About 45 per cent of India's land degraded and useless: Ramesh

At long last, the government has acknowledged that India's environment is degraded almost beyond repair. Releasing the 'State of environment report India 2009' in New Delhi yesterday, minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh said about 45 per cent of India's land is degraded [yielding no agricultural or other benefits], air pollution is increasing in all its cities, it is losing its rare plants and animals more rapidly than before, and about one-third of its urban population now lives in slums.

The third official report on the state of India's environment, published after a gap of eight years, was prepared by Development Alternatives, a non-governmental organisation commissioned by Ramesh's ministry. It says almost half of India's total land area is degraded due to erosion, soil acidity, alkalinity and salinity, water-logging, and wind erosion.

It adds that the prime causes of land degradation are deforestation, unsustainable farming, mining, and excessive groundwater extraction.

Ramesh said it would be unrealistic to expect that India's area under forests would go above the current 21 per cent, given the competing demands for land. "Our plan is to have all this 21 per cent as high and medium density forests within the next 10 years," he said.

As usual with the Indian government, Ramesh seems to have selected an overambitious target without giving a clue on how it is to be achieved. Currently, only two per cent of India is under high density forest cover, while medium density forest cover is officially about 10 per cent.

Presenting the salient features of the report to the media, Development Alternatives president (development enterprises) George C Varughese said one of its most worrisome findings was that the level of breathable suspended particulate matter - the small pieces of soot and dust that get inside the lungs - had gone up in all 50 major cities across India that were recently surveyed by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Central Pollution Control Board.