The onus is on the government to ensure that conversion of agricultural land for commercial and residential purposes is stopped, writes Suhail Ahmad

I remember traveling as a child from Srinagar to Shopian in south Kashmir many years back. It was fascinating to see green fields extending to the horizon on both sides of the road. But now every time I pass through the countryside, I see a new house coming up in the fields. Concrete residential and commercial buildings are sprouting thick and fast in the paddy fields of Kashmir valley. These structures are not mere eyesores in an otherwise beautiful landscape. They also have serious implications for the agrarian economy of the Valley. The phenomenon is widespread, especially on the outskirts of Srinagar city and the major towns.

‘The Valley of Kashmir’ by Walter R. Lawrence is one of the finest works on Kashmir by a British author. One of the chapters in the book deals exclusively with agriculture and cultivation. As per Lawrence, land occupied by Kashmiris for agricultural purposes stood at 1,195,555 acres (9564440 kanal) in 1890s. In the conclusion of the chapter, Lawrence, who was the settlement commissioner of J&K in the British period, writes there is a great future for agriculture in Kashmir. However, the present status of the agriculture sector is far from bright and the future looks bleak.

The rapid urbanization has led to shrinking of agricultural land with serious implications for food security. The issue has been raised in the J&K Assembly as well. Due to excessive conversion of agricultural land for commercial purposes, food grain deficiency is increasing with each year.

As per official figures, J&K lost an estimated 10 lakh kanal agricultural land to non-agricultural purposes in the past 10 years. While the State had 8.47 lakh hectare agriculture land in 2005-06, it shrunk to 7.94 lakh hectare in 2015-16. An estimated 53,000-hectare farmland (10,60,000 kanal) has been converted to non-agricultural use. According to the data, the area under paddy cultivation was 158,000 hectare in 2012, which was reduced to 141,000 hectares in a span of a few years.

J&K High Court has repeatedly directed the State government to ensure that no conversion of agricultural land is allowed for commercial, residential and industrial purposes. The successive governments have failed to check the practice and as a result, the problem has assumed dangerous proportions.

Some years back, the agriculture department had estimated that the will face nearly 36 percent food grain deficit in 2013-14, 40 percent during 2020-21 and this figure will go up to 50 percent in 2030-31.

Owing to developmental projects like construction of roads, bridges, acquisition of land for Railways and other public purposes, a lot of unavoidable conversions has taken place over the years. Fragmentation of joint family and an increase in number of nuclear families also results in the increased demand and insatiable appetite for land for housing purposes.

The Land Revenue Act, J&K Agrarian Reforms Act, Prohibition on Conversion of Land and Alienation of Orchards Act are some of the laws already in place to check blatant conversion of agricultural land for non-agriculture purposes. However, despite the strong legislation, illegal conversion of agricultural land is going on unabated, mainly due to non-existence of comprehensive housing policy.

The unauthorised conversion of agricultural land is mainly taking place in suburban areas. The commercial potential of the plot along the highways is also spurring the change of agricultural land for non-agricultural use.

Ideally, land conversion policy must take into account environmental considerations and the larger public good. Impact of the non-agricultural use on soil, natural drainage, water bodies, forest and tree cover, mountains and hill slopes, flora and fauna, air and other ecological resources needs to be studied in detail.

The non-agricultural use of land has a bearing on demographics as well. It is also connected with issues like need for road and transport connectivity, water supply, wastewater and solid waste generation, collection and treatment, electricity and other utility services.

The non-agricultural land use affects the adjoining areas as well. For instance, land is required for providing right-of-way to land parcels behind land adjoining road networks. Land is also required for future expansion of existing roads.

The onus is on the government to ensure that conversion of agricultural land for commercial and residential purposes is stopped so that we don’t incur further punishment from nature for our insatiable greed.

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