An expansive land management policy is overdue

It is imperative to set up a multi-stakeholder platform at the district and sub-district levels

February 27, 2024 12:15 am | Updated 10:33 am IST

Image for representation

Image for representation | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Land is central to all human activities. It provides ecological, economic, social, and cultural services. But this multi-dimensional character of land is often overlooked in land management practices, resulting is excessive stress, land degradation, and environmental draw down.

Globally, the annual losses of ecosystem services due to land degradation has been estimated at $6 trillion. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (COP14) in New Delhi in 2019 specifically discussed the problem of land degradation experienced by different countries and the need to find ways of achieving land degradation neutrality. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on ‘Climate Change and Land’ (2019) suggested country-level stocktaking of land management practices. It also proposed several near- and long-term actions with the thrust on land management options that reduce competition for land with co-benefits and minimum negative impacts on key ecosystem services. The Food and Agriculture Organization report, ‘State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture: The System at Breaking Point’ (2021), argued that a sense of urgency needs to prevail over a hitherto neglected area of public policy and human welfare— that of caring for the long-term future of land, soil, and water.

The challenges in India

India with only 2.4% of world’s geographical area and more than 17% of the world population experiences several land management challenges. Arable land in India is around 55% of total geographical area and forest cover accounts for another 22%. The rest is desert, mountains, etc. Around 30% of total geographical area is degraded land. Access to agricultural land continues to be an important livelihood issue as a significant share of the population depends on agriculture for their sustenance. Development targets and the demand for land to accommodate the growing population, infrastructure, rapid urbanisation, and social, cultural, and environmental aspects are placing unprecedented pressure on land. This is resulting in more competition among farmers and between agriculture and other land resource-based sectors, as well as land use conflicts, escalation of land prices, and changing land rights. Across the country, natural areas are being squeezed and ecological functions being lost. Not only does this adversely affect the livelihood opportunities of the people who directly depend on environmental resources, but also the buffering effects of natural ecosystems in the face of disasters such as floods and droughts, temperature rise, and environmental pollution are severely compromised. Climate change has brought with it another set of challenges.

In India, current land management practices are sectoral with each department following its own approach. Land management falls under the purview of State governments. Further, cultural land is privately owned and land-use decisions are constitutionally vested with the owner. Apart from this administrative complexity, the challenges to adopt and implement appropriate land management practices in the country include knowledge gaps, a short-term planning bias, a fragmented approach, lack of action for unforeseen events, and regulatory barriers.

As a critical mechanism to achieving sectoral integration and addressing these challenges, it is imperative to set up a multi-stakeholder platform at the district and sub-district levels to bring together farmers, other land managers, policymakers, civil society organisations, business leaders, and investors under a common platform. Article 243ZD (1) of the Constitution provides for district planning committees to consolidate plans from panchayats and municipalities. This committee may be activated in the direction of preparing a land management plan, covering both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. A landscape approach will be useful in this context as it will provide deep insights to assess the potential of land and the scope of allocation and reallocation of land for appropriate uses. This will help evaluation, negotiation, trade off, and decision-making. A climate-smart landscape approach will contribute to climate objectives, increased agricultural production, improved local livelihoods and the conservation of biodiversity.

Institutional support

Science has shown the importance of considering land as a system and promoting integrated landscape management. There is considerable experience on the ground to follow this approach, but systematic institutional support is hardly available. The European Landscape Convention proclaimed that landscape is a key element of individual and social well-being. The U.K. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in its Brief 42, ‘Sustainable land management: managing land better for environmental benefits’, in 2021 observed that “actions for addressing and adapting to climate change, achieving food security and tackling the biodiversity crisis are all embedded in and depend on how land is managed”. It cautioned the U.K. government about the failure of existing government policies and targets to address the complexities of land management, farming, and the natural environment. Perhaps, India’s parliamentarians can initiate deliberations on the emerging challenges of integrated land management practices and help devise appropriate policies for long-term sustainability by involving all actors across the scale, both horizontal and vertical.

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