Fixing the crisis in India’s agricultural soils

ET Bureau May 18, 2012, 11.58AM IST

Is the government finally moving to address the burgeoning crisis in India’s agricultural soils? On May 15, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar had told the Lok Sabha that due to excess use of fertilisers in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, paddy cannot be grown any longer. He also said that so much urea is being used by farmers that it is affecting productivity. And that his ministry was planning to redirect India’s fertiliser subsidy towards organic and balanced fertilisers.

This is a welcome announcement. Last year, when scientists at Bhopal-based Indian Institute of Soil Sciences collated results from soil testing laboratories across the country, they found that nutrient-deficiencies were rife across India’s farmlands. Large parts of the country are deficient in two or more critical nutrients. Areas like the Indo-Gangetic plains – Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – which produce nearly 50 per cent of the nation’s grains and feed about 40 per cent of the population – were seeing multiple deficiencies. This is over and above other worrying changes in agricultural soils, such as falling levels of soil organic carbon, rising salinisation, erosion of farmlands and falling numbers of soil fauna like earthworms and insects. All of which again suggests that our agricultural soils are changing in fundamental ways.

The recent shift to the Nutrient-Based Subsidy (NBS) has made matters worse. It was supposed to repair the problems introduced by the erstwhile system of fertiliser subsidy, which focuses only on basic fertilisers containing nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), with a particularly strong pro-nitrogen (urea) bias, and ignored all micronutrients.

With NBS, the government was to fix subsidy on fertilisers based on their nutrient content. Companies would be paid a fixed amount for each nutrient used, irrespective of the cost of production. Sulphur, boron and zinc were added to the list of nutrients attracting subsidy. The government reckoned that the NBS would give companies an incentive to produce more complex fertilisers fortified with micronutrients.

While the government freed prices of fertilisers containing potassium and phosphorus, it did not touch Urea prices – fearing blowback from farmers. In line with global trends, prices of fertilisers like DAP climbed rapidly from around Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,900. In contrast, Urea prices stayed around Rs 500.

In response, India’s farmers, most of whom are already economically marginalised, moved away from DAP, etc, and began using more Urea instead. The outcome has been predictable. Take NPK. It is expected to be used in a 4:2:1 ratio. In 2010’s Kharif, the NPK ratio was around 4.4:2.6:1. Last year, it worsened to 10.8:4.9:1.

In this backdrop, Pawar’s statement is intriguing. He told the Lok Sabha that the government is planning to reduce fertiliser subsidy and divert funds to organic manures, bio-fertilisers, green manures and promotion of organic farming. He also said that financial assistance was being provided for setting up of mechanised compost plants from vegetable and fruit waste and bio-fertiliser production units to ensure increased availability of compost and bio-fertilisers.

The news has been welcomed cautiously by dryland agriculture experts. In a press statement, the Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture (RRA) network, which describes itself as comprising 175 civil society organisations, research institutions, etc, said if Pawar’s statement was implemented, it would “definitely address most of these concerns on soil health, provided it is accompanied by appropriate institutional reforms, research support, incentives and a community-driven implementation plan.”

The statement said: “Government should keep in mind the fact that the traditional way of subsidizing the input manufacturer/dealers in the name of ‘bio-fertilisers’ will not work in the case of promotion of bulky organic manures. Accordingly, the network has demanded that “25 per cent of the chemical fertilizer subsidy should be diverted to support promotion of bulky organic manures and that this public investment should progressively increase to 50 per cent during the 12th plan period; the government should create grassroots institutions for holistic soil health restoration in contiguous farm lands through farming systems approach and regeneration of the commons; document support and promote traditional knowledge on soil health improvement; create soil testing labs for monitoring soil health in a holistic way; and, ensure research support for holistic soil health improvement.”

In another statement, Greenpeace also welcomed the Agriculture Ministry’s statement, while stressing the need for creating a new delivery mechanism. In a statement, Gopikrishna SR, Senior Campaigner, Sustainable Agriculture Campaign, Greenpeace India, said: “It is to be noted that the traditional way of subsidising input manufacturers will not work in the case of support for ecological fertilization. Government needs to support grassroots institutions and devise farmer-centric incentive systems to translate this statement to action on ground.”