New Delhi: At a recent global meet on fighting desertification, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that by 2030, India would reclaim 26 million hectares of degraded land--equivalent to the combined areas of Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu.

Just days before, the government had invited the private sector to participate in reclaiming land and thereby, “make money”. Of the 320 million hectares area of the country, about 30% or 90 million hectares is wasteland, and should “immediately” be put to economic use, as per Anil Kumar Jain, special secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC).

Nearly 30% of India’s land area--as much as the area of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra put together--has degraded due to deforestation, over-cultivation, soil erosion and depletion of wetlands. This land loss is not only whittling away India’s gross domestic product by 2.5% every year and affecting its crop yield, but is also exacerbating climate change events in the country which, in turn, are causing even greater degradation, as IndiaSpend reported on September 2, 2019.

However, the two statements have revived the controversy over the involvement of private players in land restoration in India, with activists warning that without involving local communities and legally recognising their tenurial rights over forest resources, private participation would fuel conflict. Private participation must be allowed only outside forests and in agroforestry, some experts told IndiaSpend, while others emphasised the need to ensure local communities’ involvement.

Reclaiming 26 million hectares (mha) of degraded land would also require an integrated national policy, and massive resource allocation, experts said.

A need to safeguard local community rights

Since private players bring in both investment and trade in forest produce, it could lead to conflicts in Indian forests, undermining the livelihood of forest communities, said Souparna Lahiri, climate campaigner and advisor for Global Forest Coalition, a non-profit for forest-related policy debates. He warned against disenfranchising local communities while bringing in the private sector.

Already, the country’s top court is reviewing state governments’ rejection of two million forest-dweller families’ claims over forest land they have traditionally inhabited, after having stayed its own order to evict these families.

Involvement of private players is ideal only outside forest areas and in agroforestry, opined Pia Sethi, senior fellow and area convener of the centre for biodiversity and ecosystem services at The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), a think-tank.

Of the 26 mha degraded land that India has promised to restore, 21 mha (about 81%) is forest land, and 5 mha lies outside forests.

Private players could help create additional tree cover outside the forest area through agroforestry (a practice where farmers plant trees along with other crops for selling wood), which will not only help India achieve its restoration target, but also help achieve its climate pledge of creating an additional carbon sink (a natural reservoir that stores carbon) of 2.5-3 billion tonnes, Sethi said.

“Within forest areas, one can look at a PPP [public-private partnership] model, but it will then require a lot of safeguards to make sure the rights of people are not affected,” Sethi said, adding that, “third party monitoring will also be required to make sure the benefits like forest produce are equitably shared and natural forest areas with high biodiversity are not targeted.”

Where private players are invited to manage forests, the communities should be protected by first settling their community forest resource (CFR) rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, said Yogesh Gokhle, fellow and area convener of the centre for biodiversity and ecosystem services at New Delhi-based research group TERI.

CFR rights enable the Gram Sabha (village council) to actively manage forests in collaboration with the forest department, Gokhle said, warning against denying forest dwellers’ rights over resources in the name of generating employment.

In fact, any private organisations that choose to get involved must ensure local communities’ participation in restoring degraded land and forest cover. Only then would they be seen as “neighbours of choice”, said Mukund Ranjan, chairperson of the environment committee at industry association FICCI.

Private businesses can safeguard community rights and encourage their participation by sharing profits with the locals, involving them through the various phases of restoration work, and encouraging them to take ownership of reclaimed lands that become productive assets.

IndiaSpend sought comment from Anil Kumar Jain, special secretary, MOEFCC, over email and on the phone, over three days. This story will be updated when he responds.

A coherent approach

The government’s promise to restore 26 mha of degraded land is not only economically crucial, but will also help the country support the global fight against climate change by creating an additional carbon sink. Degraded land loses its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2)--the greenhouse gas (GHG) that is the biggest factor in global warming.

However, the country’s approach to dealing with land degradation has been scattered, experts said, and needs greater fund allocation.

The first thing that India needs to do is to create an integrated land-use policy. Currently, all measures are being taken in silos, said Sethi. While separate policies for agriculture and forests are present, what is needed is an all-encompassing land-use policy. All activities to reclaim degraded agricultural or forest land should be connected to a nodal department that monitors and addresses these issues and ensures synergy.

Currently, India has no such policy. The Union Ministry of Rural Development, however, attempted to bring a land-use policy in 2013 but failed to operationalise it. According to the draft, this policy aimed to demarcate the country’s land into zones based on predominant land use. For example, if a land zone has been used for agriculture, the policy would insure against diversion of that land for any other use, preventing even the government from acquiring agricultural land for industrial or any other activities. Similar was the case with land zones that were ecologically important, such as forests.

“This policy could not see the light of the day due to political reasons as land is a state subject,” a researcher with expertise in the field, who does not wish to be named, told IndiaSpend.

The Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP) of the Department of Land Resources of the Ministry of Rural Development, which aims to conserve and develop natural resources such as water and soil to protect regions against land degradation and droughts, has an annual target of 5 million hectares. However, allocation of funds to these programmes is dismal, said Gokhle. There are no data available on how far these yearly targets have been fulfilled.

While the IWMP was launched in 2009, the Modi government, in a policy change, made it a part of its Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayi Yojana (Prime Minister’s Agriculture Irrigation Scheme) in 2015; after that the budget allocation to IWMP shrank by 19% to Rs 1,841 crore in 2018-19, against Rs 2,284 crore in 2014-15.

While watershed programmes have been in place for more than 50 years, the IWMP was a notch above because it had a proper mechanism to restore degraded land. It should be bolstered and allocated sufficient funds, Gokhle said.

Beyond merely offering financial support, private players can play a direct role in the redevelopment of degraded or wasted land,” Rajan of FICCI said, citing some examples. The private sector has been responsible for the restoration of depleted mine sites to revive the traditional flora and fauna; the Tata Steel mines in Noamundi, Jharkhand, are an example.

Similarly, wastelands have been utilised by private players for various agricultural activities, including plantations. JK Paper, for instance, started massive farm forestry and agroforestry plantations in its paper mill catchment area in 1990. It invested significantly in research and development for disease-resistant, high-yielding varieties of eucalyptus, subabul and casuarina, and offered farmers subsidised seedlings and clonal plants, as well as financial support through banks, technical guidance for pulpwood farming, harvesting support and buy-back assurance for wood.

Public-private partnerships, including the leverage of corporate social responsibility funds (whereby corporates are required to invest some share of their profits in social welfare activities), could further help a range of land reclamation and anti-desertification activities, including the creation of green belts, water conservation, forestry projects, and so on, Rajan said.

(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)

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