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Fixing India’s Agricultural Soils

Some days ago, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar took most people by surprise when he said the UPA government was planning to redirect India’s fertiliser subsidy towards organic and balanced fertilisers. Time will tell if he was serious. In the meantime, here is a small story I wrote for ET’s website on why this announcement was urgently needed, and what a clutch of dryland agriculture experts say about how India should make this transition.

Also see this and this.

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or why 2012 could be a massively disruptive year for farmers and the fertiliser industry

Vijay Thakur (name changed) is a worried man. This fertiliser wholesaler in Karnal, Haryana, buys subsidised fertiliser from companies and sells it to retailers in this agricultural district about 120 km north of Delhi. It is a steady, if not hugely profitable, business. Thakur fears that might change this year.

from the latest instalment on the fertiliser ministry’s strange attempt to redirect the fertiliser subsidy away from companies to farmers.  sigh. take a look. also see these two stories (one and two) for context.

 

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.

fixing india’s agri crisis. option one. turn to conservation agriculture.

after the stories on dryland agriculture and the crisis in indian agricultural soils, there is this…

It’s incontrovertible that Indian agriculture needs an overhaul. Yields are plateauing. Agricultural soils are weakening. Groundwater levels are collapsing. Farmers are leading lives of increasing desperation. The big question is: how do we fix agriculture? Does the answer lie in genetically modified crops? Or, perhaps, in organic farming? More balanced fertilisation? According to I P Abrol, director, Centre for Advancement of Sustainable Agriculture (CASA), and chairman of the Working Group providing inputs to the 12th plan on natural resource management and rainfed farming, the answer lies in conservation agriculture. A new approach towards agriculture where the emphasis is on protecting the farmer’s natural resources – not taking them for granted.

take a look. i am not a convert. conservation agriculture still sounds like the current approach with a bit of mulch thrown in. will have to read up more on this sometime. that apart, in the weeks ahead, this theme — on the different thoughts/ideas on how to revive indian agriculture — needs to be developed further.

India’s soil crisis

In his fields, Badhia Naval Singh , a farmer tilling 8 bighas of land in the Bagli tehsil in Madhya Pradesh, has been seeing something strange for a while now. Earlier, if he pulled out a tuft of grass, he would see earthworms . “Ab woh dikhna bandh ho gaye hain (they don’t show up any longer),” says the 45-year old .

Also, he says, when he ploughed earlier, the soil would break into soft crumbs and fall along the long furrows the plough left behind. Now, the soil is harder and the plough uproots a succession of large clods – dheplas, in local parlance – from the earth. The changing nature of soils – for the worse – is a refrain with farmers in these parts, even across the country.

Ishwar Lal of Pandutaki village nearby does not see as many birds or frogs around his fields as before. Near Bhopal, farmers say traditional vegetable crops do not grow in their fields any longer. Across the country, farmers say yields drop if they don’t add more fertiliser every year. These anecdotes suggest dramatic changes in Indian soils in about 40 years.
these are changes that call rachel carson’s silent spring and the vast dust storms, so well described by donald worster in dust bowl, that swept the US during the depression years to mind. across the country, farmers are categorical that their lands are changing. in this story, i tried to gauge whether these anecdotal reports were valid. based on what field samples collected by the indian research establishment tell us, the farmers are right — nutrient deficiencies are widespread, stocks of organic carbon (humus) are low, resulting in soils’ ability to absorb water falling, erosion rising, and numbers of soil fauna falling.
the print edition had a set of graphs that are integral to this story. am appending a link to the pdf of the story. do take a look at that as well. ETD_2011_7_12_17 india’s soil crisis

Cash Trance

In his speech this year, the Indian finance minister announced that India would deliver the fertiliser subsidy directly to farmers from next year onwards. Shortly after the budget, the government’s National Informatics Centre insisted that it be allowed to develop the necessary software. A small update from the trenches here.

This software, sources in the fertiliser ministry told the Economic Times, will now be tested in selected districts of Rajasthan, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Haryana and either Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. In Rajasthan and Orissa, the pilots will be conducted in Ajmer and Sambhalpur, respectively.

For context, see this story re larger changes in fertiliser policy. And see this story re the cash transfers themselves. India really seems to be rushing to implement cash transfers without sufficiently understanding how retailers and farmers will respond to them, or what cash transfers might mean for food security and rural livelihoods.

Will be very important to track these (and subsequent) pilots, methinks.

Cash Transfers + Fertiliser Subsidy + Impatience = ???

And this is the second story in the fertiliser package that the Economic Times published.

The ministry of fertilisers is planning to migrate to cash transfers in three phases. In the first phase, to be completed by December, it will extend its fertiliser management software beyond the 30,000 fertiliser warehouses to 230,000 licenced retailers. In the second phase, scheduled to begin from the next kharif season (June 2012), the nutrientbased subsidy will be re-routed from companies to retailers. The third phase, cash transfers to farmers, will be rolled out once farmers are allotted unique identification (UID) numbers. Each phase is posing large questions, especially related to time.

Really, listening to the mandarins, I found the timelines scarcely believable. More here.