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Making Wastelands in India Productive: Crucial for poverty alleviation

Of India’s total population, 40% depend on wastelands for livelihood. This population is primarily rural, non / semi-literate, and are from marginalized communities. Hence, there is an urgent need to amplify its attempts at rejuvenating wastelands.

Approximately 55.76 Mha (16.96% of the country’s geographical area) of land in India are wastelands, as per the ‘Wastelands Atlas’ (2019) by the Ministry of Rural Development. This figure is for 2015-16 as compared to 56.60 Mha (17.21%) in 2008-09. However, about 50% of the wastelands can turn fertile if treated properly.

The Atlas also notes a reduction in India’s wasteland area in the categories of land with degraded pastures / grazing land, waterlogged or marshy land, dense scrub, and sandy areas. Wastelands in Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, and West Bengal have undergone a positive change with a majority of them being converted into categories of croplands, plantation and industrial areas.

Although not huge, yet this is a welcome development considering that India with 2.4% of the total world land area supports 18% of the world’s population; and the per capita availability of agriculture land in India is 0.12 ha while the figure stands at 0.29 ha for the world per capita agriculture land. 

What are Wastelands?

Barren and uncultivated land lying unproductive, or which is not being utilized to its potential is generally considered as a wasteland. Examples include barren land, degraded forests, waterlogged marshy lands, hilly slopes, eroded valleys, overgrazed pastures, and drought-struck pas­tures.

Types of wastelands

The National Wasteland Development Board (NWDB), set up by the Government of India in 1985 (subsequently placed under the Department of Wasteland Development under the Ministry of Rural Development, which was renamed as Department of Land Resources in 1999), has categorized wastelands into the following groups depending upon the extent of degradation.
  • Cultural Wastelands: Not in use currently due to different constraints; but have the potential of being developed into a vegetative cover after appropriate treatments. Example: Land under shifting cultivation, degraded pasture and grazing lands, degraded forest lands, degraded non forest plantation land, striplands, sandy areas, mining / industrial wastelands, gullied and ravinous lands, waterlogged lands and marshes, and salt affected lands. 
  • Unculturable Wastelands: Not in use currently; and cannot be developed for vegetative cover under any circumstances. Example: Barren / stony / rocky waste areas, steep sloping areas, and snow-covered areas.

How does an area become a wasteland?

Wastelands can be created due to natural as well as man-made reasons. Soil erosion, snow-covered areas, coastal saline area, barren hill-ridges are a few examples of natural causes. Man-made causes include, to name a few, overgrazing; over-cultivation; unskilled irrigation; impeded drainage from the construction of embankments, roads, canals, etc.; and waterlogging from canal seepage.

Urgent need for converting wastelands into productive land

Many attribute endemic rural poverty in India to a vicious cycle of poverty and subsistence agro-production.
  • Wastelands impact 40% of India’s population: 40% percent of India’s approx. 1.3 billion total population depends on wastelands for livelihood. This population is primarily rural and comprises marginalized communities who have been struggling with poverty.
  • Threat to farming communities: An estimated 61.5% of the Indian population is rural and dependent on agriculture and 57.8% rural households are agricultural households in the country. Hence, land degradation poses a huge threat to sustainable livelihood security of the farming communities. Requisite measures are required to reclaim degraded and wastelands so that areas which are becoming non-cultivable due to social and economic reasons can be replenished by reclaiming these lands and by arresting the further loss of production potential. This is crucial because land resources are finite.
  • Income from wastelands: The wastelands contribute around USD 5 billion a year to the incomes of poor rural households in India. Depleting natural resources negatively impact incomes. Example: In Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district, Scheduled Tribes constitute more than half of the total population. Barwani is amongst the most backward districts in India and has been identified as an aspirational district by Niti Ayog to improve its socioeconomic indicators. Agriculture and seasonal migration constitute the primary source of livelihood in this district. Most of the households rear livestock animals. Bullocks are used for ploughing; cows, goats and buffaloes for milk (self-consumption and sale). But, the number of livestock animals reared has been continuously declining because of the sparse vegetation on the wastelands in the vicinity. This has resulted in a lack of fodder for the villagers’ livestock and has impacted their sustenance and income. There are many such cases from across the country.

How can wastelands be made productive?

