of india, her increasingly fragile agricultural soils and an indifferent fertiliser ministry

in the middle of this year, i wrote about india’s weakening agricultural soils.

According to “Degraded and Waste Lands of India” , a report by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the National Academy for Agricultural Sciences, about 141 million hectares of our total geographical area of about 328.2 million hectares is under cultivation. Of this, about 100 million hectares — or 70% — is heading down a path where it will be incapable of supporting farming. What is going wrong? Farmers are making the soil work more, growing two or more crops a year, instead of one. This unplanned fertilization is exacerbating nutrient shortages and changing soils’ chemical composition . Levels of organic carbon in soil are dropping across the country, making soils more vulnerable to erosion and possibly resulting in the number of earthworms falling.

Not only are these excesses and imbalances reducing the productivity and life of soils, they are now starting to show up in our bodies.

in april 2010, to encourage more balanced fertilisation, the government of india came up with something called the nutrient-based subsidy. unlike the old system where only basic fertilisers containing nitrogen, potassium and phosphate were subsidised, the government extended the subsidy to sulphur, boron and zinc as well. and changed how subsidy was calculated as well — moving to a system where subsidy was pegged, not to cost of production, but to the nutrient content of the fertiliser.

the government reckoned that the NBS would give companies an incentive to produce more complex fertilisers fortified with micronutrients.

in this story published yesterday, i say that, “two years after its introduction, early signals suggest the NBS is not showing the desired results”.

Take NPK. In last year’s kharif, the NPK ratio was around 4.4:2.6:1. This kharif, it has worsened to 10.8:4.9:1… What about micronutrients? It’s hard to say. The fertiliser ministry simply does not collect data on micronutrient consumption. However, data collated by industry body Fertiliser Association of India (FAI) shows a puzzling trend. The consumption of zinc, ferrous and copper sulphates showed a modest rise over the last seven years, but that did not hold good for nutrients such as manganese sulphate, borax acid and molybdenum.

do take a look.

A cynical, instrumental use of Law

Cast your mind back to the days when Kapil Sibal and others were negotiating with Team Anna about the Jan Lokpal Bill. Team Anna, at one point, wanted its version of Lokpal Bill to be passed by the Parliament by a particular date. Fail to pass the bill, the team members said, and Anna would stop eating again. At that time, Sibal and his cabinet colleagues described the demand as unconstitutional. Not to mention disrespectful to the Parliament.

It’s interesting to recall those halycon days in the wake of the Standing Committee on Finance report on the UIDAI Bill. One reason the Committee rejected the National Identification Authority of India Bill is that due Parliamentary process was not followed. Nandan Nilakani’s UIDAI was collecting biometrics and issuing numbers even before the Bill became law. The committee’s report says it was at a “loss to understand as to how the UIDAI, without statutory power, could address key issues concerning their basic functioning and initiate proceedings against the defaulters and penalize them.”

Commenting further on the UIDAI Bill, the Standing Committee described the government’s failure to get a bill passed before proceeding to collect biometric information “unethical and violative of Parliament’s prerogatives”. In this opinion piece, I say that  the India’s current UPA government is using the country’s legal framework in a deeply opportunistic manner. It turns to the Rule of Law whenever expedient. And ignores it whenever inconvenient.

The Parliamentarians put their hand up

In perhaps its most serious setback so far, a Parliamentary Committee has rejected the Bill that governs the project to assign unique IDs to all Indians. Worse, the Standing Committee on Finance has advised the government to “reconsider and review the UID scheme” itself. Its report was placed in Parliament on Tuesday.

The questions that the Standing Committee has raised are significant and wide-ranging. They span technical and financial feasibility, echo worries about privacy and flag procedural anomalies like creating the UIDAI even before the bill had been passed, and more.

At this time, I am surprised that this report, easily the largest challenge to the UIDAI till date, has received such little attention in the media. Strange. Anyway, here is a small snapshot of the report that I filed. Do take a look.

I am now wondering how things will pan out from here onwards. As that grotesque old journalistic cliche goes, wait and watch.

What I talk about when I talk about Jharkhand

Watch Jharkhand. It is the testing ground for two pilot projects that challenge the historical templates for delivery of welfare services and banking services. Jharkhand is trying to use technology to retool the delivery of these services so that every citizen in the state can access them – easily, efficiently and corruption-free . What it is doing has a bearing on the rest of India. In the next year or so, Jharkhand will start throwing up answers on whether it is a good idea to convert India’s welfare programmes – that deliver benefits of about 3,00,000 crore on paper, but sizeably less in real – into cash transfers.

Over the same period, the state will also throw up answers on whether its new model of rural banking can address the last-mile problem better than existing models. The state has found an ally in the Unique Identification Authority of India, the government body headed by Nandan Nilekani that is creating the backbone and the architecture to deliver welfare benefits. The UIDAI number two, Ram Sewak Sharma, is from the Jharkhand IAS cadre. The two stories that follow explain what Jharkhand and UIDAI are doing, and why the rest of India should be interested.

a couple of weeks ago, i went to jharkhand to take a look at the state’s plan to use aadhaar to pay nrega wages. this is the first large scale test for the aadhaar proposition of biometric verification and electronic benefits transfers.

a high stakes pilot, essentially. and so, a report from jharkhand on the rollout, an explanation on what makes them critical, the challenges before the pilots, and the parameters which could be used to decide success/failure of the rollout.

along the way, i also discovered that the state govt is planning to use its common service centres as extension counters for banks — it is a part of this drive to overhaul nrega’s payment structure in the state. it is an interesting idea which seems to be significantly better than the banking correspondent model everyone seems to be so excited about.

see both stories, here.