India’s Shrinking Farmlands and Deteriorating Soil Quality: A Cause for Concern

India is the seventh largest country in the world with a total land area of 3,287,263 km (1,269,219 sq. miles)[1]. Of this total geographical area of 3,287,263 Mha, approximately 146.2 Mha land is degraded land. India occupies about 2.4 per cent of the world’s total land area; it supports over 16.7 per cent of the entire global population. The estimates of the degraded land have varied depending upon the organization undertaking the study and the criteria used (see Table 1 below).

Table 1: Land degradation assessment by different organizations

Agency Estimated Extent ( M ha) Criteria for Delineation
National Commission on Agriculture(NCA 1976) 148.09 Based on secondary data
Min of Agriculture (1978-Soil &Water conservation division) 175.00 Based on NCA’s estimates. No systematic survey undertaken
Society for the promotion of wasteland development (SPWD) –(Bhumbla & Khare 1984) 129.58 Based on secondary data
NRSA (1985) 53.28 Mapping on 1:1 million scale based upon remote sensing techniques
Ministry of Agriculture (MOA 1985) 173.64 Land degradation statistics for the states
Ministry of Agriculture (MOA 1994) 107.43 Elimination of duplication of area. Area reclaimed counted
NBSS &LUP (1994) 187.70 Mapping based upon Global Assessment of Soil Degradation (GLASOD) guidelines
NBSS &LUP (2004) revised 146.82 1:1 million scale soil map
Dept of Environment (Vohra 1980) 95.00
National Wasteland Development Board (1985) 123.00
Source: Gautam N.C and Narayan LRA 1988

India is also home to roughly 1.1 billion people and is expected to overtake China and gain the number one spot as the most populous nation by 2030. Its economic transformation has pushed up the GDP growth to an average of 6% p.a since 1992. About one in every sixth person on the globe lives in India[3]. India’s birth rate[4] is far higher than the birth rate prevailing in other developed nations.

However the combination of an increasing GDP, population growth, urbanization and industrialization are imposing a pressure on the quality of our soils as well as shrinking the supply of agricultural lands which are being used for non agricultural purposes. Hybrid seed varieties require abundant water supply and a balanced and well planned fertilization effort, both of which are not happening. Farmers are using fertilizers guided more by affordability and availability. They are trying to grow two or more crops in a year. This is draining the soils of the essential nutrients and affecting the yield. According to the Ministry of Agriculture -2008 statistics, almost 14% of the total land is not useable (non agricultural uses – 6% and barren and uncultivable land 6%). If the fallow land mass is added, then the percentage of unused/unusable land is 22% (i.e. almost a fourth of the land is not available for utilization).

Some of the reasons for the declining productivity are:

  • Rain fed agriculture and the vulnerability of the same: Nearly a third of the area falls in the ‘dry’ belt leaving the remaining bulk in the dry-moderate belt. This proportion too is changing (unfavorably) due to the rapid deforestation and the global warming phenomenon.

  • The thrust on high productivity post the Green Revolution has led to a situation where the farmers are straining the soil by trying to grow two or more crops in a year instead of one[5]. The hybrid variety of crops introduced post the Green Revolution require more water and nutrients (in a balanced proportion) to retain the soil quality. Fertilization based more on affordability and availability is affecting the productivity of soils even in states like Punjab, UP, Haryana, Bihar.

  •  The earlier practice like using animal manure and other organic wastes has shifted in favor of the relatively more affordable chemical options. The main deterrent is the high cost of obtaining organic certification which is out of reach for small and marginal farmers (see table 1 given below)

Table 2: Cost of Inspection & Certification (Source: Muthukumaran K-Source Org Marg 2002)[6]

Category Details Cost ( In Indian Rupees)
Small farmers & Cooperatives Travel and inspection report preparation / certification Rs 12,000 per day + 5000 flat fee +5000 certification
Estate manufacturers & exporters Travel and inspection report preparation / certification Rs 19,200 per day + + 5000 flat fee +5000 certification
Large & Medium size processors Travel and inspection report preparation / certification Rs 16,800 per day + + 5000 flat fee +5000 certification
Note : Costs are expected to have gone up significantly in view of the time lag between year of survey
  • Inadequate Irrigation Systems: Water as an integral input is critical for sustaining any agricultural endeavor. At the same time availability of water is becoming scarcer since it’s also being utilized in industry, infrastructure and other domestic uses-all of which is leading to an alarming situation of rapidly depleting water levels in the country. As per ICAR[7](Policy Brief No 15).India’s a annual per capita water availability will go below water scarce threshold level of 1700 cubic meter within the next two decades. In six of the country’s 20 major river basins (with less than 1000 cubic meter of annual per capita availability), water resources are under stress and depleting.

So while India is being celebrated in the world arena as the demographic and technical destination by a host of companies, the fact is that if we continue at this rate nutrient depletion, shrinking land holdings and adverse climate changes will mean that a time may come when the problem of food security will become overwhelmingly real – but at that time it may be too late to take any corrective action

[1] State of the Environment Report 2009-Ministry of Environment & Forests

[2]  Source: ICAR-Degraded and Wastelands Report

[3] UN Population Statistics also quoted in the Deutsche Bank Research Report “Building up India’ May 2006.

[5] ‘India’s Soil Crisis’ Economic Times July 12 2011.

[6] Muthukumaran K ‘Organic Agriculture & Food Industry –Trends Challenges &Opportunities  October-December 2006 CAB Calling (

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