Unplanned Urban Sprawl: A Threat to Agricultural Land in the Himalaya

Himalaya, the ‘Devbhoomi’, which is more than 2200 Km in length and 250 Km in width, is source to almost 9000 glaciers, 34 biodiversity hotspots having 32% endemic flora and around 170 ethnic communities with distinct socio-economical structure, is significantly sensitive to changes in the bio-climatic and socio-economic regimes. The recent developments in infrastructural facilities within the urban areas of Himalaya have significantly impacted the natural resources of the region, particularly, changes in the land use category from agricultural land to human settlement and often barren lands.    

If we analyze the terrain of Himalaya, it may be noticed that only selective locations are fit for agriculture and net sown area of Uttarakhand state is limited to only 13.29% (Land Use Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture, GOI, 2008-09). The problem is either due to higher degree of slope making the surface nearly impossible to retain moisture in the soil or, in most of the cases, the soil itself is not fertile making the land barren. However, the Himalaya consists of few regions where agricultural practices are possible. During the last fifteen years, the decline of agricultural land is at an alarming rate due to uncontrolled and unplanned urban sprawl. 

Subplot shows Google imagery of part of Dehradun district in 2003

In November, 2000 Uttarakhand became the 27th state of republic of India and district Dehradun having the area of approximately 3088 sq. Km, was declared as the capital of the state. The impact of urban sprawl of Dehradun area after becoming State Capital can be assessed by using space based resources, such as satellite data. The satellite data is now available for free of cost even at better resolution such as, non-indigenous satellite based Landsat data having resolution of 30m, and indigenous multispectral satellite data product such as LISS III having even spatial resolution of 23.5m. These data can be effectively used to study the land use land cover statistics of the Dehradun district prior and post of being declared as the capital of Uttarakhand. A recent study found that in 1994 (i.e. Dehradun prior to state capital of Uttarakhand), 29.48% of land was occupied by agriculture which was reduced to 25.7% in 2008 just eight years after the formation of new state (Rawat and Puri, 2017), and even further reduced to below 18% of total land area at present. Around 12.82% and 31.48% decrease in agricultural land area was observed from 1994-2008, and 2008-2016, respectively. The overall decrease in agricultural land area between 1994 and 2016 was found to be nearly 40.26%.   

On the contrary, an increasing trend was observed for built-up area over Dehradun. The total built-up area was 3.23% during 1994, increased to 4.23% in 2008 and further increased to 6.82% in 2016 (Rawat and Puri, 2017). The percentage increase in built-up area within Dehradun may seem to be small (Fig. 1 & 2), however, it should be noted that the area calculated is for complete Dehradun district which consists of forest areas, national parks, etc. which itself contributes to 52.04% of total geographical area (India State of Forest Report, 2011).  

Now, to better understand the growth of built-up region, it was noted that there was an increase of built-up area of nearly 31% in 14 years from 1994 to 2008 with an annual average growth of 2.21% whereas the increase was alarming during 2008-2016 when the built-up area expansion rate was 61.23% in mere eight years with an average annual growth of 7.65%. It is evident from the built up area annual growth rate that the expansion between 2008 and 2016 was three times higher than the annual growth rate between 1994 and 2008. 

Subplot shows Google imagery of the same area in 2016 

As for the case of Dehradun district, the built-up area expansion rates are ubiquitously identifiable throughout the IHR. Moreover, the decline of agricultural land and increase in built-up area is especially noted in close proximity of urban settlement. One of the reasons for such selective growth may be attributed to the phenomenon known as ‘Urban Sprawl’ characterized as budding up of built-up colonies in the outskirts of cities or urban clusters. Initially these regions are occupied by the rural settlements which are not the part of the municipality of the district. Moreover, these regions are further characterized by agriculture practices at certain land units where occasionally the farmers even have to work hard to convert the unsuitable or barren land into agriculture land using the means and technologies. Due to the close proximity of this region to the city, areas under urban sprawl are having substantial demand for built-up either for residential or commercial purpose; subsequently within a matter of few years, these rural colonies are converted into suburban areas of the host city. However, it is being noted often that most of the urban sprawl areas having high demand for residential or commercial purpose are traditionally agricultural areas. 

As a matter of fact, most of these urban sprawls are unplanned and uncontrolled, consequently imparting a heavy stress on the nearby region, for example, low lying agricultural lands that are dependent on upstream rainfall surface run off and sub-surface run off often converted to barren lands due to unplanned constructions hindering natural flow of water during precipitation events. Unplanned urban sprawl even affects the recharge of ground water which ultimately emerges out as springs and brooks catering the domestic water needs of the local population of Himalaya. Urban sprawl is also associated to excessive use of concrete which significantly reduces water retention quality of soil, deplete vegetation density and modulates downstream heavy channel discharge occasionally triggering disasters such as landslides, etc. Moreover, due to heavy seismic activity along the entire arc of Himalaya, construction activities, be it of built ups or infrastructure, often ignore better planning to mitigate loss during extreme events such as earthquake in the region.  

The problem of urban sprawl is becoming severe day by day. It is high time now that the agencies should adopt best practices and interventions, and vulnerable zones may be identified and in each zone a set of activities should be allowed and others should be restrained. Zone having the agricultural land must be declared as the critical zone and no land use activities should be allowed beyond a set threshold value in those zones. Moreover, constructions should be done in a planned way keeping in view the degree of slope and stability of the terrain (topography of the region), proximity from the valleys, avoiding the regions of fractures and faults (geological parameter). For site suitability analysis, GIS based decision support system may be used, which can provide the foresight to the decision makers about the zone of influence of extreme events. GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development, an autonomous institute under Ministry of Environment, forest and Climate Change has developed a “Governance for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem (G-SHE)” guidelines and best practices for IHR on key issues including ‘Sustainable Urbanization’ and ‘Infrastructure Development’. 

The problem may not be avoided completely but proper planning and government interventions may surely mitigate the impact of losses due to issue of urbanization to the larger extent.  


Rawat V and Puri M , Land Use/Land Cover Change Study of District Dehradun, Uttarakhand using Remote Sensing and GIS Technologies, International Journal of Advanced Remote Sensing and GIS 2017, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 2223-2233 Land Use Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture, GOI, 2008-09 India State of Forest Report, 2011 

Ashutosh Tiwari, Sandipan Mukherjee, Sumit Rai* and Kireet Kumar 
GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable development, Kosi-Katarmal, Almora, 263643, Uttarakhand 

 *Corresponding author: sumitssac101@gmail.com 

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