Rejuvenation of wastelands and conservation of natural resources can work towards poverty alleviation and sustainable livelihood. Modern technologies such as mulching, greenhouse, net house, and high-density plantation can make the wastelands fertile. Robust geospatial data on wastelands can inform various land development programmes to roll back the wastelands for productive use. For instance, wastelands could be rejuvenated through region-specific agroforestry (technique of combining agriculture and forestry) and policy initiatives. They can be used for the cultivation of horticultural and medicinal crops on a large scale with proper use of agricultural technologies and micro-irrigation facilities.
The techniques used for wasteland rejuvenation basically focus on stopping or slowing water logging, floods and soil erosion; reducing evaporation and retaining soil moisture; leaching or flushing of saline and alkaline soils.

We can look at a few case studies from different states in India to understand how wasteland reclamation and rejuvenation have been conducted.


The state government initiated the ‘Mukhyamantri Bagayat Vikas Mission’ in 2021 to double the income of farmers and develop the wastelands owned by the government for horticulture farming so as to generate employment as well. The government has allocated lands in five districts (Kutch, Surendranagar, Patan, Banskantha, and Sabarkantha) under this scheme to cultivate dragon fruits, mangoes, pomegranates, bananas, ber, and other unique crops. As part of this scheme, the government can allot its wastelands to different stakeholders such as farmers, institutions, companies, individuals, and partnership firms on long-term leases on nominal rates. The government can decide to extend the lease term, when it expires, based on mutual consent. Further, the state government is providing end-to-end support and creating a strong ecosystem to make this scheme successful.


Rajasthan holds the maximum share (62%) of the 32 million ha hot and arid land in the country. These wastelands are being used to install renewable resources like solar, wind and the hybrid systems. Further, the state government has allotted 110 ha of wastelands (70 ha at Fatehpur in Sikar district and 40 ha at Dhand in Jaipur district) for jojoba plantation - a project that was formulated in 1995 for a period of five years, with a revised financial outlay of around USD 670000 to be met by the assistance of the Central Government. The production estimate for this plantation stands at 25 million tonne, with about 90% of the jojoba cultivation located in Rajasthan.


In Jharkhand’s Hesatu village, till 2010, the wastelands in the area were a big concern for the villagers. Today, a forest cover of more than 1 lakh trees on 365 acres of wasteland has been created by the efforts of 93 households in the village. They dug and ploughed the earth; and planted vegetables the first year - the profits accrued were used to grow trees. They cultivated lac on kusum and ber trees across 365 acres. The village now earns an annual income of INR 40 lakh to INR 50 lakh through the agroforestry initiative. The villagers claim that in 2015 and 2016, the rate of migration was lower in their village and that in 2017 the village became ‘migration-free’.

How does the law help?

  • Waste lands (Claims) Act, 1863 – It provides for the adjudication of claims to wastelands.
  • The Land Acquisition Act, 2013- The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (also Land Acquisition Act, 2013) regulates land acquisition and lays down the procedure and rules for granting compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement to the affected persons in India.

Government schemes to make wastelands productive

Integrated Wastelands Development Programme (IWDP)

This programme has been under implementation since 1989-90. It is being implemented on the basis of the new Guidelines for Watershed Development since 1995, which envisage a bottom-up approach, i.e., a community-participation approach. Its strength is in the decentralization of the decision-making process by involving local Panchayati Raj Institutions, NGOs, government departments, and local communities. The new guidelines also attempt to ensure sustainable projects by establishing the Watershed Development Fund and involving the people in deciding equity issues and usufruct mechanisms.

Prime Minister Krishi Sinchayee Yojna (Watershed Development Component) (WDC-PMKSY)

