By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than a quarter of India's land is turning to desert and the rate of degradation of agricultural areas is increasing, according to new analysis of satellite images.
A report from the Indian Space Research Organization says land degradation - broadly defined as loss of productivity - is estimated at 96 million hectares, or nearly 30 percent of Indian land.
"As a country we should be more than alarmed by this data," said S. Janakarajan, chairman of the South Asia Consortium for Inter-disciplinary Water Resources Studies.
"There is no coherent plan to reverse this process or its impact."
Analysis of satellite mapping shows new areas in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir and eastern Indian states like Orissa and Jharkhand turning arid, with nine states together accounting for nearly 24 percent of desertification.
In states like Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat and Goa, more than 50 percent of land is under desertification.
"Population pressure has resulted in over exploitation of land for cultivation, grazing, water resources and deforestation leading to degradation of drylands," Indian minister Jitendra Singh wrote in the report.
The ongoing study, initiated by the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, was led by the Indian Space Research Organization and involved 19 other institutes.
It analyzed satellite images over an eight year period to compile the atlas.
"This is the first time we are looking at a digital atlas of degradation and it is pointing at newer areas undergoing desertification," A.S. Rajawat of the Space Applications Center told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It is a ready reckoner to understand where we stand and the impact of land degradation on agricultural productivity."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)