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Drylands with high economic value and productive potential include arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid region with desert fringes. In India, drylands account for 203 million hectares or 61.9 per cent of the geographical area. Admittedly, these regions are under steep pressure of population rise and increasing dependency on limited resources. Projections suggest that the second phase of agriculture growth and economic sustenance will come from the drylands. Recent estimate suggests that about 50 per cent of the country’s area is affected by various land degradation process and needs concerted efforts to restore the degraded drylands. From decadal to century scale these land use systems, arid and semi-arid drylands have supported farming, pastoral and artisan communities for meeting their livelihood needs and providing options. The available land area is attracting industries, which accelerate the degradation process. The eventual process leads to desertification/ degradation of land area and loss of production potential of the climatically unfriendly fragile drylands. The cultural adaptive mechanism of the stakeholder community for fragile and variable ecosystems is now endangered by industrialization and economic development which disturbs ecosystem balance irreversibly with adverse consequences leading to desertification. This calls for prudent approach to sustainably interact, utilize and manage the natural resources and ecological functions for sustainable economic growth at the regional to national scale.
The Indian arid zones cover an area of about 3,20,000 km2 which is approximately 12 per cent of the country’s geographical area. Of which, hot desert located in the states of Rajastan (1,96,150 km2, 61%), Gujarat (62,180 km2, 20%), Punjab (14,150 km2, 5%), Haryana (12,840 km2, 4%), Maharastara (1,290 km2, 0.41%), Karnataka (8,570 km2, 3%) and Andra Pradesh (21,550 km2, 7%) accounts for 3,16,730 km2. In addition to this, cold desert accounts for an area of about 70,300 km2 which exists in Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. Exceeding human and livestock population beyond the carrying capacity of land, over gazing, removal of vegetation cover, excess withdrawal of ground water, salinity ingress and overall land abuse due to unplanned industrial activities are the major human induced causes for land degradation. It has further been aggravated by low (average 326 mm) and erratic rainfall, frequent drought, high temperature, high wind velocity resulting in high evaporation rate, soil erosion and high runoff. The rate of resource exploitation and resultant land degradation is much more severe and faster in the fragile drylands systems, which needs to be addressed immediately.
Drylands are endowed with unique biodiversity and natural resources of economic value. There appears to be faster degradation due to indiscriminate and unsustainable practices leading to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services at various scales. It has been a cause for concern in the recent past due to fast disappearance of the biodiversity calling for urgent mitigation option to arrest further degradation leading to desertification. Thus, a concerted approach to analyze the process of desertification, natural resources conservational needs and management issues through a proactive interaction between the researchers, environmental conservationists and policy makers is call of the day to streamline the common policies which have wide applicability to drylands research and monitoring.
The UNCCD, looking at these factors, declared year 2006 as ‘International Year of Desertification’. Various research institutions/organizations like CAZRI and AFRI in Rajastan and Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE) in Gujarat, have been working on various research projects of developmental nature for the sustainable improvement of the drylands and their communities. Further, to a large extent, the major objective of sustainable enhancement of drylands productivity has been realized by various stakeholders including the researchers and policy makers.
To date various government agencies have mandates that address the subject ‘desert’ as relative term due to the fact many objectives fall under priority drylands research. These government bodies address at least one facet of the drylands in isolation through problem solving approach. Likewise, numerous agencies plan the development of drylands as productive land resources with eventual arrest of desertification. GUIDE has been focusing on various ecological issues in drylands to provide sustainable ecological solutions to arrest land degradation and eventually desertification. Most of the GUIDE’s works has been focused on different arid areas in Gujarat. Most of the projects are aimed at catalyzing the process of ameliorating hardships to human beings in desert ecosystems of Gujarat, following sound ecological principles and carefully using scientific knowledge, imaginative technology and capital. Recently, it has also initiated spread its horizon to other neighbouring dryland states such as Rajasthan, which has large habitat contiguity with Gujarat.