A ban on change in land use from agriculture to other uses is not workable, because the alternative uses may be equally critical. For instance, there could be a higher demand for housing within rural areas.

Scenarios with respect to the use of farm land should receive more attention than they have. Rising demand for food and livelihood has led to expansion of acreage to marginal or less productive lands and encroachment into pasture and forest lands.

Now that these options appear to have been exhausted while demand for land continues to grow, land use choices become even more important. As the economy expands, land use in agriculture will not remain static, even if agricultural growth remains relatively low.

Concerns have been expressed over whether the intensive use of land for agriculture is sustainable. But there is likely to be even greater need for intensive use of land in the future, given the rising demand for farm output and increasing demand for land for non-farm uses.

DEVELOPMENT DEMANDS

As population pressure and pressure from other demands on land increase, adjustments in land use in agriculture will become necessary. Such adjustments will become necessary also because of the changing economics of agriculture. As water becomes more expensive or scarce, just as land, and as labour becomes more expensive, there will be constant changes in the use of farm-land.

There are thus both external pressures outside of agriculture and internal pressures leading to changes in land use patterns in agriculture. What will these adjustments be, particularly in response to the external pressures?

At an aggregate level land acquisition issues have provided one context for analysis. Land is necessary for development purposes and it has to come from some other alternative use to which it is put.

As agriculture is likely to be the first user of land before other claims emerge, land available for agriculture will inevitably be affected.

Farmers displaced from their current land holdings may not always find some other land for cultivation. More importantly, farm land is likely to be taken away for other uses. Therefore, the laws are likely to make diversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses more difficult or more expensive.

Over time, there has been a gradual diversion of land from agriculture to other uses. Balancing the demands on water and land for agricultural production with other requirements will be increasingly difficult and will require efficient processes for making the right choices.

Bans on change in land use from agriculture to other uses are not workable because the alternative uses may also be equally critical. For instance, the demand for land for non-farm uses arises not only from outside development project requirements but also because of growing demand for housing and other requirements within rural areas.

The demand for land for urban development is set to rise as well. The drivers of adjustments in land use will be the demands for habitation, commerce and industry, in both urban and rural areas. The pattern of development of these sectors will influence land use in agriculture.

INFRASTRUCTURE EFFECT

Will more productive farm-land be lost for non-farm uses? The proximity to demand from the relatively more affluent urban population often implies that more intensive cultivation of land is likely to prevail closer to the urban areas.

The more productive and prosperous villages are also more likely to expand to other sectors, raising the demand for non-farm uses of land. The diversion of good farm-land to other uses cannot be avoided.

It is also to be expected that international trade will provide some relief to pressure on land. However, it is more likely that agriculture will change in areas where productivity is at present relatively low. However, more investments in improving land will become economically viable for those farmers. Intensive cultivation will expand.

In a sense, the regions where agricultural productivity has been low will also begin to see improvement in opportunities. Investments in infrastructure, especially those connecting all rural areas with centres of commerce and industry, will make the diffusion of demand impulses more effective.

NON-FARM USES

The adjustments in land use are, of course, not limited to agriculture. The need for more efficient use of land in other uses will also increase. However, faster growth in income from the non-farm sectors will mean that pressure on farm land adjustments would be greater.

The adjustments that are likely to unfold will require enabling conditions to make them possible. Improved infrastructure is necessary, not only to connect major urban centres but also the distant farm centres. The gains in efficiency in the provision of other services such as credit and extension support may also help in reducing the cost of agricultural production.

The need for maintaining the quality of land resources in the face of its even more intensive use will have to be addressed. Without these facilitating conditions and steps to retain quality of land resources, adjustments will be expensive.

(The author is a Senior Research Counsellor, NCAER. The views are personal. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on September 7, 2011)
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