Rethinking The Wastelands Atlas Of India

First published on April 05, 2024

By Shatakshi Gawade

The brown blotches on the map of Rajasthan are shocking – large swatches of the golden Thar, home to unique life such as the Indian desert cat, are categorised as a “wasteland” in the Wastelands Atlas of India, 2019. Also included in this category are several wetlands, lateritic plateaus, riverine sand, coastal sands, ravines, and snow covered/glacial areas. Dr. Abi Tamim Vanak, the Director of the Centre for Policy Design at Ashoka Trust For Research In Ecology And The Environment (ATREE), shares, “Any area that does not have vegetation is described as a wasteland irrespective of its natural character in the Wastelands Atlas. The thrust of all the criteria that are used to describe an area as a wasteland, come from a very narrow perspective, completely ignoring ecology, geology, geography, cultural ties, everything. It also ignores administrative boundaries, it’s only a land cover category.”

Deserts and ravines should be valued as vital ecosystems that are home to characteristic flora and fauna, that have co-evolved with the environment around them. These are natural habitats and unique ecosystems, far from ‘wastelands’. Photo:  Tarun Nair.

The Origin Of Wastelands

The term “wasteland” dates back to the 18th Century, when it was coined by the British to mean land that does not yield any economic benefits, not accounting for ecological productivity. In 1985, wastelands were defined as “degraded land, which can be brought under vegetative cover, with reasonable effort, and which is currently underutilised and (that) land which is deteriorating for lack of appropriate water and soil management or on account of natural causes”.

This definition continues to be used to prepare the Wastelands Atlas, which has been published since the year 2000 by the Department of Land Resources, under the Ministry of Rural Development. It continues to serve the initial purpose of finding land for plantation and agriculture, along with some other stated uses being watershed development, barren land restoration, identification of sites for renewable energy and industries and afforestation. The latest edition, released in 2019, is the fifth. It declares 17 per cent of India’s geographical area as wasteland.

Broad Brush Categories

In an analysis, Aparna Watve, Vidya Athreya and Iravatee Majgaonkar found that all 23 categories of the Atlas correspond to ecological habitats that are vital to healthy biodiversity, and are often a source of ecosystem-based services for humans. For instance, the Atlas defines ‘Deep Ravines’ under the category ‘Gullied or ravinous land’: “The depth of ravines is more than five metres. Deep ravines, generally, occur along the higher order stream areas that are close to the main river.” These are natural habitats and unique ecosystems, far from ‘wastelands’.


Not only do these 23 categories correspond to natural ecosystems on paper, a study by Dr. M.D. Madhusudan and Dr. Vanak revealed that 68 per cent of open natural ecosystems (ONEs) have been classified as wastelands. ONEs include deserts, grasslands, shrublands and arid and semi-arid ecosystems. Their paper makes a critical observation – “It becomes almost incontestable and even trivial to replace a ‘wasteland’ or ‘degraded’ land with better developmental or commercial uses,” i.e. a destruction of habitats and biodiversity! For instance, the Amrit Mahal Kaval grasslands in Karnataka were declared ‘barren land’, prompting the Defense Ministry and other departments to use 11,400 acres of this habitat. This proved detrimental to biodiversity as well as livelihoods – there was a loss of 4.59 per cent of vegetation, 0.29 per cent of water sources, and 24.6 per cent of pasture land.

Dr. Vanak says, “There is no such thing as a wasteland, these are all unique ecosystems and they have a right to exist. They have animals and plants that have co-evolved with them and by turning them into something else, they’re going to destroy them. Also, there are millions of people dependent on these areas.” Water sources – surface as well as groundwater – will be affected by changing the character of natural ecosystems. The loss of ecosystems such as grasslands will also hamper the carbon sequestration potential of the country.

Rethinking The Wastelands Atlas

Dr. Vanak believes that the entire classification employed in the Atlas should be rethought. “The criteria for what is ‘degraded’ needs to change. We need technical experts at the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) to consult ecologists working on the ground to examine the nature of that landscape and prescribe suitable interventions. In fact, we should determine accurate vegetation classification of India that recognises biogeographic zones and open natural ecosystems. And then let’s design a Degradation Atlas of India, which would help restore those lands.”

“I strongly prescribe that the term wasteland itself should be completely done away. Perhaps a mine-ravaged area can be called a wasteland. Even then, everything has potential,” says Dr. Vanak. “On one hand you have the Ministry of Rural Development declaring wastelands, whereas the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change agrees on protecting desert habitats for the Great Indian Bustard. Ministries need to talk to each other,” he adds.

Dr. Watve also emphasises the need to revise the definition of ‘wastelands’ and ‘degraded lands’ by identifying ecological, environmental and social parameters of degradation based on latest scientific research. Additionally, extensive field studies need to be included in the methodology of land classification, that will include an assessment of ecosystem services and ecological restoration potential, and not just cultivation potential. She suggests that the current Wastelands Atlas be made publicly available as a draft for suggestions and objections, field surveys be carried out with people’s involvement, and information from the People’s Biodiversity Register (made under the Biodiversity Act) be incorporated into the database associated with the Wastelands Atlas.

“It is also crucial that lesser-known natural habitats, high biodiversity regions, and areas of high endemism be removed from the wasteland category. Authorities should prepare a comprehensive and robust ‘Indian Habitat Classification System’ (and not just land classification) based on globally-standardised ecosystem/habitat classification systems, ensuring it is revised regularly through detailed studies,” says Dr. Watve, adding that, “This system can be used to prepare comprehensive maps of India, which should be dynamic to capture seasonal and long-term changes in an area. Currently, wasteland, wetland, grassland and forest maps are separate and not cohesive, which makes it impossible to see overlaps.”

What You Can Do
1. Write a polite email to Giriraj Singh, the Minister of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (, suggesting the need for immediate changes to the definition of “wastelands”, and to exclude natural habitats critical for biodiversity survival and climate change mitigation. Your letter can make a difference. Add points from the article to emphasise the need for immediate change.
2. Write to Bhupender Yadav, the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (, urging him to work with other departments to highlight the importance of different ecosystems.
3. Build a public information system or carry out a citizen science exercise to document diversity and ecosystem services of Indian land units. Be alert about land use changes in healthy ecosystems around you, and write to us as if you find natural ecosystems being impacted.



join the conversation