Shilpanjali Deshpande Sarma
Fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)
Tackling the agrarian crisis from its roots necessitates attention to the important aspect of the neglect and degradation of natural resources, the natural capital that underlies all agriculture production systems.
Both irrigated and dryland agro-ecosystems in India face serious degradation or mismanagement of soil, water, forest and biodiversity resources. In the irrigated systems, which constitute 35 per cent of farming, high input and intensive mono-cropping cultivation systems have predominated, resulting in water scarcity and pollution, soil degradation owing to heavy and skewered fertiliser use, loss of organic matter and agro-biodiversity. Dryland farm areas receive unpredictable rainfall and experience soil erosion and degradation, water scarcity and drought. The reluctance to harness diversity that exists in drylands and the application of inappropriate practices in landholdings further degrades the natural resource base.
Why sustainable management of natural resources is important
1 Firstly, sustained agricultural productivity is closely linked to the quality of ecosystem services (benefits communities obtain from nature) that natural resources provide. For agriculture production, these include soil formation, erosion control and fertility, nutrient cycling, water provision and purification, pollination, pest control, carbon sequestration, resilience to natural disasters (drought etc). Loss of ecosystem services results in reduced productive capacity of farms and lower yields which affect the net incomes of farmers. Over-exploitation of natural resources is instrumental in the plateauing yields in irrigated agriculture systems. It perpetuates poverty and hunger in dry lands.
2 Secondly, natural resources provide rural communities with fuelwood, fodder, food and other materials. They can be a source of non-farm income through ancillary activities such as tourism. Thus, conservation and appropriate use of land, water, biodiversity and forest resources is vital for sustaining the profitability of agriculture, maintaining livelihoods and social well-being in rural communities.
There have been schemes to address natural resource use in relation to agriculture. These include programmes on soil health (the Soil Health Card Scheme being the most recent avatar), development of drought-prone and degraded lands, water conservation and watershed management (now part of PMKSY), rainfed areas development, activities under MNREGA etc.
However, issues of underdeveloped institutional capacities, especially for decentralised planning and implementation, low resource availability, lack of coordination, duplicity of efforts in the absence of convergence and gaps in monitoring have impeded translation of programme objectives to gainful outcomes. What is under-appreciated is the agro-climatic diversity, socio-economic and cultural variability that farming communities harbour.
An integrated and holistic view of natural resource management that also links with better agrarian outcomes is also missing.
What happens when natural resources are stressed
- Land degradation and desertification that afflicts 30 per cent of the land is on the rise. Inappropriate agricultural practices are destroying soil fertility and leading to erosion, waterlogging, and salinisation and soil compaction.
- Reports indicate that around 54 per cent of India falls under high and extremely high water stress regions and groundwater wells are decreasing. Farmers in several regions face acute water shortage. Since over 85 per cent of the groundwater is utilised by the agriculture sector, burgeoning groundwater use based on subsidies, incentives for water-intensive crops and low water use efficiencies in agriculture are pushing the nation towards water scarcity.
- There is also erosion of agro-biodiversity — seeds, crop varieties and livestock — due to over-emphasis on select high-yielding varieties that poses a threat to food and nutrition security. The importance of tree species in enhancing farm health and farmers' nutrition is disappearing.
How to manage natural resources
1 Operationalising land use planning and sustainable land management practices and multi-stakeholder dialogue is the key. Strengthening capacities, especially at block and district levels, for development of natural resource plans, implementation and ownership of the interventions are necessary. Plans need to be developed on the basis of the characterisation of the bio-physical resources, with an understanding of resource variability and dynamics and socio-economic realities.
2 Secondly, a move away from resource management in silos to a systems approach that recognises functional linkage between soils, water, biodiversity and forests and its impact on ecosystem services provided is needed. A re-emphasis on the watershed approach that integrates multiple resource use and conservation will be helpful.
3 Thirdly, the association between sustainably managing biophysical resources and improved agricultural productivity and equity need focus. Emphasis must be laid on people's participation and the use of local knowledge and practices such that resource conservation measures are developed in ways that contribute to the socio-economic well-being of communities.
Agriculture operates on a multifunctional scale. While its social and economic functions are important, its ecological functions and impacts are also significant. Unless the natural resource base is managed sustainably and in ways that benefits the local populations, improves system productivity, cultivates agro-ecosystem resilience and maintains ecosystem services, long-term gains from agriculture development for the economy, farmer livelihoods and rural development will not be possible. A turnaround in the fortunes of agriculture, therefore, requires polices and institutional arrangements that pay heed to farmers as well as the needs of the environment.
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