Agricultural sustainability is defined as ‘when current and future food demands can be met without unnecessarily compromising economic, ecological, and social/political needs’. Agricultural sustainability depends on agri-environmental sustainability (AES). In absence of ‘system of integrated environmental and economic accounting’ (SEEA), objective assessments based on agri-environmental sustainability index (AESI) could be useful in understanding the state of environmental debt of Indian agriculture. Achieving environmental sustainability of Indian agriculture is crucial not only to protect livelihoods of a large section of the populace but also to eradicate poverty and malnutrition. Intensive agricultural practices followed since 1960s have resulted in depletion of soil nutrients and degradation of soil, conversion of forest land, depletion and degradation of groundwater resources, diversions of surface water and loss of biodiversity in various parts of India. Agriculture touches upon all spheres of environment and natural resources (e.g., land, water and air) to source inputs as well as sink of wastes. Agricultural sustainability is largely depended on sustainability of natural resources (like land and water) as well as ecosystem services. There is a two-way relationship between agriculture and environment. Agriculture and related activities impact environment and also polluted environment impacts agriculture, for example, impacts of climate change on agriculture (UNDP 2019). Deteriorating water environment, land degradation, loss of biodiversity and growing demand for land from alternative uses are the major challenges that Indian agriculture is facing today. Though agriculture is the major user of water, diversions of water for alternative uses is rising with rise in population, urbanisation, per capita income and unavailability or pollution of local sources of water. Moreover, due to scarcity of water in semi-urban and urban locations, marginal quality water is often used in agriculture, which is not only polluting groundwater resources but also posing potential public health hazards in terms of contamination of food chains by heavy metals and other emerging pollutants. Large-scale depletion and degradation of groundwater resources is observed in various parts of India (CGWB undated). Deterioration of soil fertility and rising cost of accessing desirable quality and adequate quantity of water for irrigation are the major factors influencing the rising cost of agriculture. Water scarcity and degradation of agricultural land are the major hurdles in alleviating poverty, especially in developing countries, as it reduces the productivity of land on which the poor depend more.
Rising anthropogenic pressures on the earth systems in general and agri-environment (land, water, biogeochemical cycle and biodiversity) in particular may result in abrupt global environmental change. Growing pressures on agri-environment due to unsustainable agricultural practices may not only diminish the country’s ability to produce sufficient food in the future but also transgress ‘planetary boundaries’ (e.g., climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, changes to the nitrogen cycle).
To assess AES of Indian agriculture, the present article builds a comprehensive agri-environmental sustainability index (AESI) based on 40 agri-environmental indicators. The study captures both spatial and temporal aspects of AES by covering 17 major Indian states over 24 years (1990–1991 to 2013–2014). The estimated AESI scores are validated with outcome indicators (e.g., groundwater depletion, depletion of soil nutrients). The results show that states having higher score in Sustainable Irrigation Index are facing lower fall in groundwater level and there are negative correlations across sub-indices of AESI and macronutrient deficiencies in soil. An inverse relationship between AESI scores and agricultural intensity (as measured by average productivity of foodgrains in kilograms per hectare) is also observed. The study comes out with policy suggestions which could help to attain AES of Indian agriculture.