The practice of urban agriculture in Indian cities

  • IASbaba
  • March 24, 2022
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(ORF: Expert Speak)

March 22: The practice of urban agriculture in Indian cities – https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-practice-of-urban-agriculture-in-indian-cities/ 


  • GS-3: Agriculture

The practice of urban agriculture in Indian cities

Context: Urban agriculture is the practice of farming in urban and peri-urban areas. Farming connotes a wide range of food and non-food products that can be cultivated or grown, including rearing livestock, aquaculture and bee-keeping. However, in the context of Indian cities, the focus is on the cultivation of vegetables, fruits, and flowers for human consumption. 

  • It is now part of a growing trend in cities globally to look towards locally produced food.
  • Besides city administrations, urban agriculture has started drawing the attention of many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community groups, and citizens. 
  • At the global level, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) believes urban and peri-urban agriculture has a role in food and nutritional security. 
  • The Urban Food Agenda is an FAO flagship initiative to enhance sustainable development, food security, and nutrition in urban and peri-urban areas. It encourages partnerships with different stakeholders such as civil society, academia, international agencies, city entities, and the private sector.

In India,

In several countries, community organisations and individual city residents, facilitated by city administrations, have taken up small-scale agricultural activities on private and public lands. We also have examples of such agricultural pursuits in many cities in India. However, in the context of India, it is worthwhile understanding the limitations that this activity would get subjected to. 

  • The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) estimated that in 2012-13, around 95 million hectares of land were used for agricultural production in India. 
  • The Government of India’s Ministry of Agriculture also carried out a separate agriculture survey (2010-11) and came up with a much higher figure of 159.6 million hectares. 
  • In percentage terms, the World Bank data puts the country’s agricultural area at 60.4 percent of the country’s physical geography. 
  • India’s total urban area has been estimated at around 222,688 square kilometres which is about 6.77 percent of India’s geographical area. This small area packs around 35 percent of the country’s population.

If we assume that cities should allow for 10 percent of city space for greens, as suggested by several planning guidelines, we would be left with 22, 268 square kilometres of open area. Today, such area is used for crafting public green spaces. Even if half of this area, i.e.,11,134 sq km, is used for urban agriculture instead of parks, gardens, playgrounds, and horticulture, this is a mere 5 percent of all urban area and 0.56 percent of all land under agriculture in the country. Quite clearly, urban agriculture is beset with severe space constraint challenges and is not likely to make any major difference in the overall food production in the country.

Advantages of Urban agriculture:

Despite the limitations, urban agriculture is worth promoting for several reasons. 

  • Firstly, even if the food grown is a small fraction of the total output in the country, a little more of it is welcome, since even this small fraction is bound to provide sustenance to a large number of people. Such small-scale decentralised production can also be done to supplement diets at household or community level. Furthermore, it has local employment value. Being labour-intensive, it can add to the number of jobs and improve livelihood opportunities in the cities and generate some income, especially for the poor. 
  • Secondly, urban agriculture has a significant role in urban environmental management as it can combat urban heat island effects and function as an urban lung in addition to providing visual appeal. Additionally, it brings purposeful recreation that has direct impact on city health.
  • Thirdly, urban agriculture helps city-dwellers to establish linkages with nature and educate them in its richness and diversity. Urban thinkers have been worried about the disconnect of urbanites with nature and have been looking at ways by which that interrelationship could be re-established. Urban agriculture provides a fine opportunity for such engagement and eco-cultural learning. It also helps to develop community bonds and a sense of sharing through community agriculture where people come together and share their stories about their experiences in growing a variety of food. To cover different age groups, pedagogic farms aimed at different age groups and types of people and interests, have proved extremely useful. 
  • Lastly, since cities are struggling with waste management and disposal, urban agriculture can provide some help to deal with it. The use of suitably treated waste water for urban agriculture can reduce demand for fresh water and help in waste water disposal. Moreover, organic waste from the city can be composted and used in food and flower production that can reduce the total quantum of waste and its dumping on land, thereby, reducing the requirement of landfills. It is one of the most advisable forms of waste recycling for cities of the future.

Role of ULBs

Urban local bodies can pro-actively assist this activity in three ways. 

  • First, they can make some of the unutilised public lands that are not likely to be brought under development in the near future available for urban agriculture. These can be leased to private parties through an agreement with mutually beneficial terms and conditions. Indian cities have preferred open spaces to carry ornamental vegetation. However, to promote urban agriculture, public spaces can partly have edible landscapes. Trees can be fruit bearing trees and vegetables could be grown in raised beds, containers, or vertical frames.
  • Furthermore, the civic bodies could zone lands for urban agriculture in their development/master plans for a period during which they are not likely to be pressed into service for other purposes. 
  • Ways should be found of incentivising such activities without financially burdening ULB revenue streams. Likewise, wherever private plots are kept undeveloped and in disuse and not put to agriculture use, a vacant plot tax can be imposed on such plots as a disincentive. Alternately, if such plots are used for urban agriculture, they should be incentivised in innovative ways.
  • Provide technology extension services through soil and water testing laboratories.
  • Additionally, ULBs could provide standards for use of terraces, balconies, open spaces within private/cooperative housing society compounds for urban agricultural use. Rooftop farming is a huge possibility. Singapore, for instance, is already producing about 10 percent of its food through rooftop farming. In heavily populated cities, where availability of land is a constraint, a different approach may be needed to overcome the scarcity of urban space for urban agriculture including developing technologies for vertical farming.


We are already aware that the forces of climate change are throwing up huge challenges, including floods and heat waves. Besides, droughts in the countryside are likely to trigger greater migration to cities. In this background, a vital addition to municipal functions should be urban agriculture. Similarly, urban planning would require to include urban agriculture as a planning item in its land use plan. The future beckons that urban agriculture does not merely remain a marginal esoteric interest but a critical urban function.

Can you answer the following question?

  1. Despite the limitations posed by urban farming, promoting it as a critical urban function will prove to be useful in the long run. Discuss.

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