and programs on literacy, family welfare, social services, income generating activities etc. giving small contributions to SHGs or other village institutions like Mahila mandals, Youth clubs, Anganwadis which are considered important for people’s participation. Effective community organization is important to establish credibility of the Watershed Development Team and create rapport with the village community who is ultimately going to own and implement the program even after withdrawing the Government machinery. In short, peoples’ participation and community organization is primarily sought to establish a system under which village people can actually involve themselves in planning, implementation and monitoring of watershed development programs.

Institutional Arrangement

Institutional arrangement has been provided from village to state level for successful implementation of the program and making it sustainable and equitable, such as [i] Water development association has a key role to play. It consists of all members of the village whose land is situated in the watershed area called User Group and all those members who derive sustenance from the watershed area called Self-Help-Group [ii] Watershed committee is the key institution at watershed level consisting of about two to three representatives, each of User Group and Self-Help-Group, Panchayat and women etc. The committee also selects a watershed secretary preferably a local man graduate from the same area [iii] Watershed development team is a multi-dimensional team responsible for technical and financial supervision of the project activities. The team comprises field level officials drawn from various disciplines like forestry, soil conservation, horticulture, social science etc. These officials are key functionaries for sensitizing SHGs, UGs and villagers.


The performance analysis showed that [i] there have been 10 schemes for wastelands development implemented by three Ministries viz, Ministry of Agriculture [MoA], Ministry of Rural Development [MoRD], and Ministry of Environment & Forest [MoE and F]. Wastelands development program was started in early sixties and progressively strengthened during Ninth and Tenth Five Year Plans. The progress was slow till Eighth Plan. It acquired momentum during Ninth and Tenth Plan as the area treated as well as investment increased sharply from 17.672 million hectare and Rs46,388.0 million till Eighth Plan to 50.899 [188%] million hectare and Rs192,512.2 [315%] million at the end of Tenth Plan. The MoRD accounted for 32 million hectare [63%] of the treated area investing Rs95,232 million [49.7%] as compared to 18.77 million hectare [37%] at the cost of Rs96,804.9 million [50.3%] by the MoA. Of the 10 schemes, Drought Prone Area Program [DPAP], IWDP and Desert Development Program [DDP] of MoRD accounted for 27%,20% and 15% respectively of the total area treated as compared to NWDPRA [18%] and RVP&FPR[13%] of the MoA [ii] National Watershed Development Project for Rainfed Areas [NWDPRA] launched in 1990-91[Seventh Plan] on pilot basis was implemented in 28 States during Tenth Plan. River Valley Projects [RVP] and Flood Prone Rivers [FPR] Program is currently implemented in 53 catchments in 27 States [iii]Watershed Development Project for Shifting Cultivation Area [WDPSCA]. An area of 4.357 million hectare is affected by shifting cultivation mainly in seven States of North Eastern region and Orissa. This scheme launched in the Seventh Plan [1987-88] has, since 1994-95, been implemented in seven States of North Eastern region [iv] Reclamation of Alkali Soils [RAS] about seven million hectare is affected by salt problem, out of which about 3.581 million hectare suffers from alkalinity in 11 States[v]Drought Prone Area Program [DPAP] was launched in 1973-74 and currently is implemented in 972 blocks of 182 districts in 16 States[vi]Desert Development Program [DDP] was launched in 1977-78 and is now under implementation in 235 blocks of 40 districts in seven States[vii]Integrated Wasteland Development Project [IWDP], a centrally sponsored project was introduced in 1989-90 and since 1 April 1995, is being implemented through watershed approach under the new guidelines in 443 districts[viii]Externally Aided Projects [EAP]: The MoRD is servicing externally aided watershed development projects for the development of degraded and wasteland areas.

Need for:

In order to accelerate the progress under various schemes there is need for initiating actions, viz.[i] Peoples’ participation and community organization need to be made very effective by building their capacity through structured training programs to ensure proper planning, implementation and monitoring that can achieve quantitative and qualitative objectives of the programs [ii] Program-wise comprehensive evaluation by an independent professional team needs to be conducted at the end of each plan period to assess improved productivity of wastelands, improved availability of fuel wood and fodder, increase in water table, reduction in migration, improvement of economic status of the people, cost-benefit ratio and rate of return on investment[iii]There is need to develop policies, which would result in the best use and sustainable management of land and water resources so as to prevent land becoming degraded and waste in the light of country’s food and livelihood security[iv]In order to formulate an appropriate plans for treatment of degraded lands a complete census of degraded or wasteland, its location, extent of area, ownership, the vegetative cover currently available and the biological, physical and chemical properties of land needs to be done [v] Since there are a number of schemes for the development of wasteland/degraded lands, a MIS with clearly defined benchmarks needs to be designed to get a realistic picture of the targets assigned, progress achieved and the tasks ahead[vi]The corporate sector may need to be involved in public-private-partnership mode to restore wastelands and reclaim degraded lands for which financial resources be channeled through involvement of financial institutions[vii] In collaboration with the National Remote Sensing Agency, the Department of Land Reforms has released a wasteland Atlas of India in March 2000 indicating district level information on 13 categories of wastelands, which should be updated periodically with annual status of land records [viii] Proper technical advice on the reclamation of wasteland and on improving biological potential should be indicated in the Soil Health Passbook issued to farmers.


The United Nations had designated year 2008 as the International Year of Planet Earth and celebrated it during the Triennium 2007-09. The event coincided with the launching of our Eleventh Plan [2007-12]. Now with the implementation of Twelfth Plan let all of us commit to protect and preserve our precious land, water and environment through all possible preventive and curative measures.

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