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India and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released February 2008)

 
  by Ethan Goffman  

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Land Use & Agriculture

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Despite rapid economic development, the majority of India's population remains employed as small farmers. Even with this huge amount of agricultural labor available, the Indian people frequently faced malnourishment and recurrent famine until the late 1960s. At that time the so-called "green revolution" brought modern agricultural techniques to India. Three factors are especially notable: "increase in arable land, cropping intensity, and higher yield per acre" (Singh 490). So, for instance, wheat production "nearly trippled between 1961 and 1980" (Singh 487) and has continued to grow. Other staple crops, such as rice and corn, also increased dramatically.

peasant women farming
Traditional farming in India

Yet, the green revolution brought with it inherent limitations, which became clear by the 1990s. Its reliance on monocultures, i.e., the use of only a few crops planted over huge areas, has decreased biodiversity. As Singh explains, "in pursuit of achieving higher and higher production, farmers put heavy stress on agricultural resource base, consequently degrading the agroecosystem through putting heavy doses of agrochemicals while ignoring the long-term hazardous effects on soil health-nutrients" (489). Water, and especially clean water, is scarcer for agricultural and other uses. While India's population continues to increase at a near-exponential rate, its food production has slowed. As a result, the country's ability to feed its own people is diminishing again.

Indeed, many analysts believe that the pattern of large-scale agriculture is unhealthy, not just environmentally, but economically. One critic argues, "in terms of food and nutrition productivity per acre, in terms of efficiency in water use, in terms of creation of livelihoods small farms are more productivity [sic] than large ones" (Shiva 716). Energy-intensive agriculture also runs into limits, "since growth in output is increasingly dependent on limited fossil fuel reserves" (Thankappen et al 191). Two possible solutions to the problems of current energy sources are alternative energy or more labor-dependent agriculture.

Groundwater depletion is another problem, intensified by a move, typical in developing countries, toward water intensive food, such as vegetables and animal products. The classic pattern has been from grain-based diets toward increased consumption of a diversity of vegetables, as well as meat and milk. It remains to be seen how much India, with its Hindu traditions, will increase its consumption of meat.

The argument continues over how much to modernize, how much to retain traditional peasant agriculture, and how best to utilize new technologies. If globalization could be considered the next step after the green revolution in modernizing Indian agriculture, it has also been criticized as disempowering. One critic argues, "seeds and biodiversity, which have been the common property of farmers and local communities, are being transformed into private property of a handful of corporations" (Shiva 718). Regarding biological and genetic rights, patents, intended to reward innovation, may end up limiting widespread use of knowledge.

women farming
Organic farming in Kerala

Of equal concern is that agriculture brings other environmental stresses. As the World Bank explains, "land and soil nutrients have suffered from overgrazing, deforestation, and poorly planned irrigation schemes" (Ringskog 3). Furthermore, agriculture inevitably leads to deforestation, yet forests provide ecosystem services that, over time, benefit farm land (such as preventing soil erosion). In India, which remains deficient in modern energy infrastructure, fuelwood collection has also harmed forests. Illegal tree harvesting for a variety of uses is common. Of India's 329 hectares of land, "around 21% is classified as forestland" (Gundimedaa et al 636). Yet land volume is only one aspect of the problem; forest quality is another. Although shrinkage of forest land appears to have stopped, density of forest cover seems to be diminishing. Forest ecosystem services, such as replenishment of land, sequestering of carbon, protection from weather events, and recreational uses, remain threatened. One scholar explains, "[deforestation] fortunately has been arrested in most parts of India, but now what is required is major efforts to increase tree cover throughout the country" (Pachauri 708).

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