This is a modified scheme consisting of the erstwhile Drought Prone Areas Programme (DPAP), Desert Development Programme (DDP) and Integrated Wastelands Development Programme (IWDP) of the Department of Land Resources (formerly known as Department of Wastelands Development, under which the National Wastelands Development Board was transferred). The scheme was launched in 2009-10 and is being implemented as per the Common Guidelines for Watershed Development Projects, 2008.
Objectives: Restore the ecological balance by harnessing, conserving and developing degraded natural resources like soil, vegetative cover and water to prevent soil erosion, regenerate natural vegetation, harvest rainwater, and recharge the ground water table. This, in turn, enables multi-cropping and diverse agro-based activities that help provide sustainable livelihoods in the watershed area.
Some salient features:
  • Cluster approach in selection and preparation of projects; with the average size of a project being about 5,000 ha.
  • Enhanced cost norms from INR 6000 per ha to INR 12,000per ha in plains; INR15,000 per ha in difficult / hilly areas.
  • The funding pattern between the Centre and state is 60:40, except northeastern states and hill states where the funding pattern is 90:10. The scheme is funded 100% by the Central Government for Union Territories.
  • Project funds ear marked – DPR preparation (1%), entry point activities (4%), capacity building (5%), monitoring (1%) and evaluation (1%).
  • The funds will be release by the Central Government in three installments (20%, 50% & 30%).
  • Earmarking of project fund under Watershed Projects - 9% for livelihoods for assetless people and 10% for production system and micro-enterprises.
  • Power of sanction of projects delegated to states.

Schemes operated by NAEB

The National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board (NAEB) was set up in the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1992. In line with the National Forest Policy, 1988 that lays specific emphasis on the participation of local communities in the management and development of forests, the NAEB has evolved specific schemes for promoting afforestation and management strategies to help the states in developing specific afforestation and eco-development packages.
Some schemes operated by NAEB are:
  • Integrated Afforestation and Eco-Development Projects Scheme: It is a 100% centrally sponsored scheme to promote afforestation and development of degraded forests via an integrated approach to develop land and other related natural resources on watershed basis through the micro-planning process.
  • Area Oriented Fuelwood and Fodder Projects Scheme: A centrally sponsored scheme, it is implemented on 50:50 sharing basis with the state governments to elevate the production of fuelwood and fodder in 242 identified fuelwood deficient districts of the country.
  • Conservation and Development of Non-Timber Forest including Medicinal Plant Scheme: Again, a 100% centrally sponsored scheme, state governments receive financial assistance to increase the production of Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP), including medicinal plants. It especially focuses on the tribal population for whom NTFP is a crucial source of livelihood.
  • Trees and Pastures Seed Development Scheme: This scheme provides 100% assistance for state governments by the Centre to develop infrastructure facilities for generating quality seeds for the growth of healthy and better quality trees; for developing facilities to collect, store, test, certify, and distribute quality seeds.
  • Eco-Task Forces: NAEB funds four Eco-Task Forces (ETFs) of ex-servicemen. The forest departments of the respective state governments provide technical support to the ETFs for activities undertaken, such as afforestation, pasture development, soil and water conservation, and other restorative works.
  • Grants in Aid Scheme: NAEB provides financial assistance to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and voluntary agencies (VAs) for afforestation and tree planting activities. In 1999-2000 against an allocation of INR 2 crores, INR 1.87 crores was released (as of 7 March 2000) to various NGOS and VAs.
  • Association of Scheduled Tribes and Rural Poor in Regeneration of Degraded Forests on Usufruct Sharing Basis: It is a 100% centrally sponsored scheme to associate local communities in the rehabilitation of degraded forests in tribal dominant areas. The scheme aims at improving the forest cover of degraded forests, as well as at providing employment and usufructs to the local communities.
  • Twenty Point Programme: NAEB is the nodal agency for monitoring the progress of afforestation and seedling distribution under point No. 16(a) and (b) of the Twenty Point Programme. Schemes under the Ministries of Environment and Forests, Rural Development, Agriculture and Cooperation, Water Resources Development, as well as the funds provided under the State Plans cover these afforestation and tree planting activities.


About 22% of India’s population live in poverty. Most of the wastelands and severely degraded lands are inhabited and used for livelihood by marginal farmers and tribal populations, who are poor and less literate. They lack land-based amenities and infrastructure, which only reinforce the cycle of poverty. Hence, it is essential that the degraded and waste lands are rehabilitated and rejuvenated so that such lands are rendered cultivable or may become effective in supporting food crop production, agroforestry and forestry-based land-use systems, thereby empowering several lives. In this regard, it is crucial to keep in mind that a look at the evolution of policies around wastelands indicate a definite move towards recognizing community dependence and the need for involving local communities in reclamation and rejuvenation activities.
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