Rajasthan's Rabriyawas once a dustbowl, is now a thriving agricultural hub

India's farmers need to be equipped with regenerative farming practices, water- and energy-efficient irrigation methods, and more to help their incomes, and ensure the protection of land from degradation

Updated: Jun 20, 2024 01:21:24 PM UTC
Regenerative agriculture builds and improves soil fertility, while sequestering and storing atmospheric CO2, increasing farm diversity and improving water and energy management. Image: Shutterstock

As the global population continues to grow, and consumption patterns demand more from the finite natural resources that surround and support us, consider this—according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), between 2015 and 2019, the world lost 100 million hectares of healthy and productive land, each year. India alone lost 30.51 million hectares in that time.

It is a mindboggling fact but what does this really mean? Fundamentally, the productive capacity of that land and its productive potential for the future is temporarily or definitively lost. It cannot provide food and fibre for us anymore. It cannot provide for animals and insects either. Its value as an economic and natural resource is severely inhibited.

This presents a chronic problem for countries like India, with the population and poverty problem building at its seams, and a high dependence on agriculture for survival. Natural processes play a role in the degradation of land, but human beings cause the most damage. Unsustainable agricultural practices are at the forefront of driving the depletion and contamination of water resources nutrient loss from the soil, and the loss of biodiversity.

Ironically, India’s poor are both the victims and the perpetrators of the problem. Marginal farmers simply try to make a living out of the tiny, family-held land they own, to survive. They use more water, more chemicals, more fertiliser, and tend to sow the same crops year after year, simply to get by.

Unbeknownst to them, their efforts are working directly against them as doing so, the soil slowly loses its nutrient value and carbon content, sabotaging their farm's ability to provide yield and income in the future.

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Land per capita decreases as our population increases, thereby raising the pressure on limited land resources. To stop it in the tracks, people need to become stewards of the land—working to restore it—so that it survives for the future. And while livelihoods are at the heart of rural development, it is imperative to find a healthy balance between ecology and livelihoods.

But there is still hope—especially in some small pockets and hamlets in the country. These are stories of land rejuvenation, where regenerative farming practices are turning things around. Farming families are learning to be judicious with water. Agricultural communities are creating their own, local biodiversity parks, to encourage a balance between livelihoods and the very ecology that enables it.

Rejuvenation in Rabriyawas, Rajasthan

We need to look no further than Rabriyawas, Rajasthan for inspiration and leadership on this matter. Perched on the edge of the Thar desert, two hours from Jodhpur, land here is naturally fertile, but water woes, overexploitation of fields, and application of large quantities of chemical fertiliser put the lush soil that supports the agricultural industry there, at risk.

Taking matters into their own hands, and working hand-in-hand with an NGO, farmers began to understand the critical importance of soil testing, to make informed decisions for their farming businesses. They also understood the need to conserve water and be more judicious in its application, and 1,200 farmers slowly converted over 2,200 hectares to micro irrigation—watching delightedly, as yields increased and profits soared. Motivated, they adopted other regenerative farming practices like field bunds, blocks, and community plantations—planting over 5,000 trees to encourage biodiversity.  Birds flocked to the area eating grubs and mites that earlier damaged crops and reduced the need for pesticides. They replaced chemical inputs with bio-inputs like neem oil and yellow sticky traps—made by local self-help groups (SHGs)—also applying farmyard manure to the land every three years to boost microorganism growth.

And the multi-layered approach worked.  Where once Rabriyawas was a dustbowl, with up to 30 percent of farmers migrating to find work, today it is a thriving agricultural hub where farming incomes have soared—as much as doubling for over 20 percent of the farmers there.

Working together, they have broken the vicious cycle of poverty and land degradation.

Restoring land requires diverse approaches

Becoming a steward of the land requires a multipronged approach to restore the land to its productive state.  While restoration techniques vary depending on the type and extent of land degradation and the needs of local communities, they can be bifurcated into three primary buckets:

Regenerative agricultural practices – Regenerative agriculture builds and improves soil fertility, while sequestering and storing atmospheric CO2, increasing farm diversity and improving water and energy management. Farmers need to embrace practices that see them rotating crops, planting cover crops, choosing bio-inputs instead of chemicals, limiting land tillage, and replacing the burning of crop residues with incorporating them into the soil.

Judicious water use – 80 percent of India’s groundwater is used for agricultural purposes, especially the rampant extraction of water for inefficient flood irrigation. There is enormous potential to adopt practices for the judicious use of water. Farmers need skills like the adoption of micro-irrigation, selection of more water-efficient crops, and the adoption of water budgeting in agricultural communities.

Restoration of biodiversity – There is an inherent magic in nature, with many native varieties of plants, trees, birds, and insects contributing positively to agriculture. Whether it be in keeping pests at bay, sequestering carbon, or contributing to the water holding capacity of soil; plantation work, and the creation of on-farm block plantation, agroforestry, or in community ‘biodiversity’ parks can and is nurturing a return of biodiversity and restoring soil health and productivity.

In 2023, India became the most populous country in the world, but as our population continues to surge—growing until at least 2064 when it is predicted to wane—our land size continues to stay the same. India has only the fifth largest land mass in the world, which means India's population density is 480.5 people per square kilometre—more than three times higher than China's population density of 151.3 per square km.

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Our growing population, coupled with unsustainable production and consumption patterns, fuels the demand for natural resources, putting excessive pressure on land to the point of degradation. The result? Desertification and drought are driving forced migration, putting tens of millions of people each year at risk of displacement, and putting our precious food security at risk.

We as a nation must empower the masses to become stewards and custodians of the land that was passed down to them—ensuring it can nurture future generations for decades to come.

The writer is the CEO of Ambuja Foundation.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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